Solar power/training combo
An Arkansas developer is combining solar power with training students at the University of Arkansas Hope-Texarkana Campus.
By Tony Kryzanowski
The recent passage of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) in the United States—which features a number of incentives for renewable energy development—has been described by some in the industry as like winning the Super Bowl.
“Projects that generally would not have been economically viable will now start being green lit,” says Eric Goodwin, Head of Business Development at U.S.-based tracker and racking system manufacturer and supplier, OMCO Solar.
Goodwin says that passage of the act is also encouraging a lot more manufacturers that supply the renewable energy market to build in the U.S.
“We’ve been a domestic manufacturer for decades,” he says. “In fact, our Choice fixed-tilt racking system is 100 percent domestic steel and iron, which meets the requirements of the IRA for domestic content. That means our developer partners will benefit from the Input Tax Credit additions for commercial solar.”
Summarizing the state of play at OMCO Solar right now, he says, “we’ve never been busier. It’s pretty incredible right now.”
But as development ramps up, the question is: where will the qualified labor to construct these projects come from?
With its focus on trying to add value wherever possible when it constructs a solar array, Little Rock, Arkansas-based, Entegrity Energy Partners, along with several industry partners, including OMCO Solar, are helping to lay the foundation to interest youth in careers in solar power construction—and provide them with training.
In addition to a 1-megawatt (MW) solar array installed near the University of Arkansas Hope-Texarkana (UAHT) campus that is expected to save the institution nearly $5 million in utility costs, UAHT has also partnered with array developer Entegrity Energy Partners to design and install a high-quality solar power construction training lab at the facility.
“The labor market was tight anyway, and I think it’s only going to increase,” says John Coleman, Regional Director for Business Development at Entegrity Energy Partners, as a result of the passing of the IRA.
In addition to a 1-megawatt solar array installed near the University of Arkansas Hope-Texarkana (UAHT) campus that is expected to save the institution nearly $5 million in utility costs, UAHT has also partnered with array developer Entegrity Energy Partners to design and install a high-quality solar power construction training lab at the facility.
“It’s one of the things that I’m really excited about with this University of Arkansas Hope-Texarkana project,” he adds, “because we’re addressing that at its source, providing quality training to students to help grow that market.”
He describes this combination as quite unique in the U.S., not just to help address the local labor demand, but potentially throughout that region of the country.
Students who participate in the school’s nine-credit-hour Certificate of Proficiency in Solar Energy Technology program will learn how to design, install, and operate solar electric systems.
The lab, which was designed by Flint Richter, a solar designer working for Entegrity Energy Partners, is intended to replicate different types of solar applications that students would encounter in the workplace, from residential and commercial rooftop applications to both fixed-tilt and tracking ground-mounted arrays. He has also developed a suitcase-size mini solar lab with actual, working solar power functionality for use as an educational tool with school students. The company has delivered a number of solar power projects for educational institutions throughout Arkansas.
“For us, it makes it easier to get out of bed in the morning to be motivated by other things beyond the financial business model,” says Coleman. “Really, our team is made up of people just like that. So the more you can do projects like this, the easier it is to get excited about working on them and developing these relationships with our clients, like UAHT.”
In addition to the design, Entegrity Energy Partners donated solar modules for lab use at the university, and their industry partners also made contributions. Tracker and racking supplier OMCO Solar provided the lab with their Choice fixed-tilt racking system as well as the Origin single axis tracker and the piles typically used in racking installation.
In addition to the design, Entegrity Energy Partners donated some solar modules for lab use, and their industry partners also made contributions. Tracker and racking supplier OMCO Solar provided the lab with their Choice fixed-tilt racking system as well as the Origin single axis tracker and the piles typically used in racking installation. First Solar donated solar modules and SMA donated inverters. Students will use this equipment to learn how to assemble and disassemble solar systems.
The developer and its industry partners look at this donation as much more than just good public relations. As Goodwin puts it, “if they (students) are going to be training on racking systems, we’d prefer that they work on our racking systems.”
Launch of the solar lab at UAHT—said to be the only one offering training in solar design and installation in the American southeast—is serendipitous considering the passage of the IRA, as well as significant growth underway in solar development in Arkansas. It has been spurred by the state’s decision in 2019 to pass its Solar Access Act, which allowed for Power Purchase Agreements (PPAs). The state also allows net metering. Both these opportunities have resulted in significant solar development growth.
