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The South's Solar Leader: North Carolina

Duke Energy is continuing to ramp up its solar power and recently completed four individual solar projects in its home state of North Carolina, adding 30 MW to the solar power tally of one of the leading U.S. solar states.

By By Paul MacDonald

One of the largest power utilities in the U.S., Duke Energy, has taken to solar power in a big way—and continues to ramp up its activities in this area of renewable energy.

A recent example came with the completion of four individual solar power projects in Duke Energy's home state of North Carolina.

The company's renewable energy division, Duke Energy Renewables, completed four solar power projects in eastern North Carolina, adding 30 MW of solar power to the state. The company also announced it had an additional 132 MW of solar power under construction, expected to be completed by the end of 2015, which will more than double its North Carolina solar power portfolio.

On a broader perspective, Duke Energy Renewables had 34 solar projects and 16 wind farms in operation in 12 U.S. states, totaling more than two GW in electric generating capacity, in the fall of 2015. Tom McNay, general manager, Engineering-Renewables, at Duke Energy, noted that the company has increased its solar power component significantly since they built their first solar projects in 2010.

North Carolina-based SunEnergy1 was the developer and builder of the four most recent Duke Energy projects in the state. In fact, most of the solar power projects Duke currently has underway in North Carolina are being built by SunEnergy1.

Duke Energy started discussions with SunEnergy1 about the four North Carolina projects in 2014, with SunEnergy1 being the developer and the EPC for the projects.

The four projects are fairly close together in eastern North Carolina. "We've taken the approach that the more we can cluster projects in an area, the more we can achieve economies of scale for the continued operation of solar projects," explained McNay.

Size, of course, also delivers scale, and the four projects total 30 MW of solar. Duke started out doing one-MW projects about five years ago and has moved up significantly since then.

"Definitely the larger the size, the more scale we can achieve," said McNay. "The five-MW to 20-MW size is a good fit for us—these size projects can be done fairly quickly, with a quick turnaround."

This represents kind of a sweet spot for the company, in terms of size. "We don't want to oversimplify things because there is a lot that goes into the planning of these projects, and there are a lot of moving pieces, but there is kind of a standard approach that you can achieve and get efficiencies," he says.

"I think in that size range, and working with repetitive suppliers and contractors like SunEnergy1, it all helps to achieve efficiencies," says McNay.

The components for the four North Carolina projects included Trina and ReneSolar panels and ABB inverters. Array Technologies supplied the racking.

"We work closely with SunEnergy1 on the projects, and in terms of the components used, purchase what makes the most sense-a lot of that is project and location driven, but we work with a group of Tier 1 suppliers."

McNay added that the company also looks to do larger projects-it was working on an 80-MW project in North Carolina this past fall-but the larger projects are more involved in terms of regulations, interconnections, and planning.

While solar power projects are becoming more common in the southeastern U.S. and in North Carolina, companies such as Duke and SunEnergy1 often factor in an education process with local governments, filling them in on what will be involved in building and operating a solar project in their communities.

 
  

"It can be a bit of a learning curve for them," says McNay, "but as solar becomes more prevalent in North Carolina, we're seeing that many counties are building solar power into the mix on zoning requirements or conditional use permits."

Public meetings are increasingly becoming part of the picture for obtaining project approvals, which Duke and its development/construction partners are happy to participate in. "We want to be good neighbors and good stewards of the land," says McNay.

These meetings can be the perfect opportunities for addressing even the most basic questions community residents have about solar power. "There can sometimes be a lack of understanding out there about solar power facilities." Members of the public have asked about whether they will have to use air conditioning more often in their homes, because they thought solar projects generate heat in the surrounding area.

In terms of the actual construction of the four NC projects, there was not a great deal of civil work required on the sites. "In that area of North Carolina, the land is fairly flat," explained McNay. "We try to find sites that don't require a lot of civil work. There is usually some tree clearing to be done, but with these sites, there wasn't a whole lot of that required."

McNay noted that the North Carolina projects were fairly straightforward, weather-wise. "We've had situations, especially as we get into the Fall, where there have been some pretty muddy conditions when you're bringing heavy trucks on to a site. SunEnergy1 was able to work through all those issues."

In the southeastern U.S., snow is rarely an issue. "We had some snow, but it was gone fairly quickly. But the cold weather can be quite welcome because the ground freezes, and you are able to get around a bit better," says McNay.

Kenny Habul, CEO of SunEnergy1, the EPC on the projects, noted that much of eastern North Carolina is low-lying land. "The water table is high, and there can be a lot of ditches to deal with," he said. "We can get a heavy rain season towards the end of the year, and we have to deal with mud on building the solar projects."
Also based in North Carolina, SunEnergy1 crews know the conditions well.

"Generally, we try to get a lot of our racking and solar panel work done before November, before the rainy season," says Habul.

Habul finds there are several keys to a successful solar project.

"We've been doing this a long time, and one of the fundamental things for us is we own all of our heavy equipment-we don't rent anything." SunEnergy1 has been the largest purchaser of Caterpillar tracked equipment in the U.S. for the last three years.

"We have over 400 pieces of equipment, and to me, that's critical. Without that, I don't think we'd be as effective.

"The other thing is having good management and good crews, that are well trained and know where to be and what to do. We have never missed a deadline, gone over budget, or put in a change order."

