The ‘Carportunity’: How our electric vehicle future means big things for solar carports

California’s Franchise Tax Board complex

Electric vehicles taking over the road is no longer a question. Sales of plug-in hybrid electric vehicles and all-electric vehicles have surged recently. So now the question is where are all of these things going to get their juice?

A new study from the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) quantifies how much charging infrastructure would be needed in the United States to support various market growth scenarios for plug-in electric vehicles (PEVs). NREL notes that most PEV charging occurs at home, but widespread PEV adoption would require the development of a national network of non-residential charging stations. Strategically installing these stations early would maximize their economic viability while enabling efficient network growth as the PEV market matures. NREL says about 8,000 fast-charging stations would be needed to provide a minimum level of urban and rural coverage nationwide.

No one asked us, but we think carport developments have a big opportunity (a carportunity!) to lead the way. The segment is seeing notable reductions in system costs and installation timelines that only make more projects viable.

Quest Renewables

The Value of Expertise

There is enough institutional knowledge among the chief carport construction companies now to give developers and larger investors confidence. Feast your eyes on California’s Franchise Tax Board complex, for example (pictured above). Developed by DGS-Building Property Management and installed by Ecoplexus at one of the largest business campuses in northern California, it is the state’s largest carport installation (10,400 PV panels), covering 1,276 employee parking spaces, spanning over 622,000 sq ft and generating 3.6 MW.

The project was made possible because of Baja Carport’s specialization in pre-engineered, pre-fabricated high-tensile, light gauge steel structures. And in chatting with its team at SPI this year, we’ve learned the company has been able to further streamline the costs of its system.

Then there is 4 S.T.E.L. and its standardized processes. Carport projects involve a ton of engineering and civil approval. 4 S.T.E.L.’s staff of engineers, project managers and drafters can design and erect a carport in their sleep at this point, but the big value comes in swift preapproval of its designs with the California Division of State Architects among other strict jurisdictions and building departments. Design preapproval can literally shave months off certain project timelines.

Park-onomics: Best practices for constructing cost-effective carport projects

Carports are certainly spreading beyond California too. At Michigan State University (MSU), Inovateus Solar is nearing completion of a 14-MW solar carport project spanning five parking lots and 700 sq ft on the East Lansing campus (pictured below). Using Schletter’s Park@Sol concept, the design is a maintenance-free, lightweight aluminum system with canopies standing 14-ft tall at the lowest point to provide enough room for recreational vehicles to park during football season. The carport install is expected to generate 15,000 MWh of electricity annually for MSU with projections showing a savings of $10 million in electricity costs over the next 25 years.

Schletter

Disruptive Designs

Key to the Schletter approach is its Micropile foundation, a hollow metal rod installed deep into the ground (pictured to the right), that requires less concrete material to accomodate even high wind and snow loads.

“The technology innovation of using Schletter micropiles as foundations and precast concrete pads, in addition to the engineering design, cut the construction schedule in half and minimized the risk factors in a rainy environment like Florida,” said Javier Latre Gorbe, VP of Technical Operations for ESA Renewables.

A newer entrant into the carport system space, Quest Renewables, has an especially exciting concept. Hatched as project at Georgia Tech Research Institute in 2011, the design received a work grant from the DOE’s SunShot Initiative and was commercialized in 2014. The hook here is a triangular support structure that requires less steel and allows for most of it to be assembled on the ground (pictured above).

Solar carports will spread across the country as costs decline

A vehicle auction company in Elkridge, Md., put in a 304-kW system and selected the Quest Renewables QuadPod to reduce foundation counts by 50 percent (using 50 percent less steel) to mitigate the poor soil conditions. From site survey to powering up, the system was completed in 45 days with minimal interruption to the parking lot. Another project in Portland, Maine, needed to minimize disruption of the work area. The 90 percent ground-level construction allowed it to be built in just eight days from start to finish. This first parking garage canopy install in Maine will sustain 112 mph winds and 50 psf of snow.

There’s a long way to go to fill in that void NREL is talking about, but it’s a start.

