last three years have been pivotal for the solar industry as new solar energy
facilities are being constructed across the United States. Public utilities and
commercial solar companies are leading the charge, expanding the solar industry
as the construction of new solar farms increases significantly. The need for speed
is essential in today’s energy market due to the Solar Investment Tax Credits
(ITC) being reduced after 2020 and new concerns over tariffs impacting the cost
of solar modules and steel.
The solar division of Horne Brothers Construction, Inc. is thriving in today’s hot market. Based in Fayetteville, North Carolina, the division has expanded from around 30 employees to over 400 in just three years. The highly specialized company handles everything from driving piles and installing racking and modules to land clearing and erosion control.
According to Horne Brothers Executive Vice President of Solar, Tom Kosto, being attentive to the needs of their customers is what has driven their growth. “Many of the companies we work for started in the solar industry around the same time we did, and as their needs expanded, so did our services,” he explained. “They’re working on multiple projects all over the country and by virtue, so are we.”
Keeping busy in Texas
While Horne Brothers have projects happening all over the country, Texas has been the hotbed of activity for the company over the last two years. Kosto said last summer his team was working near Sherman, Texas, constructing five new solar farms that produce approximately 75 megawatts (75,000 kW) of electricity. This year, Horne Brothers is working around Sherman, Greenville, Waco, Wallace, Warren and Beasley. “We’re working our way toward Houston, and when we wrap up the last one, we’ll have completed 100 megawatts (100,000 kW) this year in Texas alone,” Kosto added.
The majority of the work is being done for the same customer; Cypress Creek Renewables. As one of the nation’s leading utility and community-scale solar companies, Cypress Creek Renewables has worked on more than 250 projects and has 2.3 gigawatts (2300 mW) of solar facilities currently deployed across the United States. The company is responsible for developing, financing, constructing and operating each of the facilities.
The relationship Horne Brothers has formed with Cypress Creek Renewables has proven to be advantageous for both companies as well as the communities where each project is being located. “Cypress Creek Renewables continues to grow, just like we do, but the number of jobs created doesn’t stop there,” Kosto said. “Each project has a need for local labor during construction, and sustainable new revenue streams are created in every community. Solar is a huge win for everyone involved.”
Texas isn’t the only place that Horne Brothers has crews working. The company’s workforce is spread out across the nation, working at 30 different solar farm sites. “In 2017, we installed 800 megawatts (800,000 kW) across 5,600 acres (2,266.2 ha), and we’re on track to do more this year,” Kosto explained.
To get all of the work done, Horne Brothers rely on specialized teams to perform different phases of the job. A land-clearing crew is usually the first team in on most new jobs. They are responsible for clearing brush and trees. After the perimeter is cleared, the next team comes in with dozers and graders to verify the site has proper drainage and controlled erosion. Once that phase is complete, construction of the module racking can begin.
“The first phase of installing racking is driving the piles that will support all of the necessary racking components,” Kosto said. “It can be a pretty involved process. For example, on the average 14-megawatt (14,000 kW) site, we’ll have to drive approximately 4,500 piles into the ground, and the spacing between each one has to be exact. Our team has it down to a science. In fact, it’s one of the fastest phases of any job.”
The Horne Brothers solar division operates more than 35 pile drivers with the Vermeer® PD10 pile driver representing the majority of its fleet. “To be efficient at this phase of the project, we prefer to have between two and six units on any given job,” Kosto commented. “The Vermeer PD10’s compact design allows us to get multiple units on a trailer, which helps cut our transportation costs and saves time.”
On the jobsite, Kost sees the Vermeer pile driver’s operator controls, auto plumb and GPS integration essential to his pile driving team’s efficiency. “These features make it much easier for our people to get on and off a job faster and with precision accuracy when it comes to spacing the racking,” he added. “In turn, that makes our racking crew’s job go more smoothly. They don’t have to worry about pile spacings being off.”
Horne Brothers’ racking team moves in after the pile driving crew moves out. They lay out and construct the racking. Another team then comes in, mounts the solar modules, and then the electrical work is done by another contractor. Afterward, Horne Brothers sends in a crew to seed the site and make sure everything is ready to go. From there, the sun is ready to do its job.
Picking up extra work
The efficiencies of Horne Brothers’ pile driving team and equipment has allowed them to pick up extra jobs in the areas where they already have crews working. “We tend to do everything on a project, except for electrical work,” Kosto explained. “But there are also a lot of solar companies that hire out different contractors to perform each part on a job. We keep the Vermeer PD10 pile drivers working on those types of projects as well. We put a lot of hours on them, and they stand up well. They are also compact and lightweight compared to other pile drivers on the market, which makes a difference when transporting them and helps to minimize ground disruption on the job.”
Importance of equipment and partnerships
Breaking each solar project into phases and using separate crews to complete the work has helped Horne Brothers work efficiently. “It’s important for each team to understand every step of building a solar farm, but each crew member doesn’t need to know how to do all of the tasks involved on a project,” Kosto said. “Using multiple crews on a job allows our people to be more focused which has helped ensure we’re delivering a quality end product for customers, cost-efficiently and as quickly as possible. This approach is a big reason why we do so much repeat business with our public utility and commercial solar customers.”
Another contributing consideration for Horne Brothers overall efficiency is the equipment manufacturers that they choose to do business with. According to Kosto, these manufacturers’ dealer networks are a primary factor in those decisions.
“While solar is going strong right now in Texas, North Carolina and South Carolina, there are many other states that we have crews working in, which is why it’s so important to choose equipment that has support, wherever we go,” said Kosto. “Also, since many solar farms are installed in rural areas, we need equipment partners that can support us even in more remote parts of a state. We get that from Vermeer and its dealer network. No matter where our crews are working, we know we’ll receive a high level of service and parts support.”
Predicting the future
While the present marketplace for solar energy is bright, tariffs and the phasing out of tax credits is a significant concern for the people that make their living in solar. Kosto explained Horne Brothers has experienced 40 to 50 percent growth year-after-year for the last three years but is concerned that market uncertainties may impact projects in the future.
“Many of the solar farms we’re constructing today have been in the works for a year or two,” Kosto said. “For the industry to continue to grow, there needs to be stability in its future, and that means being able to keep costs in check. Our process and the equipment we use has helped us operate lean and efficiently, but material pricing could impact solar energy production costs soon, which could reduce solar energy as being as successful as it is today for energy companies.”
Kosto, along with the other 250,000+* individuals who work in the solar industry, hopes that trade agreements get settled, and they can continue to develop clean, renewable jobs for Americans.
*According to the Solar Foundation’s 2017 Solar Job Census Report
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