Implementing a solar energy project has many legs and can move in many directions. However, guidance, development of the project, the site, and goals need to be set well before actual work can be done.

Planning can help a facility carry out the solar implementation project, but facility managers should also look for innovative ways to aggregate procurements to benefit from economies of scale and to reduce transaction costs.

Federal agencies, for example, are moving toward solar power capabilities, as are private organizations. But no matter the agency or sector, interest is there for generating solar plans. Solar power implementation is often motivated by sustainability targets, reducing long-term energy costs, and leading by example in the transition to a clean energy economy.

To facilitate that goal, the U.S. Department of Energy has published guidance for implementing solar power in its report, “Procuring Solar Energy: A Guide for Federal Facility Decision Makers.” While designed for federal agencies, the guide provides ample information to help the private sector make the move to solar power.

The methods for procuring solar energy evolve rapidly, ranging from direct purchases to more sophisticated long-term agreements. Technology improvements, cost reductions and experienced project developers make solar projects easier to put into service.

That said, for agencies and organizations that want to pursue solar, the recommended first step is to determine preliminary solar potential by conducting a solar site screening or a screening that identifies the best solar project sites.

The initial process includes project planning to identify identification of needs and goals; assembling an on-site team; evaluating the site’s solar screening, project requirements and recommendations; and making a financing and contracting decision.

Step 1: Identify Needs and Goals

Several common reasons for considering a solar project include meeting renewable energy targets; meeting site needs; energy cost savings; and a reduction of energy cost volatility and uncertainty, among other reasons.

Whatever the want, define the need. “Solar should be part of a broader vision of whole systems design for buildings and sites,” the Department of Energy says in its guide.

Potential goals or criteria of the project include:

  • Maximizing on-site solar energy production;
  • Maximizing the return on investment; and
  • Meeting a minimum annual solar energy production target.

Goals could adjust or change as the project develops but should be at the forefront of decision-making.

Step 2: Assemble an on-site team

Assembling the team is an important second step. Who will lead what and when? How are facilities affected throughout the project?

The team is important not only for getting the work done, but also for making sure that all issues are considered and addressed before they become problems. Even small oversights can be costly in terms of dollars and time and can even result in a failure to accomplish project goals.

Goals can adjust with team input, but if any member does not buy into the process, the process is likely to go astray. The initial solar project team might be small and include only those members relevant to the immediate task and can grow as needed. Or, from inception, the team can include everyone who has a stake in the project process. This decision should be based on best judgment and staff availability.

Also consider selecting a contracting officer and legal advisor because a project push through ambiguous areas of the procurement process may be required. After the team is assembled, its roles, responsibilities, and timelines should be established. Scheduling periodic meetings will keep the project moving forward on track.

Step 3: Evaluate solar sites

The Department of Energy recommends two levels of solar site evaluation: First, a project solar screening — a high-level analysis to determine a site’s likely viability, and, second, a project solar feasibility study, which is a rigorous engineering and economic analysis to define specific system design considerations for use in requests for proposals and/or scope of work development.

Develop the Scope of Work

The scope of work becomes the basis for the project plan. Using the design-bid-build method, the scope of work is built around a complete design and specification of the system, a prescriptive approach to the project.

The project’s solar feasibility study should provide the basis for the project’s scope of work. The statement of work should include:

  • Location on-site
  • Performance specification (or project design in the case of design-bid-build)
  • Specific site requirements
  • Type of solar system

Design the Project

After the contract is awarded, the project design phase begins. The design parameters that the system designer will work within should be clear from the project plan. The design kick-off should confirm these design parameters for all parties.

“It is recommended that design reviews be performed by a third-party, qualified solar-design expert at 25 percent, 50 percent and 100 percent design completion, to confirm that site requirements are met,” the Department of Energy guide points out. “When utility interconnection agreements are part of the project, it is recommended that the utility also reviews and approves the project design. If the design-bid-build contract type is employed, then the system design already has been completed.”

Construct the Project

The actual construction of the project typically is not much different from a standard mechanical electrical construction project with some room for variation as needed. Varying levels of involvement may be required because of the electrical-generation components, but this should not be a problem if the utility has been involved with the project from its early stages and has approved the plan.

If the team stays involved, and the project stays on plan and budget, reaching culmination should be relatively straightforward. Managing a tight budget and staying involved with any compliance issues that may arise, construction of the project should be one of the easier components of the overall project.

For additional information about installing solar, consider consulting the Department of Energy guide or begin conversations with your local utility.