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Solar power installations are, first and foremost, engineering and construction projects. As such, they require the sorts of project management skills common to any complex building project. At the same time, solar projects have the unique aspects of power generation and solar technology that require various degrees of specialization.

Borrego Solar Systems Inc., with headquarters in San Diego and offices in Oakland, Boston and New York, specializes in commercial, industrial and municipal solar power projects. Sometimes, it serves as a developer, as with the 3.3 MW photovoltaic power system for San Diego International Airport it will finance, build and own. Other times, the firm serves as an engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) contractor, as with the 9.1 MW PV project in Riverhead, N.Y., that Borrego broke ground on for developer Sustainable Power Group late last year.

Tim Keane, Borrego Solar’s regional operations director for northern California, says that in either case, the company’s project management talent is what enables it to plan, finance and execute solar power systems for a challenging market segment. Solar Industry asked Keane about some of the key aspects of solar project management.

Solar Industry: How do you manage the “division of labor” on project preparation when in the role of an EPC working with a development partner versus when you are developing the project?

Tim Keane: Typically, Borrego assumes most of the responsibility of the project preparation when we are either the developer or the development partner. This is mainly driven by the fact that Borrego is responsible for the design, the construction and the performance of the system. We usually have production guarantees with our partners, and we are typically responsible for all the risks associated with interconnection and government approvals.

Given this risk, we usually choose to do most, if not all, the project preparation work. Also, with deals becoming increasingly tight in terms of the finances, there is rarely room for significant change orders on a project. So, in an effort to curb the need for change orders, we choose to take on most of the project preparation work.

SI: When you are working with partners you have worked with in the past, presumably there will be a certain level of trust. However, are there aspects of project preparation you look for when considering partnering on a project with a developer with whom you have not worked in the past?

Keane: Because we assume so much of the project preparation risk, the list of things Borrego needs in a partner isn’t long: We need to know they are well capitalized, that they will pay us on time as the project progresses and that they will be reasonable about changes in the project (e.g., schedule and costs). Changes in projects are inevitable, and partners that can be flexible are ideal.

SI: Regardless of your role, is there a certain checklist of project aspects - permits, interconnection, funding, etc. - that you look to see accomplished before making a firm commitment to a project?

Keane: Given Borrego’s long experience in the market, we have a high level of comfort with the risks associated, such as permits, interconnection and funding.

SI: What are the first things you seek to accomplish once you have signed on to a new project?

Keane: First, submit an application for interconnection. Second, begin site discovery engineering. This will involve a series of surveys - a geotech survey, boundary survey, topographic survey. Also, we must verify the viability of the physical interconnection point.

SI: What are some of the key aspects of a site you look for in terms of its physical characteristics - gradient, soil, trees, access roads, etc.?

Keane: Obviously, a site that is flat and free of potential shading issues is the perfect site for solar. However, the soils, as you mentioned, could be even more important because the embedment of the piers - for carports or ground mounts - is one of the most expensive parts of the solar installation process. For example, if you have a high water table or the soils are such that you have to drill deep piers, the cost of the project could increase exponentially.

Also, we need to make sure the physical interconnection is a viable one and whether the existing switch gear will be able to handle the interconnection. If the project is a wholesale power agreement (direct to the utility), we also need to determine how far away the interconnection point will be and the associated cost.

SI: What is your strategy for ensuring that your project will have the maximum amount of support from the community going in?

Keane: Engagement with the community, whether it’s from an education standpoint or discussing project specifics, begins with the development team. When the project moves into the construction phase, the project management team steps in and continues engaging with the community about the construction process.

We typically participate and arrange community meetings and try to address any concerns they have about the project. We strive to have an open dialogue with the community, as it makes the project go much more smoothly. With that said, depending on the complexity of the project, there might not be much community support involved.

SI: How important is it to have a relationship with the local utility in terms of ensuring the required circuit studies and investigating interconnection requirements?

Keane: Although we would never shy away from a project with a utility we haven’t worked with before, having that relationship is extremely valuable. Having a track record with a utility usually allows us to get quick answers to key questions facing the project, which, in turn, allows us to understand risk quickly.

We also are able to quickly determine likely interconnection costs, which allows us to price the project competitively and to accurately forecast when a project can come online. Both of these items are critical to the financing partner involved in the deal.

SI: How important are the logistics of scheduling crews and equipment deliveries on a project? What is the source of the most conflicts in managing schedules and deliveries? What are a few of the steps you take to mitigate these issues before they become troubleshooting problems?

Keane: I wouldn’t want to minimize the importance of scheduling crews and the delivery of equipment, but the industry has matured enough that we don’t usually have issues with manning projects or with getting material.

Our subcontracting partners are usually well established and capable of providing the labor. They have also usually signed off on the schedule we have committed to prior to signing an agreement with us. And our roster of subcontractors is deep enough that if we get the feeling someone will struggle to keep up with our project, we’ll have someone else we can turn to.

You could say similar things about the material suppliers on a project. In the past, we have been burned by suppliers who have committed material to us but then failed to meet their commitments. Our suppliers today are usually well capitalized and have a proven track record of being able to meet our timelines.

SI: As projects progress, there must be a widening circle of parties involved in one capacity or another. From a project management standpoint, what is important to make sure everybody works together harmoniously as they come and go and that everybody goes away happy?

Keane: Like in most projects, planning - and planning ahead - is the biggest key to project success, particularly in the critical stages. In solar, those critical stages tend to be when the racking installer is finishing and the electrician is coming on-site - assuming the scope has been broken up - and when the project is finishing up and the utility is starting to get involved to a higher degree.

A good project manager just knows how to plan for these transitions. We have a lot of meetings with the various parties in which we discuss the expected responsibilities of each party. At these meetings, issues or incorrect assumptions are usually fleshed out and a clear, viable plan is laid out.

SI: Finally, what is your approach to managing a project so that you would likely be asked to do it all over again?

Keane: The simple answer would be we need to execute on the project as planned and promised. The reality is, though, projects rarely go exactly as planned. Not to say that they go wrong, but that flexibility is paramount for a project’s success.

There are often factors that arise that take the project into a slightly different direction. Borrego is successful at doing two things in this regard:

Our partners want to work with firms that they can trust, that solve problems and that can complete projects. We strive to provide our partners with all three of these.

 

Tim Keane is Borrego Solar’s regional operations director for northern California, based out of the regional headquarters in Oakland. Keane manages a team of project managers and site superintendents working with commercial and municipal customers.

Industry At Large: Project Management

Borrego Solar Looks To Project Management To Keep Its PV Pipeline Moving

By Michael Puttré

The more risk a developer assumes, the more work it needs to do up front.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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