Lessons learned from the 2023 Solar Builder Projects of the Year

Project of the Year awards 2023

Our Projects of the Year issue is always inspiring in some way. Projects that involve connecting cheaper, renewable energy to lower income communities. Projects that require engineering ingenuity to get done on time and on budget (or to get done at all). Projects that show what’s possible when people actually try to work together to build a more sustainable future.

Be sure to read each project story on the Projects of the Year site.

Beyond the specifics, we think each of these projects has a broader lesson for industry stakeholders. Here’s what the 2023 Project of the Year winners have us thinking at the Solar Builder office.

Collaboration among solar installers will advance the industry more than competition.

The Seneca Nation Residential Solar Program — the Residential Project of the Year —
exists thanks to a grant the Seneca Nation received, and the ingenuity of long-time collaborator GreenSpark Solar, based in the Greater Rochester region of New York. The program was structured to reduce the cost of going solar for homeowners by about 70% — a deal that was sweetened further (~90% cost reduction!) by incentives in the Inflation Reduction Act.

But this isn’t a shoutout to politics; this is a shoutout to collaboration — because the creative use of the IRA for this program was due to the influence of the Amicus Solar Cooperative. The Amicus Solar Cooperative is a member-owned purchasing cooperative of 80 high-quality, independent, values-driven solar energy companies. GreenSpark is a member of the cooperative, and CEO Kevin Schulte gives a ton of credit for this Project of the Year win to the co-op.

“Amicus has done a lot for a project like this,” Schulte says. “Having 80 companies pooling their power together to buy modules at a better rate is meaningful and allows us to put that savings to work on cool projects like this.

“And No. 2: The policy and advocacy shop in Amicus was close to the writing of the IRA. Amicus leaders came together to ask what everyone thought about how to use it. So, this idea was seeded by a friend of mine — Dan Conant [founder and CEO of Solar Holler in West Virginia, which has the mission to turn coal workers into solar workers].”

That idea? How to help a not-for-profit like the Seneca Nation monetize all of the Section 48 business credit concepts, but in a residential context. “He really drove that idea and shared that with all 80 companies so that we could take it and run with it,” Schulte says. “That’s the most powerful part of the co-op — the idea sharing.”

Thinking solar first leads to big wins for building owners and system designers

The Badia Spices Warehouse — The 2023 C&I rooftop Project of the Year – is our first-ever Project of the Year winner in Florida’s Miami-Dade County, which has the strictest standards for solar in the country. What really stands out in the drone photo of this project is how clean the roof is. No HVAC obstructions. Not even a single PV inverter. How is that possible? Project owner Pepe Badia made the solar PV system an integral part of the warehouse remodeling – and let David Kaul, VP of SALT Energy, make crucial suggestions:

Keeping the roof clear. “I shared with the Badia management team how much of a benefit it could be for the solar if we didn’t sprinkle air conditioning units all over the rooftop like is often done, and Pepe took that idea and ran with it,” Kaul says. This led Badia to go with a chiller system located on the ground.

Bringing the inverters indoors. “We selected a place for the inverters that was located on a mezzanine as part of the new construction,” Kaul says. The dc system consists of 40 CORE1 SMA inverters. “We were able to bring all the inverters inside to the climate-controlled space, which is our preference but not always possible on a retrofit.”

Same goes for C&I Ground-Mount Project of the Year, the Wayne School District portfolio in Indiana. Among the many achievements made in Veregy’s Guaranteed Energy Savings Contract with the school district, Veregy was able to net-zero electric four buildings. Arash Habibi-Soureh, energy engineer, says this was possible thanks to a multi-pronged approach that starts with the rate structure, and then involves several system decisions:

“MSD of Wayne Township’s rates were demand based and expensive. But there’s a rule that if you are less than 75 kW of demand per year, you can move to an energy friendly rate that doesn’t have a demand component, just energy,” he tells us.

