Clearing the path for community solar
ClearPath Energy is wrapping up work on a 38 MW portfolio of New York State community solar projects that benefit farmers, and make for happy neighbors.
By Diane Mettler
Boston-based ClearPath Energy is wrapping up a 38-megawatt portfolio of six projects located in upstate New York. Completing the portfolio is an additional 7.5-megawatt project to be built in 2023 in the same area.
Upon completion, the portfolio will generate enough clean energy to power 8,700 homes per year and bring New York that much closer to its 2030 goal of supplying 70 percent of its energy from renewable resources.
“For this portfolio, we first reached out to residents and businesses in our host communities to subscribe to our community projects in order to keep the benefits as local as possible before offering subscriptions to the residents and businesses across the state,” explained Greg Hering, Co-Founder and Development Head for ClearPath Energy.
Three projects are fixed-tilt, and three are single-axis. The 7.5-megawatt 2023 project will also be a single-axis array. With a fixed-tilt array, the panels are adjusted at an optimum angle and do not move. In contrast, single-axis arrays track the sun east to west, rotating on a single point.
ClearPath, acting as both developer and EPC, hired Castillo Engineering for the electrical engineering and TetraTech for the civil engineering on the projects. Across the entire portfolio, ClearPath selected SMA central inverters and Shoals combiner boxes.
For the single-axis tracking projects, ClearPath selected FTC Solar for racking, and panels manufactured by LONGi.
On two sites, in order to decrease string mismatch in the high-snow environment, DC string optimizers from Ampt were installed as well. For the fixed-tilt projects, ClearPath selected GameChange for racking and used Heliene bifacial solar modules.
The main focus of ClearPath Energy’s New York portfolio was utilizing smart siting to decrease viewshed impact on the community, and maintaining pre-installation levels of agricultural production on the land. For example, several sites were engineered so the farmer could continue growing and harvesting his crop under solar panels over the long term.
According to Hering, bifacial modules are beneficial for the area because there is frequently snow on the ground and often cloudy skies.
Due to the pandemic, the start dates of the projects were postponed. “We got three of the projects permitted by March 2020, right at the beginning of the pandemic,” says Hering. “Rather than launching into construction that year, though, we decided to keep permitting more projects, and then do a larger construction mobilization in 2021.” In addition to permitting, extensive pre-construction planning was required. “We try to do develop and build projects that fit well in the community,” said Hering.
The main focus of this particular portfolio was utilizing smart siting to decrease viewshed impact on the community, and maintaining pre-installation levels of agricultural production on the land. For example, several sites were engineered so the farmer could continue growing and harvesting his crop under the panels over the long term.
Upon completion, the portfolio of solar power projects will generate enough clean energy to power 8,700 homes per year and bring New York that much closer to its 2030 goal of supplying 70 percent of its energy from renewable resources.
This was accomplished by using the FTC tracker, a low-profile single-pole system with single-axis tracking, which Hering says, “makes it ideal for growing hay underneath the tracker.” There is 45 feet between the panels and 61 feet from post to post.
“The optimal tracker in this situation needed high ground clearance to support agriculture and high snow, fewer foundations in difficult bedrock, high slope tolerance to minimize land grading, and proprietary software to optimize output,” said Patrick Cook, Chief Commercial Officer of FTC Solar.
“FTC Solar is honored to have been selected as a partner on these excellent projects, and pleased to deliver,” he added.
Hering says that the panels were mounted eight-and-a-half feet in the air on average (high enough for the workers to park their trucks under). “We wanted to make sure that the projects are designed for at least 75 percent of the hay production that was going on before. We’re doing everything for our bottom line, but also aligning our interests with the landowner’s over the long term, so that they can maximize the agricultural production in between the rows and under the panels. We accomplished it without added incentives.”
A success story from the project was that ClearPath Energy devised a method for single-axis trackers to work on undulating terrain. ClearPath worked closely with FTC Solar’s geotechnical and construction teams in both pre-construction and construction, to deal with the terrain challenges in the field.