Solar power on wheels (at right)) at the University of Arkansas Hope-Texarkana. Students who participate in the school’s Certificate of Proficiency in Solar Energy Technology program learn how to design, install, and operate solar electric systems.
“I think the timing of this solar lab and curriculum for UAHT is tremendous,” Coleman says.
The state improved its ranking from 30th to 23rd in 2021 in terms of solar development in the U.S. with $751 million invested by the solar industry, with a third of that in 2021 alone. Only one percent of the state’s power is provided by solar. So it goes without saying that there is significant opportunity for growth. UAHT is helping to prepare and provide the qualified workforce needed for the industry to continue growing.
“UAHT is truly invested in being a leader in renewable energy education and in providing opportunities for growth in jobs, economic development, and promoting our state,” said Laura Clark, Vice Chancellor for Academics at UAHT when construction of the lab began.
“Renewable energy such as solar is expected to grow exponentially in the next several years, and we are excited to offer this program for the future workforce needs of Arkansas,” she added.
In 2018, UAHT modified the curriculum within its Power Plant Technology program from being entirely focused on coal-fired power to include all forms of power production, including renewable energies.
Coleman explains how the combination of the installation of the nearby solar array and solar lab on the UAHT campus came about. It started with a Request for Qualifications in early 2020 for firms that could help UAHT improve its energy efficiency in buildings on two of its campuses, and Entegrity Energy Partners won that contract. It included construction of the 1-MW solar array.
The recent passing of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) in the United States—which features a number of incentives for renewable energy development—will mean an increase in solar power development, and University of Arkansas Hope-Texarkana will be helping to meet the need for skilled staff with its training program.
The company partnered with Solar Energy Inter-national (SEI), a solar energy training organization with over 30 years of experience training over 85,000 solar industry professionals, to make its bid for the UAHT project. Solar designer Richter was also an instructor at SEI for years. The company showed UAHT what programming opportunities were available to them and they responded positively by accepting Entegrity Energy Partners’ bid.
“You have to commend the UAHT leadership because they were pretty forward thinking,” says Coleman.
The nearby 1-MW solar array is situated on about five acres within visual range of the campus, and features the OMCO Origin single-axis tracker solution. First Solar supplied nearly 8,500 mono-facial solar modules. As mentioned, SMA supplied the inverters. The array and the solar lab are about to come online and the training program for the program’s first students is already underway.
UAHT was able to afford the purchase of the project primarily from the guaranteed energy efficiency savings and power produced from the solar array promised by Entegrity Energy Partners, as well as a $200,000 grant received for the training lab from the AEP SWEPCO Foundation.
The site of the solar array did not present any specific challenges and is described by Goodwin as a very “fluid” project insofar as installation was concerned. There was some slope to the site, but nothing significant. Entegrity Energy Partners employees managed the foundation and system installation, being very familiar with the OMCO Origin single-axis tracker product. The companies have partnered on many projects in the past. The mounting supply contract included torque tubes, bearings, drive motors, controllers, solar panel mounting hardware and all the structural components which were manufactured in OMCO’s Phoenix, Arizona plant. There was no disruption to campus activity during construction.
Goodwin adds that OMCO Solar’s 1-in-portrait tracker design is “super compatible” for use with First Solar’s Series 6 panel product, which was used in this array. The Series 6 is a thin-film solar module vs. a crystalline silicon module.
One attractive feature with OMCO Solar’s products is the amount of pre-assembly done in their U.S.-based factories, aimed at simplifying and accelerating installation.
“We pre-assemble our bearings and our module mounts for an efficient build,” says Goodwin. “So you have fewer parts to assemble when you are building our products. The faster our customers can install projects, the faster that they can continue on to the next one.”
OMCO Solar’s Origin tracker has also been designed to accept any module in the industry.
One area where the IRA could have a significant impact, says Goodwin, is in the development and siting of utility-scale type projects going forward.
“I think you will always have the five megawatt and under distributed generation type projects,” he says. But the industry generally has developed considerable technology and foundation options where it is now possible to consider larger, utility scale projects on less than smooth, graded sites. These types of sites are also often much more affordable.
“I think you will see more utility scale projects coming to Arkansas and other states. Now the economics are going to make it a lot more attractive with the incentives that are now available, thanks to the passage of the IRA,” he concludes.