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Getting vets involved in LA solar power

PermaCity Solar delivered on a number of objectives with the 16.4-MW Westmont Solar Project at the Port of Los Angeles-including employing a number of military veterans on the way to building a project that is the largest in the city's FiT program.

By Paul MacDonald

PermaCity Solar CEO Jonathan Port wanted to achieve a number of goals with the 16.4-MW Westmont solar power project the company recently completed at the Port of Los Angeles—and high among those goals was helping to put America's military veterans back to work.

"We made that a priority with the Westmont project," said Port. "There are thousands of veterans coming back from service, and there are a lot of people displaced in the way the American economy is changing. Renewable energy is one of the larger drivers of jobs making up for that change.

"We're very proud that we were able to give a group of veterans the opportunity to work on Westmont—it's just the right thing to do," he added. "Vets can have trouble getting jobs."

The involvement of the vets was directed by Empower America, a nonprofit coalition of leaders and experts in the renewable energy industry. It has a focus on workforce development, construction, and political advocacy. Empower America's mission is simple: to recruit, train, and employ service veterans in renewable energy projects.

PermaCity's proprietary racking used on the Westmont project required learning specific membrane welding skills, and with the help of Local 300, Local 1309, and IBEW Local 11, the 50 vets working on the project were able to learn those skills—and much more. "We feel the unions really stepped up to help with this," says Port.

Empower America recruited the vets, the union made them journeyman members, and the union provided training. The project received the support of the city of Los Angeles, which provided funding for the training. Empower America worked with Leaders Solar, which was sponsored by PermaCity to provide the labor. LA Mayor Eric Garcetti is part of the larger military family, being a member of the U.S. Naval Reserve.

Port is a member of the city of LA's Workforce Development Board. "It was a goal of mine to work with labor groups and vets—I wanted to make sure we created good jobs for our veterans."

It was actually the city of LA, through the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) and its Feed-in Tariff (FiT) program, that made the Westmont project a go. "The FiT program made Westmont possible," said Port. "We negotiated with the LADWP to go into the program with this project." Westmont is said to be the largest solar FiT project in the U.S.

The 50-acre project, on the roofs of Westmont Drive buildings in San Pedro, will generate 16.4 megawatts of solar energy for Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) customers, more than triple the capacity of the next largest FiT project, located in East Los Angeles.

Over the life of the 20-year lease, it is estimated the Westmont project will generate $76 million in revenue from clean energy sold back to LADWP, with 85 to 90 percent of revenues going back to the building owner. The revenue numbers were a strong incentive to the owner of the buildings.

"The property owner has seen dozens of solar proposals over the years, but the LADWP's Feed-in Tariff proposal was the first the owner could back wholeheartedly," said Tres Reid of CBRE, who represented the owner of the buildings. "The benefits are so compelling that there was no question it was a win-win. It provides a great incentive for building owners while creating jobs and pumping clean energy into the grid at the same time."


With the project getting the go-ahead, it now fell to PermaCity to execute.

"With such a large project, there are some challenges, such as how do you get enough racking material in a short period of time, and how do you build it quickly," says Port.

The solution to those challenges, he says, centered on the company's racking technology—the PermaCity SolarStrap, a fast and light racking solution for rooftop PV solar projects. The system requires minimal or no penetrations and no ballast, and it offers fast installation using heat sealing technology to secure the framework to the roof with one tool and few components. It is compatible with most modules and most flat roof surfaces. The company says it is 10 times stronger than ballast and comes with a 20+-year roof manufacturer warranty on TPO roofs.

"Some of the projects that have been proposed for the city's FiT program have not gone ahead because there have been issues, including that they would be too expensive to build. But we solved that with our racking technology-and made the Westmont project happen," says Port.

That said, the project, which involved building 16.4 MW of solar on the roofs of four large, but different-sized, buildings in the port area, still required plenty of planning and execution skills by all the partners involved.

"The project was linear," explained Port. "We replaced the roof on one building, then put the solar on, and moved through all four buildings."