Veregy had its goal: 75 kW. One building was already consistently below that, so they put solar on top of that. The other three involved implementing a few other energy strategies to hit the 75 kW mark, before adding solar to achieve net zero:

  • Updated air conditioning
  • Retro-commissioning
  • Occupancy sensors on the lighting
  • CO2 sensors for demand ventilation

Imagine a world where these were routine conversations prior to purchasing or constructing a facility. This is also why selected the University of Kansas Studio 804 project for an Editor’s Choice Award. All new buildings should be designed with PV in mind!

Similarly, in remote locations as with the Grand Canyon West microgrid project in Peach Springs, Arizona, converting an old, expensive fossil fuels power generation system to solar leads to huge benefits in costs and maintenance. The Hualapai Tribe received a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to help fund the 884.5 kW solar + 2.14 MWh battery energy storage system (BESS), which is expected to save the tribe about $0.40 per kWh compared to the old diesel generators.

“The savings will be significant,” says Luke Alm, VP of business development at SOLON Corp. “The tribe should be saving between $500,000 and $750,000 per year right away, depending on how much cost you allocate for generator maintenance and repairs. Due to the generator cost savings and the DOE grant, the project should pay for itself within 1-2 years.”

Solar installation pros have to be educators.

We asked Kaul if a successful project like the Badia Spices Warehouse could lead to swifter permitting in the county.

“Obviously, Miami-Dade County is large, and every sub municipality has their own AHJ,” he reminds. “The education process goes deep with the ones that worked with you. But I don’t know that there’s much chance that it distributes across all of the individuals in similar roles. So, I think we still have a lot of challenges in that area.”

Every little bit helps pave the way for more understanding and a smoother process down the road. Example: Shout out to North Dade Regional Library – one of our Editor’s Choice selections – for also leading the way in Miami-Dade County. It is the first of three pilot projects initiated by the County itself.

For Veregy, building solar carports in Indiana – no matter how many teacher jobs the project funds behind the scenes – many people in the surrounding Midwest community only see an extravagant, probably-expensive, structure. So, it’s on both Veregy and the school district to explain the many beneficial aspects of the project (like how it actually saves them tax dollars).

Investing in local training both grows the solar workforce and boosts industry diversity

In addition to providing renewable energy to the Moapa Band of Paiute Indians, the Arrow Canyon utility-scale solar project benefited the community — and Nevada as a whole — in other ways too.

Arrow Canyon employed more than 450 dedicated team members, including 46 members of the Moapa Tribe. McCarthy Building Cos. approached this project as an opportunity for tribal members to become fully integrated workforce members who were directly involved, employed and integrated throughout the project lifecycle. Tribal members were provided on-the-job training to aid in the development of skills and expertise for long-term career opportunities in Nevada’s rapidly expanding solar industry.

“As we built the project, what would typically be sales tax that would go to the government goes to the tribe to benefit them,” says Jared Carlson, senior VP of operations for McCarthy. “And then the employment of the tribal members during the project is a really great impact. We employed 46 members of the tribe throughout the project, and 35% of those were women, which was excellent to have that diversity.”

This is also why we selected the Houston Solar Farm for an Editors’ Choice award: Solar-trained workers were not readily available for this Alaska project, and Renewable IPP took up the task of sourcing and training the construction team from the local community — a team comprised of 30% women.

There’s no one-size-fits-all solution to brownfield redevelopment

Many large-scale solar projects involved the repurposing of brownfield sites, but there’s no catchall solution for success, according to David Carpenter, general counsel and director of development at Green Lantern Solar.

The St. Albans Air Force Station community solar project faced complications from the presence of military-related contaminants, which required the implementation of a soil management plan approved by the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation. Portions of the site also had to be ballasted to prevent impacting the contaminated portion of the site.

“In terms of the contamination, no brownfield is necessarily like another brownfield,” Carpenter says. “There’s always different challenges depending on the contamination and the amount of contamination that’s there. One of the challenges that Peter and his team had to deal with was the implementation of a soil management plan required by the state for us to do work in the contaminated portion of the site. So, aside from the construction challenges, there were those regulatory challenges as well.”

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