Due to the amount of snow and the number of cloudy days in the northern portion of New York State, all the single-axis tracking projects used bifacial panels, which produce electricity from both sides of the panel. Those panels were also perfect for use in the hay field due to hay’s high albedo surface—albedo referring to the ability of a surface to reflect sunlight. Herring says that the albedo surface of hay is 15 to 25 percent. Additionally, hay height can be kept consistent.
According to Hering, one potential problem with installing solar panels in a hay field is that mowing hay creates dust, and solar panels require a clean surface for optimal
energy production. ClearPath took into consideration the local precipitation data and typical cutting schedule of hay fields, and feels comfortable with their design decision.
Due to the number of cloudy days and the amount of snow received in the northern part of New York State, all the single-axis tracking projects used bifacial panels, which produce electricity from both sides of the panel.
Another success story from this undertaking was that ClearPath devised a method for single-axis trackers to work on undulating terrain. “A lot of iterative design needs to be done in conjunction with both the racking company and the likely civil contractors to really balance steel cost, versus grading cost,” Hering says. “We worked closely with FTC’s geotechnical and construction teams in both pre-construction and construction, to deal with the terrain challenges in the field. While this took time and design revisions, it saved tremendously on steel costs.” The company thinks that the result was worth the added work.
The jobsites were all located in northern New York, where heavy snowfall, drastic temperature changes, and deep freezes presented challenges during construction. Maintaining the safety of the 40 to 50 workers at each site was paramount.
“We kept the site clear from snow in the immediate work areas at all times,” Hering says. On extremely cold days, the workers took frequent breaks, and frostbite checks were performed to keep the workers healthy and safe.
ClearPath’s core focus is designing and building projects that fit well in the community. When engineering and designing a project near a town, for example, ClearPath explicitly planned the array to start at the back portion of the property, far from the street, creating the least amount of view-shed impact.
Founded in 2017, ClearPath has grown to 15 employees and completed more than a dozen ground-mount projects in Massachusetts and New York, with another several hundred megawatts— all Distributed Generation assets—currently under development. Hering says most of the towns were good to work with, and had already gotten a head start on learning how to zone and regulate large solar projects so ClearPath “didn’t have to reinvent the wheel.”
For instance, some towns had already adopted New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) Solar Guidebook model zoning. The Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) and the State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQR) process went smoothly, with all of the towns taking lead agency.
ClearPath’s core focus for their company is designing and building projects that fit well in the community. When engineering and designing the project near the town of Tully, for example, ClearPath explicitly planned the array to start at the back portion of the property, far from the street, creating the least amount of view-shed impact.
“We try to hide these projects the best we can behind terrain and existing vegetation,” Hering says. In addition to the array being away from the street, it was placed in the area with the poorest soil quality. “The farmer was very excited that we wanted to use his lowest quality fields, and still tried to attempt to continue hay operations,” Hering says. “We kept his cornfield out front untouched, with the exception of a medium voltage trench in the middle, to connect the power. The existing road was made better for him, and we helped him enhance his beef cattle operation in the front.”
On one project, the company designed the 20-foot-wide gravel driveway so the adjacent lumber mill, a minority landowner in the project, could also use it for their operations, improving traffic flow in the neighborhood. Leaving the community feeling that the project is a win-win is a key ClearPath goal. “We believe we can use data to programmatically find and design projects that fit better in the community than the classic shotgun approach to siting,” Hering says.
What makes ClearPath unique, he says, is they opt to do smaller numbers of high-quality projects each year, from the greenfield development right through to ownership and operation, including engineering, procurement, and construction (EPC.) “We EPC our own jobs in order to stay in the weeds and build empirical knowledge about the best practices in the industry, so that we can build that knowledge in excruciating detail back into next year’s prospecting model,” Hering says.
Unlike a geographic information system (GIS) company, a land agent, a real estate company, or an early-stage development company, ClearPath takes a project from start to finish, remaining very detail-oriented and hands-on, to build that empirical data into future models.
“The lessons we learn in the field today with the technology that is just on the market, we can really figure out how to prospect, and better deploy it into the field next year, whether it’s a bifacial panel, a new type of inverter, or a new construction practice,” Hering says. “It’s a constant state of learning for us, and it’s a constant feedback loop that our construction teams and our asset management teams end up communicating all the way back to our prospecting teams, which then put forth high-quality, de-risked leads to our development team.”