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Engine maker Cummins powering more solar

Engine and power generation manufacturer Cummins is continuing to make big investments in solar power, with the most recent project being a 3.6 MW solar farm at an engine plant in North Carolina.

By Diane Mettler

Cummins Inc., probably best known for its power products, recently constructed a large power-generating solar farm, the latest in a series of solar projects the company has built in recent years.

But it’s a scale up from many of these other solar projects, and is, in fact, at 3.8 megawatts (MW), the company’s second largest solar plant.

The enormous solar farm near Battleboro, North Carolina helps to keep the Cummins’ Rocky Mount Engine Plant (RMEP), located right next door, running while also supporting the company’s environmental sustainability strategy.

RMEP produces engines for more than 500 customers and is a major employer in Nash County, with over 1,800 people employed at the location.

The Rocky Mount Solar Farm got its start several years ago when the company was looking for a way to offset some of the cost of power for the Rocky Mount plant—and to further support the company’s environmental sustainability strategy, PLANET 2050. 

“We believed that as different technologies came about, our diesel powered generators, backup generators, peak shaving generators, would cease to exist,” explained Gary Keffer, Director – Health, Safety and Environmental at the plant. “And we needed to try to offset some of that. One of the best ways in the eastern part of North Carolina is to utilize solar,”

In 2017, solar power was being discussed as an option, and in 2019 the request for appropriations was approved for a large solar farm for RMEP. The plan? Build a solar installation that would produce approximately 5.6 million kWh of power annually and more than 136 million kWh over 25 years. Also, it would sequester the carbon equivalent of 4,862 acres of forest, roughly the space occupied by the Raleigh-Durham International Airport—or over 3,683 football fields.

After a delay due to COVID, full construction began in 2021 and 2022. “We have a really good location on the property, of about 14 acres. And when we cited the potential location for the solar farm, we worked with SunPower,” says Keffer. “We said, let’s design the solar farm to fit this footprint and use all available space that we could within the footprint.”

The new Cummins solar facility is conveniently located within 1,000 feet of the plant, on the same 383-acre piece of property, near Battleboro, North Carolina. 

SunPower was chosen as the general contractor for the project and over six months carried out the permitting required in North Carolina, including land disturbance permits, construction and storm water permits. There were also several environmental studies that had to be done including wetland delineations and endangered species surveys, to ensure that both flora and fauna were examined to avoid impact on any bio-habitat.

“We did not have to, for this particular project, notify the Army Corps of Engineers for anything but there was a lot of permitting associated with the project, absolutely,” says Keffer.

For the project, SunPower used its Performance solar panels, which produce up to 31 percent more energy in the same space over 25 years, says the company. The panels were installed with single-axis trackers allowing the panels to arc and track the sun as it rises and sets. In addition, inverters were provided by Power Electronics.

“There were some state and federal grants, and tax benefits for bringing in solar panels,” says Keffer. “We moved up the purchase of the panels so that we could take advantage of some tax benefits.”

During the construction, SunPower subcontracted local North Carolina firms and today continues to help maintain the site.

The solar facility is conveniently located within 1,000 feet of the plant, on the same 383-acre piece of property. The convenience didn’t stop there.

 The new solar farm helps to keep the Cummins’ Rocky Mount Engine Plant (above), located right next door, running while also supporting the company’s overall environmental sustainability strategy.

“Several years ago, when we had to build a new parking lot at the plant, we actually ran a conduit throughout to the location so when we needed to pull the power cables to the plant, we already had a duct bank in place. That alleviated the challenge of connecting to the actual plant when it’s 1,000 feet away,” says Keffer.

The property also didn’t require much landscaping to get started. “We did have to do some grubbing. The location that we selected was very flat and had some moderate growth of vegetation and some small trees that had to be grubbed in preparation for the solar farm. But it’s very flat,” says Keffer.

All solar facility construction comes with a few challenges. Keffer says the bigger issue was the weather, which is always a challenge with projects in this area. 

“In the construction phase in the eastern part of North Carolina, we’re always subjected to potential hurricanes and tropical depressions. So weather slowed us down a little bit. Also, getting some components later on in the process and making sure that we could get breakers to do the tie-in at the plant slowed us down a bit. Basically, logistics challenges in the end. And then just normal weather challenges.”

Despite any challenge, Keffer says that construction continued steadily. “With a site this large, there’s over 1,900 foundations for the panels. Once they’re done, then you have to pour the concrete foundations where we’re going to anchor all the racking systems, all the supports, and all that. It takes a long time to get that done. So we worked all year round.”


SunPower, the general contractor for the Cummins North Carolina project, used its Performance solar panels on the project. The panels were installed with single-axis trackers allowing the panels to arc and track the sun as it rises and sets. In addition, inverters were provided by Power Electronics.


Normal flooding also proved challenging. “It’s also located in a low laying area around the plant,” says Keffer. “Some of the access roads coming into the plant are particularly impacted by rising waters and hurricanes. And when that happens, we typically have to shut down for a day or two, let the waters recede, and then we can start up operations. And it seems like that happens about once a year.”

Some might wonder what a solar farm is doing going up in a place that can experience hurricanes. But Keffer isn’t concerned. The arrays are rated for the local winds and are designed to withstand winds up to 110 miles an hour.

