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Michigan makes its mark-in solar power

One of the largest utility-owned solar farms east of the Mississippi was recently completed in Michigan-a two-site project totaling 350 acres that is now turning out 58 megawatts of solar power.

By Diane Mettler

It's hard to imagine—350 acres of solar panels. But drive out to Lapeer, Michigan, and there you'll find a 58-MW solar facility comprised of two sites—one is 34 MW, the other is 24 MW. It's the largest solar project in Michigan and one of the largest utility-owned solar installations east of the Mississippi.

The new solar farm will generate enough solar energy to power approximately 11,000 homes throughout the region.

"The Lapeer solar project is a milestone accomplishment," says Steve Daniel, senior vice president of sales and marketing for Solar FlexRack. "There was an impressive team working on this project who shared Solar FlexRack's dedication to customer satisfaction."

The investor-owned utility that built the solar farm is expanding their renewable energy generation. It is a leading project regionally, and Solar FlexRack and the other companies involved were focused on its efficient construction.

One of those companies included developer Inovateus, which has developed and built more than 250 MW of commercial, industrial, and government solar projects in 16 states and the Caribbean. Its development and solar engineering, procurement, and construction portfolio includes a wide variety of installations. J. Ranck Electric, the selected installer, is a Michigan company with a solid reputation in construction as well as electrical and communications contracting.

A project of this magnitude can take years of planning before supply partners are formalized, and initial processes often require significant paperwork and negotiation. Solar FlexRack was pleased when the news that they had been selected for the gigantic solar project was announced. They were aware that the decision was largely based on their proven track record of success.

"We had worked with these companies in the past," said Daniel. "Although every solar installation has its unique challenges, our track record of commitment to our customers stands out. Both J. Ranck and Inovateus advised us that we had the business."

One of the reasons Daniel believes that Solar FlexRack received the job was, in part, due to the company's familiarity with Michigan projects. The company says their racking system has been used in approximately 90 percent of the solar farms in Michigan.

Teamwork was the key to successfully constructing this colossal project from start to finish. Over the 10 months of construction—May 2016 to February 2017—it was solid communication between the companies, the utility, and others that kept things moving along smoothly.

Solar FlexRack leaned on its engineering and project services throughout the project. At key points during construction, Barton Malow Company (which provides construction services throughout North America and was responsible for quality control on this project) engaged the team for clarification on potential issues. The team reached out to Solar FlexRack. Dedicated personnel were quick to respond with site visits and collaborative options for the group to review. Their experience brought valuable knowledge in the form of clear technical explanations that kept the massive project moving forward without expensive change orders or delays.


Daniel says that it is standard procedure for Solar FlexRack to send engineers to the site to talk through and work out problems that arise. "It's part of the service we provide." He adds that during this project, collaboration happened easily, and communication was never a problem. "Working with J. Ranck is a pleasure. They run a tight operation, and we respect the work they do."

The project did have one major challenge, and it had nothing to do with the technology. It was the land itself. The site had previously been agricultural land and was covered with uneven rolling hills.

The G3-X Solar FlexRack system was chosen in part because it is able to handle a 20 percent grade. "G3-X is really one of the best fixed-tilt racking systems available. A robust solution, it has generous range to accommodate sloping terrain," says Daniel.

The contours in this case were fairly intense. At the Michigan site, some of the rolling hills were parallel, while others were perpendicular. It created unique challenges for installation, and the Solar FlexRack team approached those challenges head on.

First, the company's geotechnical engineers designed the foundation for the project. They did pull testing—driving a post into the ground and measuring what it takes to pull it out of the ground and also measuring what it takes to push it over. From there, they designed a foundation for the racking.

The G3-X was ideal for these hills, partly because of its ease of assembly. "All our racks are individual racks, which helps us support the module better. And all the holes are prefabricated so no field drilling is needed." All that is required on-site is bolting it together.

The holes in the mounting system also alleviate pressure on the modules. Because the holes on the racking system line up perfectly with the holes on the module, there's no pressure applied to the module when they are attached. This avoids damage, like microcracking or bridging of a frame. In this respect, Solar FlexRack safeguards solar installations, protecting one of the most important elements of the installation: the power-generating solar modules.

"Our racking is module specific," says Daniel. "We design the racking around the module to ensure that when we build the racking, it doesn't void any module warranty issues that the manufacturer might call out."

 The site of the Michigan solar project had previously been agricultural land and was covered with uneven rolling hills. The Solar FlexRack G3-X system (bottom photo) was selected for the project in part because it is able to handle a 20 percent grade. The company says G3-X is one of the best fixed-tilt racking systems available. It's a robust solution, with generous range to accommodate sloping terrain.

Another reason the GX-3 met the needs of this large project was that it can be easily and rapidly assembled. In fact, the system has been third-party verified for speed of installation by the Industry Time Study Institute.

There were 190,000 MaxPower solar modules brought in and installed. MaxPower is Canadian Solar's series of solar panels with 72 solar cells. These panels have high system energy yield at low irradiance and low nominal operating cell temperature (NOCT). And the enhanced 40-mm frames ensure the robustness of the panels for up to 5400 Pa snow load.

Also included in the project were 71 Conext Core XC 680-kW Schneider Electric inverters. The Conext Core XC series has peak efficiencies of 98.9 percent, and its flexibility allows the inverter to be configured with voltage and power outputs up to 680 kW. In addition, the Conext Core XC series is designed to allow for DC inputs up to 1000 Vdc for longer string lengths.

One might anticipate that another challenge would be the size of the project, but Daniel says size wasn't an issue in Lapeer.

"We react the same to a 60-megawatt project as we do to a 3-megawatt project. We do a geotechnical investigation, we design a foundation, and we supply the racking. This one was no different—just a lot more of it.

"And once we started delivering product, we were able to keep them in material. There were no material shortages or material outages. Once our trucks started rolling in, they were good to go."

The solar power project created employment for locals. During construction, approximately 150 temporary construction jobs were created for the community.

There was an added benefit, in addition to the clean energy. Part of this solar facility includes an educational component. An educational solar display, along the pathway between Mott Community College and the Demille array, was included in the project.

This won't be the last big project for Michigan. The state has a goal of 15 percent renewable energy by 2021. The solar portion of its renewable goal is 537 MW of solar energy to be added to the grid in the next five years. And the state is making great progress. One year ago, in 2016, it only produced 16 MW of solar energy.

In fact, the Michigan Public Service Commission (MPSC) says some $3 billion have been invested in renewable energy projects in Michigan over the last year. And although wind is the primary source of low-carbon options, solar is emerging as a niche contender.

Solar FlexRack, a subsidiary of Northern States Metals, is looking forward to a bright year. They have large projects in the pipeline throughout the U.S., and its systems can be found in Canada, Japan, Austria, and the Caribbean.

Daniel says he and his team are excited about the future and being part of one of the largest projects east of the Mississippi. "In our business, our projects range from one megawatt to 60 megawatts. So whenever you get something this size, it's a pat on the back."