5 Land Management Budget Pitfalls to Consider When Developing Utility-Scale Solar Projects
July 5, 2020
One of the challenges of developing a utility-scale solar project is anticipating the extent of operations and maintenance responsibilities. Developing an accurate O&M budget early on is critical so the operating funds are available when needed. While the direct maintenance of equipment is easy to quantify, first-time solar investors often fail to account for expenses related to land management.
Here are five commonly overlooked items to consider that will drive the success of your next solar PV project plan.
1. VEGETATION MANAGEMENT
Skimping on weed control services can be costly. Without proper and consistent vegetation management, invasive species gain a foothold on your site and wreak havoc. Once noxious weeds, such as Russian thistle (tumbleweeds) or mustard grass, establish themselves at your site, they become difficult to control and can blow your O&M budget out of the water.
To control vegetation within the hundreds or thousands of acres inside energized solar arrays, mowing, spraying, trimming, and removal of vegetation is key. However, it is important to be familiar with the land and environment to control the vegetation just right, as too much vegetation management could lead to ground erosion.
Avoid expensive repairs or loss of energy production by learning about the impact of vegetation management and incorporating these services in your O&M project development plan and budget.
2. GROUND EROSION MANAGEMENT
Water and wind can have a devastating effect on a PV plant. Left unchecked, erosion can lead to flooding and premature equipment failure that may result in the washout of footings on racking, moving panels out of alignment, and binding up panel tracking systems.
Ground erosion often happens slowly, but poor land management can speed the process. To prevent erosion, sloping and drainage must be planned and maintained. Contouring the site and adding swales and detention ponds can provide excellent control of ground erosion while mitigating stormwater runoff. But avoid the “eradication” approach to vegetation management. While you’ll benefit in the short run from less mowing, healthy vegetation is important because it slows groundwater runoff and anchors the soil together.
Some erosion is inevitable, but if erosion occurs, it must be mitigated quickly. Ensure that you have internal staff who can identify and respond to damage, or that your O&M contractor can provide these capabilities.
3. ANIMAL INTRUSION
Unlike would-be vandals, animals care little about perimeter fences and no-trespassing signs. Your solar site can serve as a source of food, water, shelter, or space for any number of insects and woodland creatures. Once inside, animals can dig, chew, nest, and excrete all over panels, wiring, inverters, switchgear, transformers, and control hardware. You will likely have to tolerate some amount of animal intrusion, but there are steps you can take to ensure animals don’t create a nuisance.
The type and measure of response will need to be tailored to your specific animal residents and local environmental requirements and regulations. A common fix may include installing dig wire along the bottom of the perimeter fence to discourage intrusion by digging. However, as many sites are required to build fences with gaps for animals to safely enter and exit, an alternative option is pest management. A contractor can institute a bait and trap program and can perform extermination as necessary.
An effective vegetation management program is also key to preventing animal intrusion. Removing choice habitat and desirable food will make the solar site undesirable to animals. With the many variables to pesky animal intruders, it’s important to stay vigilant and be prepared to respond proactively by making sure this line item is covered in your project plan.
4. PHYSICAL SECURITY
Ensuring physical security of the project boundary is essential. Preventing intrusion serves both to protect the utility’s assets and to eliminate the potential liability of intruders injured by contact with high voltage. While some amount of vandalism is inevitable at unattended sites, it is important to perform cleanup and repairs quickly to deter trespassers and discourage further vandalism.
Off-site monitoring (with intrusion alarms and security cameras) can provide an early warning system, as well as a documented record for insurance and legal requirements. When it comes to security, nothing beats the effectiveness of a physical presence. Your site support package should include frequent security patrols. While this can be done in-house, a local third-party security presence is often more responsive, more effective, and cheaper. Randomized security patrols and off-site monitoring are necessary O&M expenses that help prevent damage and theft of PV equipment, avoiding costly repairs, and keeping your site online.
5. MAINTENANCE-FRIENDLY PANEL LAYOUT
To reduce the installed cost of a solar project, utilities may choose to limit the amount of free area around PV panels, maximizing panel density and minimizing per-kW land costs. However, utilities must be careful not to impact the serviceability of their PV systems.
Separating panels only the minimum distance to prevent shading can make future servicing difficult. Consider laying out panels, racks, inverters, and cable conduits so that the O&M contractor can complete weed trimming and panel washing projects with automated equipment. It may be beneficial to consult with the O&M team or a land management contractor during the design phase so maintenance requirements can be integrated into the design. Providing adequate clearance makes O&M tasks easier to complete, ensuring they get done on schedule and with fewer hours billed.
WWS IS HERE TO SERVE
If you’re developing a plan for your next solar PV project, you don’t have to go it alone. World Wind & Solar can provide expert advice on what you need to ensure the success and optimal performance of your site. As a recognized leader in the solar power industry, we specialize in utility and commercial-scale solar operations and maintenance.
We are here to serve with the tools, training, and expertise to deliver exceptional results for our partner clients on an ongoing or on-demand basis. With satisfied clients in 43 states nationwide, World Wind & Solar can provide cost-effective service solutions no matter your location. Contact us to learn more or to get your quote today by calling (661) 822-4877 or emailing [email protected].