New TPO roofs were installed on all of the buildings. Roofing manufacturer GAF supplied 1.9 million square feet of EverGuard TPO—enough to cover more than 30 football fields. The TPO roofing installation contract was awarded to Milark Corp. (Clark Roofing).

The array over the four buildings is two million square feet. At peak construction, there were 230 workers on the job.

Getting those workers took some doing, as there was a construction labor shortage in LA at the time. But Port noted the company received excellent cooperation from the labor union locals involved with the project. They also had Jacobs Engineering Group working with them to keep the fast schedule under control. There was a veteran connection there, too, as PermaCity had a former U.S. Army Lt. Colonel handling logistics and project management on the job working closely with Jacobs.

"We had great partners, and we had great management staff—it was a huge undertaking," says Port. "It was a big project and even with good help, it was challenging because we had to build it over a very short period of time."

In addition to PermaCity's Solar-Strap system, the project used SunPower, Sunpreme, and Silfab solar panels. Inverters for the project came from Delta Electronics.

There is lots of activity around the warehouse buildings, with truck traffic in and out, so construction activities and material deliveries had to be carefully planned to have a minimal impact on business activities. There was limited space for materials laydown and parking. PermaCity rented parking for workers in an adjacent park.

 The Westmont Solar project involved building 16.4 MW of solar on the roofs of four large, but different-sized, buildings in the port area, and it required plenty of planning and execution skills by all the partners involved. PermaCity's SolarStrap, a fast and light racking solution for rooftop PV solar projects, was used on the project.

"We had some laydown areas, but they were limited and they were tight," says Port. "It took a lot of management to balance it all out."

Their approach involved a combination of bringing materials to the site on a just-in-time basis and using the laydown areas, he says. "The team was very strong on managing scheduling." Jacobs Engineering had a professional project supervisor and scheduler working on the project to help keep materials and the project moving ahead, in such a busy area and tight timeline.

Essentially, the businesses operating in the warehouses were able to carry on as usual despite the fact that one of the largest rooftop solar projects in the U.S. was being built over their heads.

While the buildings are in the port area, they are not in the port itself, so there were no special security clearances required for the workers.

Port said the biggest challenge with Westmont was building essentially a utility-scale solar project in an urban environment compared to the open rural environments where projects of this size are usually built.

"It was a matter of space and complexity," he says. "And I think our team and subs did a great job, particularly managing through a labor shortage, especially in the electrical area. I think IBEW did a fantastic job of making sure there was labor for the job—it was good to have their support."

Port added that he thinks the Westmont project, and its involvement of vets and union labor, is a good recipe to follow in other parts of the U.S. in terms of job creation.

"We saw Westmont as an opportunity to put people back to work—and we knew that the project could perform because of the technology that we used. It was a great combination."

While President Donald Trump has recently implemented measures to create employment in the coal industry, it's important to realize how many jobs are now in clean energy. Colorado, one of the largest coal producing states, now employs a little more than 1,000 workers in that industry.

"With the number of workers we employed on the Westmont project, four of these solar projects would replace 1,000 jobs in the coal sector—plus we get renewable energy, on top of that. It's a good deal," says Port.

It is estimated that more than a half million Californians are now employed by the clean energy industry, about ten times more than those who work in the U.S. coal mining industry.

And more clean energy jobs are likely in the works as a result of state legislation. A state senate proposal doubles existing goals and would make California the second state, after Hawaii, to commit to 100 percent renewable energy and zero-carbon sources for electricity.

State lawmakers set an aggressive goal two years ago of getting half of California's electricity needs from clean sources by 2030. It's on track to reach that target, now getting about 27 percent of its electricity from clean sources, according to recent estimates by the California Energy Commission.

Clearly California is a leader in clean energy, and an economic juggernaut, and other states are likely to follow its clean energy lead. It is the largest state economy in the U.S. and the sixth-largest economy in the world. And California continues to be a solar power leader. At the end of 2016, the state had installed PV capacity of 17,084 MWs—which includes the Westmont solar project—far outpacing the #2 state, Utah, with its 1,489 MWs.