What could possibly go wrong on a Solar PV project during construction? – Part 2

Solar PV facilities should be fairly easy to build; the technology is not overly complicated, and the installation process should be a series of lego-like assembly.  So why does so much go wrong?  Part 1 of this topic looked at design, programme, labour and environmental conditions that could impact construction.  This post will look at the importance of effective onsite management.

Quality inspections / quality control

What should be included in the contractor’s contract is that all works are to be done to an acceptable level of quality, and that the contractor should be implementing a comprehensive quality assurance plan.  But PV facilities are made up of millions of components being installed, in addition to vast stretches of trenching being dug and filled, and other civil works taking place.  LV, MV and HV electrical works are on the go, and multiple teams are all working simultaneously, often within the same zone.  If the contractor doesn’t have their proverbial ducks in a row, construction works can be done sloppily, and without due care.

Step one is to ensure that before an activity begins the contractor makes sure that everyone has the right information.  Documentation control is incredibly important.  Have drawings and method statements been reviewed?  Is the document register updated?  Do all sub-contractors have the right plans?  Does everyone know what they’re supposed to do and how they’re supposed to do it?

If this important control is not in place, and people are working to the wrong plans or designs, trenches can go in the wrong place, concrete pours may need to be redone, modules may need to be removed and replaced, and so on.  An entire site can spiral into chaos if people don’t know what they’re meant to be doing.

But let’s assume that people have the right information.  There should then be detailed inspections and checks by the contractor’s quality team to make sure that the works delivered match the design.  Have cables been securely fastened?  Are bolts tightened?  Have all components been installed in accordance with the original equipment manufacturers’ requirements?  Are the pyranometers facing the right direction?

All of these tiny checks add up to two big important questions – is the facility safe to operate and can it operate as intended?

There should be a whole room full of files containing evidence of inspections.  Well, not quite, but the evidence should be there.  If the contractor isn’t recording their inspections and test results, it’s very difficult to be confident that they’re really in control of the facility’s overall quality.

If the employer is dissatisfied with the facility presented to them it can impact on whether milestone payments are made to the contractor, or whether the contractor can achieve practical completion (or whatever completion milestone is defined in the contract.)

This impacts on the project’s completion date, and if quality issues are not identified and then resolved, it can affect the facility’s operational efficiency and safety.  Not good.

Storage and handling of equipment

Some components, of the millions of components being used, will have requirements relating to the handling of equipment that could impact their warranties or how they perform in operation.  The importance of complying with these requirements cannot be overstated.

Equipment should be transported correctly, unloaded and then stored correctly.  It should be packaged suitably, and then, when the time comes to install it, it should be installed properly.  The facility design should ensure that the operational or environmental conditions will be within a range considered acceptable by the manufacturer.

If the contractor isn’t aware of these requirements, they won’t handle the equipment correctly and they run the risk of voiding warranties and affecting facility operation.  They also run the risk of damaging equipment so that replacements need to be ordered.  Some of the components on a PV site, especially made-to-order items, can have a very long lead time.

This can throw the project schedule off course.

General housekeeping

The condition of the site in general can be a good indicator of the contractor’s overall control of onsite activities.  Rubbish and litter lying around, concrete splatters, broken glass and piles of sand and rocks all provide an indication that small, but important, controls are not in place.  Inadequate housekeeping can also raise flags for the environmental officer or manager, who should be monitoring construction activities in accordance with the relevant environmental authorisation and/or environmental management plan.  Non-compliance with the EMP can result in onsite activities being stopped until the issue is corrected.

Safety

The contractor’s level of control of onsite activities will also have an impact on the safety of all persons working there.  There are multiple ways in which someone could really hurt themselves, or others.

  • PV modules sitting in the sun will be live.  Any person fiddling with the module, or with connectors, who may not know what they are doing could really injure themselves.
  • The same risk exists with other electrical equipment being used throughout the facility.
  • Heavy drilling and trenching machines may be operating and these naturally have the potential to injure someone quite seriously.
  • Anyone working near loud machinery should be wearing ear protection.
  • Fire is a concern on any PV facility.  Electrical fires or bush fires (particularly in drier climates) can occur.
  • Then there is a risk of other accidents happening.  People dropping equipment or material, or falling in holes, or misusing a tool, or even sunburn or heatstroke.

Injury or even death is a real risk, and it is up to the contractor to ensure that

  • safety considerations are emphasised during toolbox talks,
  • emergency procedures are in place and emergency equipment (like fire extinguishers) are available,
  • access controls are in place to prevent unauthorised persons from entering electrically active zones and
  • all workers are adequately trained before carrying out any activities.

There should be an appointed health and safety control officer, who is tasked with developing and implementing H&S procedures.  Any incidents or non-compliances should be taken seriously, and it’s important that safety is instilled within the site culture from the start of construction activities.