“We’ve had some tropical depressions but no wind to that extreme,” says Keffer. “Last year we did have a tropical depression that had peak wind around between 40 and 50 miles an hour and absolutely no issues there at all. It was pretty much zero impact to the arrays.”

In the end, taking the solar farm from permit to performance was due to amazing work by a fabulous facilities team at the company, says Keffer. The team included: Ralph Emerson, Director of Manufacturing Functional Excellence; Edwardo Guerrero, Senior Facilities Engineer; Mark Tufts, Senior Facilities Engineer; and Wesley Powell, Senior Facilities Engineer.


Cummins announces investments of more than $1 billion across U.S. manufacturing network

During a recent visit by U.S. President Joe Biden to the Cummins Inc. manufacturing plant in Fridley, Minnesota, the company announced that it will be investing more than $1 billion across its U.S. manufacturing network.

Cummins said that in addition to recent investments in the Fridley plant, the company is investing more than $1 billion across its U.S. engine manufacturing network in Indiana, North Carolina and New York.

The investment will provide upgrades to those facilities to support the industry’s first fuel agnostic engine platforms that will run on low carbon fuels, including natural gas, diesel and eventually hydrogen, helping decarbonize American truck fleets.

The President’s visit was part of his Administration’s Investing in America tour. During the visit, Biden discussed how his Investing in America agenda is supporting manufacturing, innovation and a clean energy economy, as well as creating good-paying jobs in communities like Fridley and across the country. 

Cummins had the opportunity to show Biden the innovative work the company is doing at its Fridley plant. The plant will soon begin manufacturing one of the key pieces of technology for green hydrogen production that will help decarbonize the economy and drive the clean energy transition—the electrolyzer.

“Support from the Biden Administration and Congress with legislation like the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and Inflation Reduction Act are driving the clean energy economy forward in the U.S. and critical to our decarbonization efforts,” said Jennifer Rumsey, Cummins President and CEO.

“The historic investments included in those pieces of legislation played a key role in our decision to manufacture products here in the U.S., creating more clean-tech jobs and positively impacting our communities,” Rumsey continued.

“The electrolyzer production in Minnesota and investment in our Indiana, North Carolina and New York facilities are reflective of our dual path approach of advancing both engine-based and zero-emission solutions.”

Hydrogen produced by electrolyzers can power hydrogen fuel cell vehicles and is used in industrial processes like steel production. Building electrolyzers in Fridley is helping to bring the supply chain for zero-emissions vehicles to the U.S.—particularly in heavy trucking industries—and employing hundreds of workers in the area with good-paying jobs, says the company.

The announcement includes Cummins’ plans to invest $452 million in its Jamestown Engine Plant (JEP) to upgrade its 998,000 square-foot facility in Western New York, to produce the industry’s first fuel-agnostic internal combustion engine platform that leverages a range of lower carbon fuel types. The X15N is part of the new fuel-agnostic 15-liter engine platform produced at JEP.

Cummins customers, including Walmart, Werner, Matheson, and National Ready Mix, among others, are beginning to test the very first engines of the fuel agnostic platform, the X15N. Walmart was scheduled to receive the very first field test unit later in April, to take part in the field test of this industry-first, 15-liter advanced engine platform running on renewable natural gas.


Metering on the solar farm has allowed the company to gauge the output. “It is producing within the design parameters currently,” says Keffer. “Right now we’re fired up in the wintertime. So, we’re anxious to see its performance over the next summer, when we get the greatest heat intensity and obviously the longer length of day.”

The Rocky Mount Solar Farm, which generates 3.2 MW at full capacity, won’t be able to fully power its next door engine plant (the largest electrical user in the entire Cummins System) which utilizes between 15 and 18 MW of power daily.

But even though the solar facility only powers part of the plant’s needs, Keffer and the rest of the Cummins team are pleased.

“Any way that we can supplement that with some behind the meter generation, like a solar farm, is certainly good business,” says Keffer. Today there are no microgrids or battery storage within the RMEP footprint, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a future possibility. It will definitely be considered if it’s viable and all of the power produced is used by the engine plant.

As mentioned, one of the reasons for the Rocky Mount Solar Farm was to support Cummins’ aggressive strategy to be carbon neutral by 2050. Part of the 2030 goals included in PLANET 2050 call for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from its facilities and operations by 50 percent. The RMEP has helped Cummins take a step closer to its target.

“Our strategy includes focusing on reducing greenhouse gas and air emissions. And the solar farm helps us do that,” says Keffer. “The solar farm helps reduce CO2 emissions. I believe our last number was equivalent to around 721 homes, which is equivalent to being able to sequester the carbon from about 4,262 acres of U.S. forest.”

Currently, work is taking place on planning for an additional 44 new solar installations at Cummins sites, including 15 additional projects in the U.S.

To date, Cummins has completed 51 solar array installations at locations all around the world, from Australia to North America. Its largest solar project is at the Beijing Foton Cummins Engine Company Ltd. plant, in China.

Thirty-five of these projects have been completed since 2019, with twenty-one installations in India, where Cummins to date has their largest renewable footprint.

“Cummins continues to be a role model in the industry and a good corporate citizen,” says Keffer. “When you look at the nearby areas, if we’re not consuming power then the nearby community can utilize it. For whatever needs that we might have, we’re not just going to be a resource consumer. We’re going to do the best that we can to conserve the resources that we use and try to minimize our impact on the communities in which we serve and operate in. That’s probably what I’m most proud of.”

Q2 2023