— Solar Builder magazine

TerraSmart to open N.Y. office to support growing Northeast solar business

TerraSmart logo

In January 2018, TerraSmart, an innovator in ground mount racking solutions for utility-scale solar projects, will open an operational hub in Selkirk, New York. The 10,000 square-foot facility was strategically chosen to support its growing construction operations in the Northeast and will serve as a blueprint to set up future construction hubs across the country in locations where solar is expanding.

Situated on thirty acres of land, the multipurpose yet cutting-edge facility will provide efficient support to field operations nearby. The hub will house TerraSmart’s custom installation machines and be a service center for all of its machines and trucks, therefore aiding in quicker response time. The building will also serve as a training facility for all East Coast construction staff enabling them proper certification of TerraSmart’s proprietary install techniques. Additionally, the hub will act as a product showroom for clients to come view, learn and be trained on the vast products and machines TerraSmart utilizes to install a solar farm.

“It’s very satisfying to call Selkirk TerraSmart’s construction home. New York has been a great state for solar and we are looking forward to creating more solar jobs to support our expanding construction activities across the Northeast,” says TerraSmart CEO Ryan Reid. “The facilities’ design and purpose will serve as the blueprint of which TerraSmart will use to set up future construction hubs, thus supporting our continuous pursuit of enhancing the solar construction experience for our clients.”

Q&A: We get the inside scoop on Terrasmart’s new Robo-Surveyor

— Solar Builder magazine

PV Pointer: Why mass-customized solutions win in utility-scale solar

SunLink

SunLink started designing solar mounting systems in 2004 when the concept of commercial rooftop solar was novel. The first systems were custom designed for the particular application because everything was new. Needless to say these first arrays were inordinately expensive by today’s standards, but the success of those installations helped pave the way for a booming distributed energy economy.

The early rooftop systems were engineered as a single structure where every solar module was linked together, efficiently distributing wind loads. In fact, SunLink’s name was inspired by the structural links holding the system together, which is how our Precision system still works.

Solar, however, is relentlessly cost competitive. Smaller installations can’t absorb the soft cost of custom engineering. At the same time, no two solar projects are the same, which on the surface mandates custom engineering. Mass customization can make customization at scale cost effective.

What is mass customization?

I often use Legos to describe mass customization. The Legos are standard, but you can configure the blocks to build whatever you want. Here are a few examples of this approach working in utility solar.

Take a single-axis tracker. The tracker needs to be engineered for a wide range of environmental conditions and any row length (since string length varies by project and space constraints require partial rows). This could lead to countless combinations of torque tube lengths and thicknesses. In a mass customized solution, a half dozen or so standard torque tubes are configured to meet the unique needs of the project. Limiting the number of parts greatly increases supply chain and engineering efficiency.

Similarly, the number of foundations can be increased to boost load capacity without designing a new part. Cleverly designed module mounting hardware accommodates the most common PV modules with no changes. The unique nature of solar sites is designed into products so that manufacturers can respond to opportunities quickly, cost-effectively, and with a fully-vetted solution. SunLink’s TechTrack dynamic stabilization feature is an example, which is a new tool for efficiently configuring resistance to wind loads.

Innovative manufacturers are moving beyond traditional racking and into software and services. In doing so the focus shifts from catering to the unique needs of the project to the unique needs of the customer, yet the benefits of mass customization remain.

PV Pointers: How dynamic systems increase the value of a solar project

As an example, SunLink recently launched product packages to complement its mounting systems. What differentiates the product packages is that they integrate hardware, software and services to serve a customer’s specific needs. The TechTrack Standard Package, Cold Weather Package and Pro Package allow for standardized solutions for common needs while giving the customer choice in what to pay for.

The product packages are analogous to the options available when buying a car. Paint color, drivetrain and interior options cater to different customers, but all are built from the base model car.

Mass customization also guides the development of software. Different modules are implemented depending on whether the user is an O&M provider, an EPC or a developer. The best systems are highly flexible with provisions to connect to a wide variety of data monitoring systems, device types, SCADA implementations, etc., because inverters, trackers, storage systems and other intelligent hardware are constantly changing, as are the requirements of the utility and the ISO.

