What could possibly go wrong on a Solar PV project during construction?

I gave a talk on EPC contracts at the All-Energy conference in Melbourne earlier this month.  The other speakers talked on the role of the lender’s independent engineer, the commercial & industrial solar PV sector and the transition from fossil fuels to renewables from an environmental management perspective.

One of the questions that was asked of us all right at the end was to do with large scale solar PV installations.  If solar PV facilities are effectively like large assemblies of lego pieces, what could possibly go wrong during construction?

It’s true, they should be fairly straight forward to construct, so why is it that some facilities are completed so much later than planned?

Design suitability

Solar PV facilities aren’t complicated to design for, but if the design is inappropriate, there are a myriad of issues that can result.  For example:

  • Overcomplicated mounting structures can be difficult to assemble, and may not handle slopes or undulations in the ground very well
  • Lightning may be more frequent and more severe than the electrical design allowed for
  • Geological conditions may make trenching and piling activities more difficult than expected
  • Electrical equipment selection may not comply with grid connection/code requirements

Programme of works – sequencing of activities

Constructing a PV facility means tracking and controlling the movement of millions of components, and managing the activity of hundreds of workers.  If the programme of works, or project schedule, is not well thought out, logical and comprehensive, the project risks onsite activities descending into chaos.

The project schedule should result in the efficient flow of components and equipment; be that the delivery of goods and machinery to site, the order and layout of any storage or laydown areas, and the timing of movement of components from storage to installation zones.

Installation activities should also be carried out efficiently, and in the right order.  Modules cannot be installed by the module installation teams if the mounting structure assembly teams have not completed their works.  If the mounting assembly teams are not working efficiently, the module installation teams will be sitting on their hands.  Modules (or other sensitive equipment) should not be installed if there are heavy duty civil works still to be done (like trenching) in the nearby areas.

Trenching activities can only be done if the trenching machines are available.  The availability of machinery becomes very important in sticking with the project programme.  And if there are lots of projects going on at the same time, in fairly remote areas, the availability of such equipment is not necessarily a given.

Labour management

Where is your contractor from?  Are they originally a foreign organisation who ran out of work in their home country so came to your shores seeking more opportunity?  And if so, have they hired local people to work on your project?

Each country, and indeed each region within each country, has its own labour environment, bringing its own set of issues and challenges.  If the contractor doesn’t have local capacity, they may not have a good understanding of what these issues and challenges are, or how to overcome disputes if they arise.

Strikes, go-slows or the downing of tools has an enormous impact on project execution, and the contractor needs to know how to find a resolution to labour issues as soon as possible.

Also, there may be expectations as to local working conditions, or assumptions around working practices that may not necessarily be written anywhere, but which the contractor may be expected to know.  The contractor could very well go through nasty culture shock on site, and throwing hands up in the air and stomping away from the workforce won’t really get things done.

Local knowledge and capacity is critical.

Compliance with environmental authorisations/management plan

Depending on the size of the facility, there is likely to be some form of environmental permit or authorisation, which is the result of an environmental impact assessment.  This permit may outline constraints that apply to the project (such as no-go areas around wetlands or areas of heritage significance) and it will likely require the project to have an environmental management plan that is implemented as the project progresses.

Compliance with the permit and the associated EMP is very important.  Non-compliance may result in delays, or perhaps even the withdrawal of granted permits.

Any new site findings can throw a real spanner in the project works.  Unearthing a burial site, for instance, can close down an entire section of a facility.

Watch this space – Part 2 coming soon.