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Team approach to steep solar project

RBI Solar and SolarBOS took a team approach on working in steep terrain in building a 7-megawatt solar power project in Upstate New York.

By Diane Mettler

When it came to tackling a 7-megawatt solar power project on steep terrain in Upstate New York, RBI Solar and SolarBOS joined forces, and took a team approach.

RBI Solar, a leading solar mounting solutions supplier in the U.S., designed and delivered the racking system for the site's steep hillside, while SolarBOS, the first to pioneer several important Balance of System (BOS) solutions, designed and delivered the wire networking and electrical hardware infrastructure.

The project included 15,000 solar modules supplied by Hanwha and Astronergy, as well as four Ingeteam inverters and 45 SolarBOS combiner boxes.

"RBI got involved pretty much when the racking design-work started," said Daniel Ruwe, Project Manager for RBI Solar Inc. Once they knew the layout and that Hanwha and Astronergy modules were selected, RBI could then decide upon the mounting system.

"We used an RBI fixed-tilt system which we shipped with some field modification material-a slightly longer post and extended post top-brackets on account of the steep terrain," explained Ruwe. "We typically ship our posts just a little bit longer than are strictly needed, just so that we can use that extra length for adjustability."

As there are many different parts to add adjustability to their racking, the RBI installer was able to construct the racking without too many field modifications. "With a site such as this one, we do allow for adjustability. It just might take a little longer to install."

"SolarBOS started on the project around this past May when we first got word of this project," said Joseph Parzych, Wire Product Manager of SolarBOS. "When we get a plan for a site, we will look at the layout that they're using, the type of modules that they're using and the size of their site.

 

The Upper New York State solar project included 15,000 solar modules supplied by Hanwha and Astronergy, as well as four Ingeteam inverters and 45 SolarBOS combiner boxes.

 
  

"With that information, we then begin to design harnesses that fit the purpose to accommodate whatever the specific situation is. After that, the source circuit is designed to be long enough to reach across the whole site."

Parzych added: "I think the fact that it was RBI racking, which is something that we're familiar with, and we understand how their racking goes together, made it easier for us when we designed the wire portion for this project."

SolarBOS has designed for much larger and much smaller sites, but the 7-megawatt project is a size they are extremely comfortable designing for. "We like working with projects like this," said Parzych.

The installation on the site began with driving posts. The racking is installed behind the posts, and the modules behind the racking. With the install, there was some refusal-where the post did not drive all the way to depth-but the construction crew solved the issue by cutting and drilling.

"If we had our choice of sites," Ruwe said, "We would take nice flat ones. Unfortunately, the sites that become solar farms tend to either be fields the farmer doesn't want to use or are in remote locations, where the land is cheaper and there is more of it. Most commercial and utility scale projects are in more remote areas."

 
 

The installation on the site began with driving posts. The racking is installed behind the posts, and the modules behind the racking. With the install, there was some refusal-where the post did not drive all the way to depth-but the construction crew solved the issue by cutting and drilling.

  

"We paid the site a visit at the beginning of August," Parzych said. "I took a couple members of my team out to get a feel for it. It's kind of a narrow, winding road but it seemed like trucks had no trouble getting everything out there. When we arrived, all of the material we had delivered was there and staged on pallets, ready to be installed, if it wasn't being installed already."

"The local install company was working their way down the hill," added Parzych. "At the very top, they had the racking, the wiring, and panels installed. As they came down the hill, the install was at various stages, so at the very bottom, they were still completing some of the racking and they were doing wiring halfway up. It was an interesting approach working through that."

The SolarBOS wire team enjoyed the opportunity to visit the site to learn how the installers were setting up the products they had made. Parzych said, "We were talking to the people doing the install and finding out what feedback they had with what we delivered, looking for ways we could have improved. In this case, the installation seemed to be going well."

Although RBI and SolarBOS worked with the EPC on this project, the end user is Delaware River Solar (DRS), a community solar farm which allows local residents, businesses and municipalities to subscribe to a percentage of the solar farm based on their electric usage, and save money.

 

The end user of the project is Delaware River Solar, a community solar farm which allows local residents, businesses and municipalities to subscribe to a percentage of the solar farm based on their electric usage, and save money.

 
  

In addition, DRS solar projects benefit the local communities they are a part of through increased tax revenue, local jobs, preservation of farmland for future use, local partnerships, and more.

The site was installed primarily by local labor. "I would say there were about 20 people installing racking and modules at any time. Some of them worked for the installation company, but I would say the core of the labor was local." Ruwe said. "The subcontractor who installed the solar farm is somewhat local to the area and helped with hiring locally, because they had a wider range to draw on and a bit more knowledge of the Upstate New York area."

According to Parzych, SolarBOS's biggest in-house challenge is ensuring their wire calculations are done correctly so that the wire is long enough to accommodate what is needed on the site. "Then, the biggest challenge on-site is seeing that we follow what our expectations are, what they look like to us, so there are no surprises between what we designed in CAD versus what the real world looks like," he says.

Of course, another challenge was COVID, creating its own set of issues. "The way COVID probably affected us on this project was on the supply chain side, getting materials to arrive in a timely manner," said Parzych. "There are a lot of delays and there are a lot of changes in cost that are being impacted by the pandemic and impacting every project.

 
 

On the New York State project, RBI Solar designed and delivered the racking system for the site's steep hillside, while SolarBOS designed and delivered the wire networking and electrical hardware infrastructure.

  

"Availability of raw materials all the way up through timely delivery-things like that are all being affected right now. It's forced us, in many cases, to have to extend our timelines, and making sure that that's understood with customers."

RBI was similarly impacted. "Pretty much everything with COVID is making things hard," said Ruwe. "It's harder to get manpower to the site. It's harder to get manpower even in our factories. It didn't really affect this particular project too much. I think they had some issues with getting the modules to the site as originally planned, because COVID is causing shipping delays from Asia."

Fortunately, with this project, other than the delay with the modules, things went smoothly.

Between bidding and manufacturing, SolarBOS has anywhere from 10 to 25 projects of varying size going on at one time. This takes organization and good communication.

"We've got a really good team and we do a really good job of working closely with the customer to understand exactly what they're trying to accomplish," Parzych said. "We provide them with what they've asked for, but we also try and give them an alternative proposal if we see an opportunity to provide some efficiency to their design, maybe even save them some money. We treat each project individually and design for each of them."

"I think RBI has a lot of buying power," Ruwe said. "We have a lot of relationships with different suppliers, since we've been doing it so long. If you need to get material on site, our wait times might be longer than we'd like in a perfect world, but we still have very achievable wait times since we do everything in-house. That gives us a little less friction. And, if a customer needs a tweak on their design, they can just forward it to the designer and receive it back in just a week or so."

Both SolarBOS and RBI are part of the Renewable Energy Platform owned by Gibraltar Renewables Group and, as such, participate on several projects together. "I think we're definitely taking steps to even more so tie the companies together," Ruwe said. "It's just one unified solution instead of being two solutions. We want people to be able to go to Gibraltar and get their whole solar experience in one place.

Going forward, both men are optimistic for the future of solar energy "For me," Ruwe said, "I kind of hope that solar becomes 'President-Proof', so it's just something that's an affordable renewable energy. It's not like you have to worry who's getting elected president."

"I certainly like what we're hearing with the current administration," Parzych said, "There is a lot of the focus on renewables and solar, so SolarBOS is definitely optimistic and anticipating continued growth. We want to continue to see the solar industry grow and for SolarBOS, RBI and Gibraltar to grow with it."

 


Q4 2021