Modern communication protocols are critical to strong yet flexible systems. Modbus, developed in the late ’70s and early ’80s, is still the most common protocol for energy devices and SCADA systems. It should be no surprise, however, that a 30-year-old protocol isn’t up to the task of two-way communication between thousands of modern intelligent devices and numerous software services. Worse still, many software packages have limited ability to communicate with other applications. If you want to look at the performance of a solar portfolio but have several data monitoring systems, you may be forced to print reports from each system and manually input the data into a spreadsheet. This is a failure of technology.

In tech, RESTful API enables efficient, flexible communication between devices and services and allows developers to build applications leveraging other applications. We’re now seeing APIs used in inverters, trackers, data monitoring systems and initiatives like Orange Button for bankability data to unlock new value in the energy industry.

Mass-customized solutions win in utility solar because they drive down cost while accommodating the needs of the project and customer. The next time you are looking at the design of a solar plant, or anything else for that matter, I encourage you to consider what’s led the products to be standardized, customized or mass customized.

As Director of Project Management, Patrick Keelin helps define SunLink’s next generation of products and services. His focus includes dynamic tracker design, IoT and the role technology plays in R&D, design and long-term solar project economics.

— Solar Builder magazine

Pile Problems: How Landwehr mounted 10-MW of community solar after 80 percent pile refusal

Landwehr mounted 10-MW of community solar

The team at Landwehr Construction encountered one of its toughest community solar installs in Eastern Minnesota thanks to 25-plus ft of weathered sandstone underneath 18-in. of top soil. Landwehr Construction started pounding pile on the larger of the two sites but had a refusal rate of about 80 percent on the first 382 piles, with pound times in excess of 10-plus mins for each pile.

“We determined that we needed to go in a different direction to get all the pile in, especially since we knew the other adjacent site would be the same,” said Robert Schofield, project manager and estimator for Landwehr, which has years of experience in helical anchors. “We used that knowledge and equipment to pre drill all the holes on both sites. To do this, we used two T650 Bobcats, two STR-20 Hercules pile drivers and our Pro Dig and Eskridge drivers with two 6-in. augers drilling to full 15-ft embedment.”

These two crews would drill each location ahead of the two pile-driving crews. With this method, refusal rate was reduced from about 80 percent down to roughly 13 percent.

“Considering how this project had started, we felt this was a great success,” Schofield said. “We were able to pound all the pile in and reduce our pound time to approximately three minutes.”

Hammer Time: What to look for in your next pile-driving machine

There was an engineering concern with pre drilling each pile location using a bit roughly the same size as the pile, so Landwehr pull tested a percentage of the pile, randomly selected by the EPC, to a three times factor for safety (up to 16,500 lbs in vertical with a maximum movement of no greater than 1 in. with a four minute hold time). The greatest movement in all of the testing done on both sites was 0.017 of an inch.

“To date, this was the most challenging site, and that is saying a lot since we have deeper embedment depths than most places in the country,” Schofield said. “On top of that, we do pound pile in the dead of the winter in Minnesota where you can expect to see anywhere from 3 ft to 5 ft of frost any given winter.”

Although the challenges of this job were unique, Landwehr’s years of experience helped finish the pile pounding on time.

— Solar Builder magazine

S-5! releases SolarFoot product for exposed fastener metal roofing

S-5! sent word about its new SolarFoot, made for exposed fastener metal roofing via four points of attachment. The SolarFoot provides an ideal mounting platform to attach the L-Foot of a rail-mounted solar system or other ancillaries to the roof. Behold:

SolarFoot

The SolarFoot ensures a durable weathertight solution for the life of the solar system and the roof. Each piece contains two reservoirs of a factory-applied butyl co-polymeric sealant, allowing a water-tested seal. Simply peel the release paper from the butyl sealant and fasten through the predrilled holes in the base of the SolarFoot.

S-5! specializes in zero-penetration clamps that attach ancillary items to standing seam metal roofs without violating the integrity of the roof or the roof’s warranties. The clamps mount snow-retention and wind-performance systems, solar arrays, signs/banners, light fixtures, gas piping, stack/flue bracing, walkways, HVAC, lightning protection, equipment screens, conduit, condensate lines and more.

— Solar Builder magazine