Utility-Scale Solar Development & Construction: What’s Now & What’s Next?
On Friday, June 26, we hosted a webinar to discuss the current challenges and opportunities in utility-scale solar development and construction. We brought together a panel of diverse perspectives across the industry — from renewables providers to drone software companies — to learn how various players in the space are reacting, adapting and innovating in our new world. The discussion was led by Energize Partner Katie McClain and featured input from the following experts:
- James Pipe, Product Director, DroneDeploy
- Utopia Hill, VP Renewables Project Management, Invenergy
- Joel Leineke, President, RES America Construction
- Shawn Rumery, Director of Research, SEIA
Below, we’ve highlighted key takeaways from our moderator-guided Q&A discussion. You can view the full recording here.
Though COVID-19 poses several key challenges, utility-scale solar has proven resilient.
- Utility-scale solar construction was deemed an essential service early on, so fortunately deals are still getting done and projects are continuing despite several setbacks. While SEIA hasn’t seen huge impacts in the 2020 forecast for the utility-scale market yet, it remains uncertain how the virus will progress, and how that might impact financial markets in particular. Utopia points out that the resiliency of the utility-scale segment during this time of pronounced uncertainty shows the strength of the industry. “I think it positions us well from an advocacy perspective, to really be able to prove that we can emerge as leaders in the space.”
- Key challenges cited across the board include strains on labor force and supply chain, especially with many overseas vendors and manufacturing facilities seeing impact early on. Ensuring adequate personnel and supplies make it to the right place at the right time has become more difficult.
- On the construction side, safety has been a primary concern. With projects that typically involve hundreds of people in close quarters, RES has had to reevaluate how to maintain safety across its sites. An important part of that solution has been ensuring efficient and effective message delivery.
- SEIA highlights the importance of business relationships — with vendors, buyers and financiers –during this time, citing the “trust factor” that has helped many companies weather this storm. “The solar industry is a strong community that emphasizes relationships, which has helped us get through better than other industries,” Shawn said.
Industry players are accelerating adoption of innovative technologies as solutions for current limitations.
- Drone technology in solar enables less travel, contactless inspections and socially distant site visits in addition to lowering costs — all of which is more important now than ever. A key differentiator for DroneDeploy is the data and documentation its software provides customers, which James says helps verify that progress is being made and build trust between project owners and contractors. “Drones can be used in solar very early on to enable quick turnarounds during prospecting sites, planning and the bid process,” he said.
- Invenergy has relied on tools like DroneDeploy to be its “eyes” while teams can’t be out in the field as frequently. Post-COVID, Invenergy expects to see increased drone usage across its portfolio after seeing benefits across development, construction and operations of sites by utilizing drones.
- We heard from RES and SEIA that having a strong digital/IT infrastructure in place is especially important to be able to quickly adopt electronic communication and collaboration tools. Being able to conduct business virtually, both for corporates and municipalities, will help reduce costs of the system at large by cutting back on travel and labor.
Experts across the field are optimistic about the future of solar and the role of renewable energy in economic recovery.
- Our panelists unanimously believe in the potential of the solar industry to be a driving force in the rebound of the economy, particularly the economic implications of additional solar deployment in the form of jobs. As Joel put it, “We’re facing a future of optimism in terms of the volume of work that’s available for us to do. It’s exciting to see continued growth in employment, and now just need to focus on managing the challenges associated with that.”
- Shawn says from a policy perspective, SEIA is seeing promise in change in procurement, with state and local governments committing to procure a certain amount of renewable energy and corporates making large bids for clean energy.
- As the industry continues to innovate, DroneDeploy is seeing costs come down, and solar is growing in price competitiveness with other forms of energy generation like wind and natural gas. “Emerging technologies are driving growth in the solar industry by improving safety, improving efficiency and reducing costs. Reducing costs has been one of the key levers in pushing the industry forward, and I’m excited about DroneDeploy’s contribution to that through our features that help generate meaningful insights from drone data and automatic progress reporting that can be shared with stakeholders,” said James.