Solar farm construction — Tips for expanding into the solar industry

With the global push for renewable energy, many construction companies may find future opportunities in the solar industry. So, whether your business is focused on oil and gas pipeline construction or utility work, or acts as a general contractor, there is a need for your services in the solar farm construction process.

While solar construction projects come with many unique challenges, they usually require the types of work you’re already doing:

  • Utility installation work
  • Site prep construction
  • General construction and electrical work

You may be able to diversity your companies’ services into the solar industry, but first you must understand the process involved with developing a solar farm, determine where your company excels in the process and decide into which areas you may want to expand.

Understand the process

Like any large-scale utility or energy-transmission project, solar farm construction requires a ton of planning and, depending on the scale of the project, the work may take years to complete. The extensive planning process usually involves the power plant owner, a project developer, landowners and power off-takers (the electrical utility companies buying the power).

Once they’ve outlined the project details, they secure land for the solar farm, develop plans and hire an engineering procurement and construction (EPC) company. The EPC leads construction efforts until the keys are handed over to the operations and maintenance contractor responsible for operating the solar power plant when it’s brought online.

For you, the EPC may be the most important organization to know. EPCs oversee every aspect of the construction process, from clearing the land, installing electrical lines and assembling the plant itself. They select material suppliers and choose the companies responsible for construction.

The EPC may act as the project’s general contractor or hire a company to handle that aspect of the job. Either way, these companies won’t do all the work themselves. They subcontract many parts of the projects to more specialized contractors.

Now that you know the players involved with solar farm construction projects, it’s time to dive into some of the different phases involved.

Utility installation

On most solar construction projects, the first phase involves connecting the solar farm site to the electrical grid. This process will usually happen a year or more ahead of the first pile driven on the solar farm site. Also, depending on the solar farm project arrangements, the EPC, general contractor and/or local utility companies are responsible for this part of the project.

Potential opportunities

  • A natural project entry point for utility contractors is to install electrical transmission lines to bring power to the solar farm construction site. Depending on the ground conditions, you may use a utility tractor with a trencher or vibratory plow attachment, along with a reel carrier mounted to the front. On projects with more challenging ground conditions (hard clay or rock), rock trenchers (pipeline trenchers) are efficient and productive options for this type of work.
  • Another way to get involved is in the horizontal directional drilling (HDD) of electrical transmission line conduit in areas where trenching isn’t possible, including roadways, rivers, lakes, forests, etc. The size of the HDD rig needed for this work can range from small utility drills to maxi rig drills, depending on ground conditions, bore diameter and bore length.

Site prep

While electrical lines are being run to the solar farm, the site itself needs to be prepared for the work ahead. Currently, most large-scale solar farms are being built in more remote areas. So, site preparation work can be extensive and involve everything from clearing trees and brush from the property and grading the land to constructing roadways so trucks can easily transport equipment and material to the site.

Potential opportunities

  • If you perform land clearing work for pipelines, highways or new construction development projects, you may want to consider getting into solar construction. Horizontal grinders, tub grinders, whole tree chippers and other equipment is commonly used for this type of work in the solar industry. The mulch produced during the land clearing work can be saved and later used for ground cover spread with compact articulated loaders and/or mini skid steers. These compact machines can spread material efficiently between the tight rows of solar panels.
  • If dirt work is in your company’s wheelhouse, these sites need to be landscaped to ensure proper drainage, and solar farms need roadways.

General construction and electric work

Once the site is prepped, the solar farm’s electrical lines are usually run next. Lines are trenched or drilled in rows or grid patterns that will follow the path of the solar panels once they are assembled.

After that, piles need to be driven into the ground for solar racking to support the panels. After the racking is assembled, the solar panels are mounted, the electrical work is performed and electrical connections are made. Then the site is cleaned up and landscaped.

Companies specializing in solar construction will often handle the bulk of the workload in this phase of the process. But some will still bring in a few subcontractors to help.

Potential opportunities

  • Electrical contractors can find plenty of work during this process. There is a lot of wiring that needs to be done. And if you’re an electrical contractor who does underground work, there are even more opportunities for you. Most onsite electrical lines are at shallow depths and can be done with utility tractors equipped with a vibratory plow, trencher or rockwheel, depending on the ground conditions. Also, utility drills are usually brought in to handle crossings with any roadways or waterways on the site.
  • Before racks and panels can be assembled, a lot of time is spent driving piles on solar farm construction projects. With the industry’s fast growth, there are many opportunities for companies to expand into doing this type of work. However, on large solar farm projects, companies with a pile driver or two likely won’t be considered for this line of work. The companies doing the bulk of this type of work will operate between five and 20 pile drivers on a single project.
  • If you do landscaping work, you may also be able to get involved with the final landscaping and cleanup work before a site becomes operational. The site needs ground cover planted to help protect against runoff.

Start with what you know

This is a broad overview of the work involved with constructing a new solar farm. While several other details go into the construction, you should be able to glean where there are opportunities for your company to get involved.

The simplest way to expand into solar farm construction is by doing what you already do best and seeing where future opportunities lead you.

For more

Vermeer Corporation reserves the right to make changes in engineering, design and specifications; add improvements; or discontinue manufacturing at any time without notice or obligation. Equipment shown is for illustrative purposes only and may display optional accessories or components specific to their global region. Please contact your local Vermeer dealer for more information on machine specifications.

Vermeer and the Vermeer logo are trademarks of Vermeer Manufacturing Company in the U.S. and/or other countries. © 2021 Vermeer Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

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