Editorial: 01.26.2021

Renewable Energy’s Rapid Rise

— Justin Kelton, President, Southwest Region

Building a New Power Infrastructure Based on American Values and Tradition

solar panels

I can recall the first time I visited the Hoover Dam. Shortly after ending my tour of duty with the U.S. Marine Corps, I moved to Arizona to join McCarthy and was driving from my new home in Phoenix to Las Vegas. Like most people who see the dam, I was awestruck and inspired by the engineering marvel before me and drawn to take a closer look at its magnificence. The enormous concrete structure is daunting and thoroughly inspiring. While I was relatively new to my career in construction, I could comprehend the vast complexities required to build the dam and appreciate the determination of the engineers and construction workers who made it possible to harness the power of the Colorado River, which led to significant advancements across the west.

The Hoover Dam still generates an average of approximately 4 billion kilowatt-hours of hydroelectric power each year, which is enough energy to serve 1.3 million people. Completing the dam in 1936 was a pivotal point in American history and contributed significantly to the growth and development of communities across the west. Now we find ourselves with another opportunity to transform our nation’s power infrastructure through the development of solar power.  

While generating power through nature is nothing new in the United States, nor around the world, shifting to cleaner renewable energy sources has been a relatively slow process — until now. In fact, we are seeing a surge in the need for more reliable sources of clean energy around our nation and across the globe. Over the past decade the demand for renewable energy has grown steadily.

Recent forecasts from monitoring agencies, including the International Energy Agency (IEA), note that although the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting the global economy and people’s lives on a daily basis, it is “hurting, but not halting global renewable energy growth.” In November 2020, the IEA reported that “renewable markets, especially electricity-generating technologies, have shown their resilience to the crisis.”

According to the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), U.S. businesses and top global brands have made historic investments in solar energy. In its Solar Means Energy Report, the SEIA said “there is 15 times more solar capacity installed by American businesses today than there was a decade ago,” with many highly recognized household brands — including Facebook, Apple, Google, Kaiser Permanente, Amazon and Walmart — as well as small businesses in communities from coast to coast investing in solar energy to predictably and cost-effectively power their operations.

It strikes me that the same principles prevalent during construction of the Hoover Dam nearly a century ago resemble the forces behind today’s renewable energy power generation: economic growth, ingenuity, efficiency, excellence and determination.

Sparking Economic Development

In the U.S., economic development organizations and forward-thinking legislators are recognizing the position and commitment to renewable energy made by businesses. These organizations and leaders are taking proactive steps in their communities to invest in solar and renewable energy facilities in an effort to attract these brands and stimulate new economic growth in the form of jobs associated with technology, manufacturing, retail and logistics, as well as the myriad industries that serve these business sectors, which of course includes construction.

As the cost to generate solar power continues its decline, these investments in clean energy couldn’t come at a more critical time. Our country is working through the economic challenges brought about by the pandemic, and investments in renewable energy are being recognized as important contributors to rebuilding new robust economies. Communities that embrace the ongoing emergence and development of clean energy sources are more likely to be positioned for economic success coming out of the pandemic.

construction worker

Advancements Through Ingenuity, Efficiency and Excellence

At McCarthy, we’re embracing this opportunity by partnering with utilities, developers, businesses, other industry leaders and local communities to help make a new energy infrastructure a reality. Key factors contributing to the success of this initiative are human contributions: ingenuity, efficiency and excellence.   

These characteristics have long been elements behind great innovations and progress. They remain essential drivers within the solar and renewable energy industry for building better energy generation and energy storage facilities because of the impact on cost-containment and more predictable energy costs. According to a 2019 SEIA report, the cost to produce one megawatt-hour of solar fell an incredible 86 percent between 2009 and 2017.

As we come out of the pandemic, many expect the solar industry will embark upon another period of exponential growth that will continue for the foreseeable future. With this continued expansion, it will be no surprise to see technological innovations continue to be developed and introduced at a rapid rate, thus continuing to positively impact costs, efficiency and quality. With the introduction of these new technologies, our teams are well-positioned for collaboration with industry partners to either further develop or apply these advancements and evaluate their applications on the projects we build to ensure they deliver additional value.

At McCarthy, we’ve implemented four key practices to better ensure our partners and the life cycle of the facilities we build reap the benefits of new and innovative technology:    

Site Evaluation and Planning: Early site evaluation and analysis provides a clear picture of the site conditions, as well as design and engineering limitations or impacting parameters of a project before construction begins. Investments in early-stage planning provide price and schedule certainty and detects issues that direct the type of products that may be used on a site.

For example, using a ground-penetrating laser on a rocky site helps us identify whether a traditional pile machine and tracking system is usable; or if we need to shift our design to construct the project with a product like the fixed-tilt racking system using ground screw technology developed by TerraSmart, our partners on the Turquoise Solar plant located outside of Reno, Nev. This racking system is making previously undevelopable sites available for utility-scale solar projects, with appropriate design and planning.

Production Quality Enhancements: Selecting the right components for a utility-scale solar or energy storage facility plays a critical role in energy production, storage and the life cycle of a facility, impacting the bottom-line for owners and developers. Our teams have a system for evaluating the components we plan to use on every solar and energy storage project we build to ensure we are using the component that is the right fit for the project.

