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Tracking down costs on Oregon solar project

The FTC Solar Voyager Tracker system DEPCOM Power selected for a group of Oregon solar projects delivered labor efficiencies and helped lower the overall cost of the projects.

By Tony Kryzanowski

A new single-axis tracking and racking system developed by industry veterans at FTC Solar is helping to lower overall project costs, thus contributing to development in less sun-rich targets on the solar resource depth chart. Places like Oregon.

This western, coastal state is witnessing a massive expansion of its solar power production capabilities—leading Engineering, Procurement and Construction (EPC) company DEPCOM Power alone has built several utility-scale projects totaling 150 megawatts (MW) for several customers who have signed long-term power purchase agreements (PPA) with local utility Portland Gas and Electric (PGE).

All 150 MW being installed by DEPCOM Power in Oregon (on six different sites spread throughout the state) feature the FTC Solar Voyager tracking and racking system, the first massive deployment of this technology.

Project construction in the Burns and Fort Rock areas began in summer 2019, with 90 MW completed and 60 MW still under construction in March of this year.

While the racking and tracking system for DEPCOM Power's Oregon projects was provided by FTC Solar, the solar module suppliers were China-based Trina Solar and HT-SAAE, with modules manufactured in Turkey. Inverters were supplied by TMEIC, which is a joint-venture between Toshiba and Mitsubishi.

"The sun doesn't shine as much in Oregon, so we needed the solar technology to enable the economics for solar power as a renewable resource that would actually lower electric bills for the citizens of Oregon," says John Schroeder, senior vice president of plant operations at DEPCOM Power. "Once that happened, we now see the state as a key market."

Schroeder adds that the efficiency of solar modules is at an all-time high, while manufacturing costs are at an all-time low. Also, advances in inverters, transformers, cabling, single-axis tracking systems (like the Voyager system), and construction efficiencies "have brought the level of cost down."

 
A feature DEPCOM Power valued about the Voyager Tracker system is that it is structurally engineered to hold a "two-high" configuration, meaning that there are two solar modules stacked one above the other. 
  

Financiers are also positive on solar development, viewing solar projects as low-risk, high-grade investments, so the cost of financing has dropped to low levels for developers.

Schroeder says that the breakthrough for Oregon occurred in 2017, when it became possible to produce solar power for less than what consumers pay for it.

The recent build out has had a significant economic impact on local communities. For its part, DEPCOM Power has made many charitable donations within the communities they have impacted, which is a key precept in how they generally conduct business. The company dedicates 10 percent of the net income from each project to local charities that support the impoverished, veterans, education, and community solar programs.

The DEPCOM Power management team averages 20 years of conventional and renewable power experience, having executed more than 4 gigawatts of utility solar projects and are well-acquainted with the team at FTC Solar. Many of FTC Solar's team worked previously for renewable power developer SunEdison.

DEPCOM Power was aware of the wealth of knowledge and experience at FTC Solar when it reviewed the benefits of their advanced
Voyager tracking and racking system, and felt comfortable and confident that the product would work as advertised.

 
 Thanks to ongoing projects such as those built by DEPCOM Power, Oregon continues to be a leader in U.S. solar power. At the beginning of 2020, the state had 733 MW of installed solar power, with some 137 MW installed in 2019 alone. The solar industry has invested more than $1.3 billion in Oregon, including over $157 million in 2019.
  

"DEPCOM Power has a variety of preferred infrastructure suppliers based on shared core values, technology, competitive service, and pricing—we're always looking for the best in the market to meet our customers' needs," says Schroeder.

One feature DEPCOM Power valued about the Voyager system is that it is structurally engineered to hold a "two-high" configuration, meaning that there are two solar modules stacked one above the other. They view this as a major technological advance. There are twice as many watts being supported with close to the same structural components. Even though individual posts and piles are a bit bigger, taking longer to install versus typical piles for one-high configurations, only about half as many are needed, so overall, there is an installation time savings. This two-high configuration also allows for larger row spacing, counteracting the issue of shading by front panels on panels behind them early in the day, leading to higher overall power production, while also providing easier vehicle access for maintenance.

 
Fewer man-hours are required in module installation with the Voyager Tracking and racking system because FTC Solar has a unique design that enables installation to be twice as fast, resulting in time savings across multiple facets of a project 
  

"That one little change of being able to put modules in a two-high configuration affects many downstream processes for the EPC and the owner long term," says Schroeder,
especially considering that the FTC Solar system uses a self-powered tracking system. Each Voyager tracker row is powered by two auxiliary 60 watt modules that supply the drive system and a lithium-ion backup battery that provides up to three days of autonomy.

Kirk Hayes, director of engineering, procurement, and construction at FTC Solar, confirms that the company brings a great depth of solar construction experience to the
jobsite.

"We know how to do everything that our customers are trying to do, from pile driving to module installation and even performance testing," he says. "We don't just help them install trackers—our customers, including DEPCOM Power, have reached out to us for support with particularly challenging site conditions."

That's because FTC Solar has an experienced field operations team that can help both EPCs and owners optimize installations and save money.

Hayes says that with installation of the Voyager tracking and racking system, FTC Solar is able to deliver a 30 to 40 percent reduction in the total number of man-hours required to install a solar project because of the system's design. That means projects are built faster and cheaper, which helps to make development markets like Oregon more attractive.

 
  

The Voyager tracking and racking system infrastructure requires fewer piles so there is less time required for pile driving. There are fewer components to assemble, so there is a time savings in this regard as well. "You also require fewer man-hours in module installation because we have a unique design that enables you to be twice as fast," says Hayes. "So the time savings are really across multiple facets of the project."

The key, he adds, is for developers to view their projects holistically, to come to realize where a major innovation like the Voyager tracker delivers time and cost savings throughout the entire project.

"I used to be a construction and project manager, and there are benefits before and after, if you select the right technology," says Hayes. "That's where we play. It's not just about the tracker installation.

"It's about how much work did you have to do to prepare for that tracker, and now that you have installed it, how fast were you able to install modules, and guess what? You don't have to use as much DC wire, so there is less material cost there as well."

He adds that various EPCs have told him that the Voyager system is the simplest tracking system that they have worked with, and that it is easy to put together.

Hayes expects that competitors will attempt to duplicate their module attachment system quickly because unlike previous records consistently achieving 25 modules installed per man hour, workers installing modules on the Voyager system can achieve 40 to 45 modules per hour.

Not only does FTC Solar provide racking and tracking that saves significant installation time, it also provides the software that optimizes the performance of their Voyager trackers.

"One of our roadmaps is to continue to evolve the software and deploy it in the same way that Tesla regularly deploys upgrades on their cars," says Hayes.

He described Oregon as a diverse working environment, with these DEPCOM Power projects quite spread out. Several projects are situated near the coast while others are farther inland. The geography near the coast is more hilly and mountainous, which suited the Voyager system well because it can handle a 17.5 percent, 10-degree grade.

Schroeder says that environmental studies were required on each Oregon project to ensure that indigenous species and various environmental attributes were protected.

"Land locations for these projects were chosen because they didn't have large environmental impacts," he explained. "But what they did have were wetlands, so we were required to always be cognizant of avoiding those areas and also managing construction so that we were not creating new ones."

The key was to coordinate and communicate with local authorities and environmental groups to ensure that construction occurred within state regulations.

There was plenty of capacity available on the existing PGE power grid to absorb the solar power production that DEPCOM Power's customers brought on line.

 


Spring 2020