 
  North Carolina-based SunEnergy1 was the developer and builder of the four most recent Duke Energy projects in the state. In fact, most of the solar power projects Duke currently has underway in North Carolina are being built by SunEnergy1.
  

The prevailing approach at SunEnergy1 is: Whatever it takes. "Often we're working through the night, with the help of some of the 300 light towers that we have."

It seems like there are always tight timelines for their projects, Habul notes.

In the last four months of 2015, they had 300 MW of solar work on the go, so it's a good thing they work quickly. They can do the racking and paneling on a five-MW solar project in about 10 days.

It should be noted that both in his personal and work pursuits, Habul likes doing things fast—and safely. Habul, a native of Australia, was a professional motor racer there and in Europe for a number of years. These days, he drives the #20 car for Joe Gibbs Racing in the NASCAR Infinity Series. "It's good exposure for the company, and it keeps me happy—it's what I love to do," says Habul. SunEnergy1 is a car sponsor.

With solid customers such as Duke, Habul's company has grown to where it's now one of the top EPCs in solar power construction in the U.S.

And there is more to come for SunEnergy1 and Duke Energy Renewables. As mentioned, Duke had an additional 132 MW of solar energy that was scheduled to be complete by the end of 2015. And construction was ongoing this past fall on the company's massive 80-MW project in Conetoe, North Carolina-the largest solar power project east of the Mississippi to come on line in 2015.

With 105 MW of solar projects already in operation in North Carolina and the 160 MW that was to be completed by the end of the year, Duke Energy Renewables was to have a total of 265 MW of solar power in service in the state by the end of the year.

McNay noted that Duke has been steadily building its capabilities in both solar and wind energy. After decades of building power plants, the company brings a wealth of traditional power plant construction experience to its renewable projects. "We've got the experience in developing, building, and operating projects.

"And working with partners like SunEnergy1, we can provide the balance sheet to be able to fund construction. There is surety in the projects we undertake—once we decide to do these projects, we complete them and make sure they are executed as promised.

"We've also built on to our operations excellence, what we've been doing for decades with traditional power plants, and bringing that to utility scale renewable power," says McNay.

There are areas of specific focus for Duke on these projects. "A lot of our focus is on best practices in project management, safety, and the environment and bringing that to bear on projects, as we work though the permitting and with the contractors."

 
Duke Energy Renewables had 34 solar projects and 16 wind farms in operation in 12 U.S. states, totaling more than two GW in electric generating capacity, through the fall of 2015. Early in 2016, the company announced that it had added a total of 400 MW of wind and 200 MW of solar power to its U.S. renewables portfolio in 2015.  
  

Just about everyone who works in Duke's renewable energy division has a traditional power plant background, so they bring a very good understanding of projects from a customer's perspective—whether that customer is a publicly-owned utility such as Austin Energy, or an investor-owned utility such as San Diego Gas & Electric. "They have a keen understanding of our customers," says McNay.

How do developer/contractors such as SunEnergy1 fit in the Duke Energy picture?

"We see them more as partners, rather than just contractors, and it goes back to working with them on development of the projects. They work and put their own capital at risk in developing the projects on the front end.

"We work jointly with them early on in the project, and they are also the EPC-we want to receive a completed project from them in the end, and it's really been a win-win from that perspective."

Duke will be closely involved with each project, and depending on the size of a project, might even have its own people on the ground.

The construction approach can vary, McNay notes. "With one of the larger projects we're working on with SunEnergy1 now, they are heading in from multiple sides of the site, with deliveries around multiple gates, and staging around the perimeter. With the smaller projects, they basically start from one side of the site and move to the other side."

He noted that SunEnergy1 has invested a lot of time and capital into creating project efficiencies, whether it involves ground cable installation, putting in posts, or installing the racking and laying out the solar panels.

Like other contractors, SunEnergy1 will do a prototype section, to see what construction approach works best and—as much as possible—perfect the installation process.

"With solar project construction, it's very much an assembly line approach," says McNay. "Once the materials are there, it can go very fast."

As usual with such projects, advance geotechnical work to define soil conditions and environmental assessments, were done on the North Carolina projects.

"With some projects in North Carolina, you can get into sandy soil conditions, and you will have to do longer or larger posts so the project is able to withstand the wind forces projected for an area."

If they run into environmental issues, it might mean avoiding an area of a site and perhaps building in a buffer zone.

As solar projects have become larger, the task of getting people, equipment, and materials on site has grown, and, as noted, there were tight timelines for the four North Carolina projects. By the time things are lined up and a project has all the permits and approvals, and everything is ready to go, the construction time window can be short, says McNay.

"That's where SunEnergy1 has been good, with the efficiencies they have put into place. That's where it really starts to pay off-they've been able to meet some extremely tight timelines for us."

Often the big factors influencing construction can be out of everyone's control-such as weather.

"Interconnections with the utilities can also become a challenge, making sure that it all comes together at the same time," said McNay. The interconnections with the North Carolina projects were all with the same utility—Dominion. "As we got going on that, we understood their requirements."

McNay reports that all in all, the North Carolina projects came together well, in large part due to the positive working relationship Duke had with SunEnergy1. But every project is different, he notes, and brings new challenges. It's a bit like the
Japanese Kaizen approach of constantly working to make improvements to the construction process.

"Every time we do a project, we learn from it and take those lessons and apply them to the next project," says McNay.

 


January/February 2016