For example, use of a GPS Pile Driving Machine provides exact alignment of piles while helping lower costs and increase the quality and energy production of the site. Similarly, the type of panel, whether it be bi-facial panels or otherwise, are best for some projects and can positively impact energy production. In fact, every element – from nuts, to bolts, to the type of tracker and beyond – all affect the level of energy production, quality and cost of a project. One of the most significant innovations developed by our in-house team is the string inverter, which allows for more consistent power production and ease of installation and replacement, lowering costs for our clients and future facility operators.

Third-Party Testing: Our project teams employ third-party consultants who work with our in-house design and engineering team during a project’s planning phase. They thoroughly test every product’s components before it is used to ensure it works for the project. In addition, a forensic structural engineer reviews all tracker data on a site and conducts a sensitivity analysis and report on each element prior to purchasing. This is a collaborative process, allowing us to customize our product/component selection to the project while addressing any design, engineering or site challenges. This process has a significant impact on the solar projects we build because we often discover efficiencies that can be incorporated into the project by selecting only the most ideal energy production components, resulting in increased quality and cost savings over the life of the project and beyond.

Design Optimization of Storage: Through integration of controls and storage, the storage and solar facility work more efficiently together. By integrating the storage with the solar and using an algorithm to control timing of the system, the energy storage increases while operations and maintenance costs are lowered.  

These practices have been found to have a positive impact on schedule, bottom line costs, quality and energy production, helping advance the industry overall while also providing additional benefits to the communities served by utility-scale solar and energy storage projects.

Expansive Workforce Growth

Perhaps the greatest hurdle to achieving the successful construction of a new power infrastructure is rooted in the recruitment and training of a robust talented craft workforce. Similar to how construction of the Hoover Dam contributed to western growth, the solar industry has the potential of aiding in the economic recovery of our nation and further development of our country’s new clean power infrastructure as we work through the impact of the global pandemic by putting displaced workers into careers in a growing industry.   

SEIA’s Jobs report projections of July 2020 estimates more than half a million workers can be employed by the solar industry by 2025, doubling the number employed in 2020. Industry advocates are working to achieve a projected investment of $200 billion into the economy over the next five years with the implementation of smart federal and state policies. These efforts couldn’t come at a more opportune time for individuals and families who find themselves struggling to find work after being displaced from jobs in sectors most heavily impacted by the pandemic and subsequent economic downturn.

At McCarthy, we have a long history of developing award-winning training programs. We’ve established a nationally accredited Solar Training and Mentoring Program and are partnering with various groups to attract and train workers in solar construction across the country. Together, we are working with the Solar Foundation, community organizations, trade schools, community colleges and veterans organizations to provide training and job opportunities that can open the doors for new and rewarding careers in one of the fastest growing industries in America. We have plans to hire thousands of workers in the coming years as our solar teams prepare to meet the country’s growing demand for solar energy. Thanks to the effectiveness of McCarthy’s certified training program, those who enter our Solar Training and Mentoring Program will receive training in solar construction and have the opportunity to grow into leadership roles through our journeyman apprentice programs.

Several years in the works, McCarthy’s Solar Training and Mentoring Program is producing great results on projects in Michigan, California, Georgia, Nevada and Colorado while being introduced in other states as well, including Texas, Illinois and Arizona. Our program works at the pace of the individual through a methodology of learn, perform and repeat, as task implementation and quality are mastered. Career advancement opportunities are a major focus. Teams are seeing great results not only in the overall project construction, but also in the form of project morale and leadership development of craft workers as individuals rise to project challenges, take on new responsibilities and share in recognition as project milestones are achieved.  

The recruitment and training of crews on our Assembly solar project in Michigan has inspired strong morale across the jobsite through team building, incentive-based initiatives, Lean construction tutorials, COVID-compliance training and themed days such as “Western Wednesdays” and “Freedom Fridays,” where craft achievements and the community are celebrated, keeping everyone engaged. Because of the effective processes for training craft workers, developing leaders and establishing a work environment where everyone feels a sense of accomplishment in their role of building our country’s new clean power infrastructure, our teams have a true sense of the contributions they are making to the success of the industry. They also are building a new clean power infrastructure, helping their community grow and succeed.  

Just as the workers who built the Hoover Dam were instrumental in developing the west many years ago, today’s solar construction craft workers are contributing to the clean energy future of our country. When I visit solar farms and energy storage facilities, I am reminded of the impact our people will have on future generations. Thanks to the ingenuity and dedication of so many in the solar energy industry, the impact of work being done today will transform the energy future of our country for years to come. As an industry partner, McCarthy is working diligently to support and bring new innovations to market and enhance the quality and performance of our nation’s power infrastructure while also investing in people’s careers that further their growth and the economic development of communities across the country.

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About the Author

Justin Kelton leads all company operations within McCarthy’s Southwest Region, including Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico and Colorado. His career with McCarthy began as a laborer on a hospital construction project. After several years in the trades and service in the United States Marine Corps, Justin became a project engineer with McCarthy in 2001. He served in numerous leadership roles prior to his current position, including project director, vice president, senior vice president and executive vice president. He has been instrumental in developing and expanding the region’s education services, including the launch of Job Order Contracting, and McCarthy's national solar, healthcare, municipal and commercial market sectors. He serves as a board chair of the American Heart Association’s Greater Phoenix Chapter and the Support Sky Harbor Coalition, and is a member of the Arizona Builder’s Alliance, American Society of Civil Engineers and WESTMARC. Justin earned a civil and environmental engineering degree from Vermont Technical College.

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