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Tight time frame for Wisconsin solar project

S&C Electric faced a particularly tight time frame and some extremely cold weather when it took on building Wisconsin's first stand-alone utility scale solar power project—but it was still able to bring the project in on time and on budget.

By Diane Mettler

All construction projects have a ticking clock. But with Wisconsin's first stand-alone utility-scale solar energy project, the clock was ticking double time.

When the installer on the project backed out for unknown reasons, the project's owner, Half Moon Ventures (HMV), chose S&C Electric because the original project owner, Green State Energy, had worked with S&C before and put the two companies in touch with each other, explained Dan Girard, S&C's director of renewable energy and energy storage business development.

When S&C came on board, there was no time to waste. "It was a three-and-a-half month job and by the time we figured out the metering and got on the site, there was a month-and-a-half left to build it," recalls Girard.

The project had to be completed by the end of 2013 or tax incentives would be lost. There was also an agreement with the PSC (Public Service Commission) to do the integration, and it also had a 2013 deadline. "So there were a lot of reasons to get it done, and we worked with all the parties heavily to get it completed," says Girard.

The City of Jefferson was chosen as the site for the solar project, and the 8.5-acre city-owned industrial park was ideal. The land was already owned by the city and didn't require re-permitting.

Girard says the first step for them was working with the municipality, which was still working on how they wanted to handle the interconnect metering. "The City of Jefferson's electrical department was very easy to work with," says Girard. "We sat down with them in two meetings. The original one was to understand what their needs were-how many meters they had to have, who had to have meters on the site. The second one was to basically present to them what we could build for them."

One of the things S&C brought to the project, in addition to its construction knowledge, was its compact piece of switch gear-the System VI. The System VI combines Vista underground distribution switchgear and custom metal-enclosed switchgear modules to provide an economic and reliable alternative to traditional metal-enclosed switchgear.

"When we sat down with Jefferson's electrical department, we went through and said, this is what we'd like to use, this is how we'd like to do the breaker. Because WPPI (Wisconsin Public Power Inc.) is their parent company, they had to have a meter and Jefferson Electric had to have a meter. So we set it up with two meter set-ups, but other than that, it was a traditional system and very compactly built. So when we had cold temperatures like we had, we were able to get that installed in the temperature range and at the same point in time. Because it's pre-manufactured, we were able to get it in, in time."

The Jefferson solar project was driven by deadlines: it had to be completed within certain timelines or tax incentives would be lost, and there was a deadline with the PSC (Public Service Commission) to do the integration. All parties on the project worked dutifully to meet those deadlines. 

One of the criteria, because this was a WPPI project, was to use as much Wisconsin labor and products as possible. In the end, the solar facility wasn't 100 percent Wisconsin-made, but close.

Girard says there was already an agreement with the inverter company Ingeteam. S&C worked closely with them to have the Milwaukee-produced 500kw inverters ready to go. "We also used 500 kva transformers by ABB out of Wisconsin. And of course, we have our power electronics division out of Wisconsin."

To help keep things running in a timely fashion, S&C used contractors they frequently work with.

"Green Earth Developers LLC was the contractor we had brought in to oversee the DC portion of the job, and then we had them work with Premier Power, who we've worked with quite a bit. It was actually their first DC PV installation ever," says Girard.

He adds, "There was some training involved, but work proceeded step by step toward completion. The team and the project management team worked very hard to get things installed."

Green Earth Developers LLC also provided preliminary engineering and construction management services.

S&C hired as much local labor as possible, which they always do-not just because it's good for the local economy and is sometimes a criterion of the job, but because it gives communities some pride of ownership. Locals can also help S&C with local procurement. "When we need to get something, locals will say, 'Hey, have you tried over here?' So at times that really helps out," says Girard.

There was an effort to involve as much Wisconsin labor and products as possible. Ingeteam supplied Milwaukee-produced 500kw inverters and the project also used 500 kva transformers by ABB out of Wisconsin. 

Of the 3,654 fixed-tilt solar panels, half were purchased from Canadian Solar and the remaining half came from Yingli. This ended up becoming somewhat of an integration issue, but a manageable one, says Girard.

It's Murphy's Law, if something can go wrong, it will. In this case, if something can delay a project, it will. Just as construction was ready to get underway, a call came in that there might be a Native American burial ground under the site.

"The folks from the State Historical Society came out and did their investigation and said, 'We don't believe there's anything buried here, but we will have a staffer on site as you dig. If something is found, we'll stop the digging'," says Girard.

Luckily nothing was found. Girard says although the whole event caused some sleepless nights for HMV, it was interesting to watch how the archeologists sampled everything that was dug to ensure no native burial sites were disturbed.

If burial grounds weren't enough of a challenge, Mother Nature stepped in. The winter of 2013 was one of the worst in decades. When temperatures weren't 10 below, it was snowing. The crew kept working through it all.

One of the steps taken to keep things moving along was to create a heated station. "When you make a temporary splice, the people inside have to be comfortable, and the splices themselves have a temperature range," explains Girard.

The City of Jefferson, Wisconsin, was chosen as the site for the 1-MW solar project, and the 8.5-acre city-owned industrial park was ideal. The land was already owned by the city and didn’t require re-permitting. 

"We set up a temporary site-basically a portable tent. We heated that area so it was more comfortable for the people to work in and for the splices to be made correctly."

Another tactic to handle the cold was doubling up the crews. S&C ran one-and-a-half to two crews so one group could be warming up while the others were out working.

"Some of the guys were better at that than others," says Girard with a smile. "The folks out of South Carolina didn't last as long as the guys out of Wisconsin, but when you get below zero, it doesn't matter who you are, it's cold. So we did run double shifts in order to get people in and run the time properly."

Even with the extreme deadline and the extra crews, Girard says the project still came in on budget. "The cold did affect the budget a little, but going into the job we knew that we were going to be under some constraints because of weather, so we did take some of that into account."

Despite the weather and the time crunch, one thing was working in S&C's favor-favorable storage. HMV had rented part of a storage facility next door.

Besides using it as a warming center, it was used to store equipment so it was ready when needed. "You don't get that on most sites. We're building four sites right now and wish we had storage 150 yards off the site," says Girard.

The other advantages were skil-led labor, a customer that knew what they wanted built, and a utility company that was working with them on the site, Girard says. "The utility wanted to see the site built as much as anybody else, so I think that was a big help having them be part of the team. When we were ready to hook up, they were there, ready to go."

It's been a year since the project was completed, and all is going well. There was one minor inverter issue, but Ingeteam was on the scene to fix it in 12 hours, "which is unheard of," says Girard.

Unfortunately, due to the brutal winter and heavy snows of 2013, HMV wasn't able to generate as much power as they would have liked. "It's a fixed-tilt system, and like most fixed solar panels, the hope is that the snow will melt and run off," says Girard. "During a regular winter, that's what happens, but in the winter of 2013 it didn't melt, and mechanical steps were taken to remove the snow."

He adds, "Traditionally if they have just a light snow you can use a leaf blower. But sometimes when you get hard weather, you've got to do a little more work."

This past winter (2014/15), however, has been much warmer and increased power generation will no doubt reflect that.

Solar is keeping S&C busy working with utilities, developers, and private companies throughout North America. Girard believes their busy schedule is due in part to the costs of solar power dropping. He also believes it's because solar is less intrusive than other types of power generation. "If you look at the height of most PV plants-especially your fixed tilt sites-they're no higher than a corn field."

Looking back on the Jefferson project, Girard is most proud of his team. "We drove through some very harsh conditions to meet the customer's completion dates safely and with no injuries."