Fueled by dropping prices and better storage capacity, the rate of solar installations is either holding steady or growing in multiple sectors across the United States. In the first quarter of 2018, the U.S. market installed 2.5 gigawatts of solar power, marking a 13 percent increase from the year before, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.
With a parallel expansion of its own solar business, Baltimore-based competitive energy supplier Constellation serves as part of this industry’s growth. The same can be said for the team of electrical contractors at John E. Kelly & Sons Electrical Construction Inc. (known as Kelly Electric), which has provided installation support for many of the solar projects Constellation leads.
Constellation’s solar designs generally fall into the three categories of rooftop photovoltaic (PV) arrays, parking lot canopies and ground-based installations, said Rick Justice, Constellation’s engineering and construction manager. In some cases, solar power sources are part of new constructions while the majority of installations are provided at existing facilities.
Serving the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area, family-owned Kelly Electric offers solar installations as one of its specialties. The 30-year-old company also builds low-, medium- and high-voltage electrical distribution systems as well as overhead and underground lines. When it comes to solar, Kelly Electric and Constellation have worked together on multiple D.C.- and Baltimore-area projects.
According to Robert Flottemesch, a Constellation senior project engineer, the company values contractors whose staff and management are sensitive to customer needs. That’s exemplified in solar projects at schools where the work on-site must accommodate students, staff and the activities around the typical academic year.
The company also looks for safety-focused contractors, since a high percentage of the work is performed on rooftops. While the jobs are often scheduled during summer months, they can take place all year round, and contractors need to be able to work safely in the winter weather.
Constellation has installations at government buildings, in the education sector and on other commercial projects. In the past few years, Kelly Electric installed three solar power systems with Constellation—two at area schools and one at a federal government building, said Chad Pringle, Kelly Electric project manager.
The companies’ solar work at one D.C. high school featured a new construction with a three-faceted solution and multiple solar module arrays: one ballasted system, a conventional rooftop on the parking canopy and an installation over the gymnasium and pool.
One purpose for three different solar installation types was to showcase the different methods that can be used to produce solar power for the city school systems, said Mike Farrell, Kelly Electric’s vice president of construction.
On Kelly Electric’s side, coordination with the roofer involved ensuring each solar component was approved for their product. The architect had designed the system to meet a specific capacity the design team had to meet, as well, Justice said.
Scheduling may have been the primary challenge. When it comes to K–12 installations, electricians have narrow windows in which to work—only when the building is unoccupied.
Time is always a challenge, Justice said, and it definitely was in the case of this school. Although it was a new construction, there was a hard deadline of the first day of school. All solar-power installations needed to be in before school opened, which included ensuring the lifting of materials could be done even while other construction contractors were building the facility.
When it comes to rooftop work, the planning and work is done with one eye on the weather.
“We had to install the solar panels and components to the roof in the winter months,” Farrell said.
Electricians had to remove ice and slush from the roof surface to ensure a dry application, then wait for the temperature to rise enough to apply the thin film. The carport panels also called for some specialized planning before the installation. In fact, the construction team used scaffolding both for reach and protection of the roof. Because the roof was separated into three areas, access to some sections wasn’t always available.
“We were only able to access the roof from two points per the job-site rules,” Farrell said. “The scaffolding helped enable electricians to cross between roofs to install the ballasted product.”
Once finished, the high school was the first in Washington, D.C., to derive energy from solar panels, using the 463-kilowatt (kW) rooftop system. The solar work helped the school achieve LEED certification. A total of 1,940 solar PV panels were installed.
Another project involved solar PV installation at an existing high school. Henderson-Hopkins is an East Baltimore school operated by the Johns Hopkins University School of Education. The 178-kW DC solar power installation—taking place during the school year—consists of two systems: a rooftop and parking lot canopy. To ensure the parking area would be clear of construction material and workers when students returned to school, Kelly Electric worked on the parking lot canopy first.
Once school was in session, Kelly Electric continued to work on the rooftop array but were limited to low-noise operations within restricted hours. Narrow streets caused some short-term road closures while stocking the solar materials on the roof.
The completed system includes more than 600 PV panels covering about 10 percent of the building’s roof as well as shading over about 29 parking spaces. The amount of energy generated from the solar project helped Henderson-Hopkins avoid the release of 350,000 pounds of carbon emissions, according to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates.
In the past few years, Kelly Electric and Constellation have also worked together on a federal building that posed a very different set of challenges. The two companies teamed up to install a solar power system that would provide electricity from a renewable source to the building. Here, as with most government projects, security was paramount. Workers typically require a high security clearance to enter the property and access the building itself.
“Contractors need background checks, including the subcontractors,” Flottemesch said. “The security side is a big piece, and you have to be mindful of it as you consider the timeline.”
Security often pushes out deadlines as workers wait for their paperwork to be processed.
“Kelly [Electric] had a lot of authorized folks,” Justice said. “That tends to make the process move more seamlessly.”
“[Even after passing background checks], escorts were required to move throughout the building,” Pringle said. However, work site escorts were rarely on time to the job and were mandated several breaks through the day.
It’s a matter of securing who is on-site as well as the materials that come with them. Getting tools and materials into the site required an extensive inspection process. Getting lifting equipment on the roofs of such a building requires another security clearance, which can lead to red tape delays as contractors await approval.
Leaving phones and cameras behind
Nothing that could record or take pictures was permitted inside the fence line, so cell phones were left outside.
While contractors have become increasingly accustomed to working with drawings on tablets and constant access to data and personnel through their smartphones, that is not possible on secure sites. There, Justice said, it’s still all paper-based, since digital tools such as smartphones were absent.While a perimeter facility may have Wi-Fi access, that access vanishes once workers enter the work site itself.
Working around the restrictions required some other old-school accommodations. The crews were provided with two-way radios to use for communication. One radio was always in the construction trailer located outside the fence so that Kelly Electric could contact personnel inside the fence.
This could be a challenge if Pringle wasn’t on-site when crews radioed the trailer.
“This didn’t help much if I was at my office as I wasn’t on-site every day,” he said. “My foreman and I had a call everyday as they exited for lunch. We would also discuss job issues before and after work hours.”
If there was a pressing need, the foreman would be escorted outside the fence line to make a phone call.
Constellation and Kelly Electric also held weekly site meetings to ensure the project was proceeding according to plans. Pringle also made random site visits to evaluate progress and ensure quality work was being produced.
At all the projects, safety was paramount, Flottemesch said. That’s a priority shared by Kelly Electric. To accomplish the same level of safety at every site, Kelly Electric has a full-time safety director who makes random job inspections and is available to address any safety concerns that arise.
Kelly Electric mandates 100 percent hard-hat, high-visibility safety vests or t-shirts, as well as safety glasses and cut-resistant gloves for all tasks. Additional safety equipment is required to protect from falls while working on roofs. Electrocution safety equipment is also required when opening any disconnect panel or switchgear covers. Also, all equipment operators are trained and licensed on the equipment they are operating.
These specialized projects will continue to be a source of work for Kelly Electric and Constellation in the future.