With so many states prioritizing renewable energy goals, solar development has seen a boom in recent years. But while it may seem like more and more solar farms are popping up overnight, the process of building a farm is actually pretty complex. It can take years to go from original design to fully operational farm. Community solar subscribers are probably familiar with these long timelines as there is often a delay after signing up before a farm starts producing solar credits.
How long does it take to build a solar farm?
The answer is that it varies. Some projects take longer than others due to several factors including contract negotiations, inclement weather, and delays in connecting the farm to the electrical grid. On average, the entire process takes 2-3 years—though it is not uncommon for it to take up to almost 5 years. For simplicity, let’s break the process down into three main phases:
Phase 1: Land acquisition, initial design, and permitting (1 - 4 years)
The first step is to find a suitable location for solar arrays. Using land surveys and geospatial data, our site acquisition team locates public parcels, private farms, commercial buildings, and parking lots that meet the criteria for solar development. Primarily we look for areas that are big enough to accommodate a solar farm, require minimal disturbance to existing land use or ecological function, and are close to existing electrical grid systems.
Once BlueWave has identified a suitable location, our project development team will create a preliminary design for the farm. Concurrently, we negotiate lease terms with the property owner to get site control and seek regulatory permits for construction. Altogether, phase I is a lengthy process because it can take a while to receive the proper permits and reach a lease agreement with the landowner.
Phase 2: Engineering, Procurement, and Construction (6 - 10 months)
Once our development team has site control and the proper permits in place, we begin looking for an engineering, procurement, and construction (EPC) contractor. EPCs play a crucial role in making solar farms a reality as they are ultimately responsible for engineering the site and building the solar farm. More specifically, EPCs are responsible for:
- Providing a construction schedule
- Engineering a solar farm design to complement project needs/viability
- Procuring equipment
- Constructing the solar farm
- Interconnecting to the grid
We receive proposals from a number of EPCs and select the one that most closely meets the needs of the particular project. Once signed, BlueWave will hand the project over to the selected EPC to begin construction.
Importantly, it is also during this time that BlueWave will begin to sign up community solar subscribers for the solar farm. Having a solid subscriber base gives state regulators, utilities, and project investors confidence that the farm will be a viable community solar project.
With the EPC and some initial subscribers on board, construction is ready to begin. The first step is preparing the site which includes:
- Setting up erosion control measures
- Building stormwater management controls
- Preparing facilities for workers including office trailers, storage containers, and porta-potties.
- Removing large boulders and sometimes trees (don’t worry, they plant seedlings later to maintain the ecological merit of the land!)
Once these preliminary steps are completed, the EPC can start driving posts into the ground, setting the foundation for the racking. With these foundations in place, it’s time for the panels. Crews can typically install 800-900 panels per day depending on weather and the size of the construction team. On average, a 5-megawatt community solar farm will have 12,000 panels, though that number can vary depending on the size and wattage of the panels. That means it typically takes between 12 and 15 days just to get all the panels in place. Overall construction typically takes 4-6 months.
With the panels in place, the solar farm will begin to look like the finished product. However, there are still a few more steps left before clean energy starts flowing to the grid. The construction crew also needs to make sure the proper infrastructure is in place to connect the solar farm to the grid. This process is called interconnection.
Phase 3: Interconnection (2 - 12 months)
Interconnection kicks off concurrently with engineering, procurement, and construction and runs throughout the entire process. After our development team signs a lease agreement with the landowner, we begin to work with the local utility to ensure that the proper infrastructure is in place to connect the new solar farm to the electricity grid. In recent years, this process has taken a bit longer due to transmission studies conducted by utilities—essentially, utilities need to make sure that the grid can handle the added electricity without being overwhelmed.
Much of the interconnection work happens during construction. Depending on the necessary upgrades to the grid, this phase includes:
- Conducting studies to determine the impact of adding more solar to the grid
- Digging trenches for underground wiring
- Installing electricity poles
- Upgrading the substation or even building a new one
- Performing tests once the farm is complete
The interconnection phase is often where we see the greatest variation in expected timelines. While some solar farms can be interconnected quickly, others may take much longer depending on their location and the upgrades that need to be made to the grid infrastructure to handle the added electricity. Utilities play a big role in the interconnection process, and timelines are often impacted by their availability.
Once the new farm has been properly interconnected, the local utility will conduct several tests to make sure that everything is running properly. If all goes according to plan, then the farm finally reaches PTO: permission to operate. This is when the farm officially can start adding clean energy to the grid! Assuming there aren’t any glitches, community solar subscribers will begin to see solar credits on their utility bills shortly after.
BlueWave is committed to building solar projects that adhere to local, state, and federal building guidelines, but also go a step further to reduce the environmental and ecological impacts of construction. We work hard to select sites that will have the least amount of impact on current land function and work closely with EPCs and other partners to mitigate impacts. In many cases, our project development team will design farms that can even improve the agricultural and ecological quality of the land. When possible, the construction crew will seed and green the site to promote pollinator habitat and increase ecological diversity. Owners will often look to have additional ecological enhancements like sheep grazing on site in lieu of mowers. For projects built on farmland, we’ll work closely with the landowner to accommodate crop cultivation and other grazing activities. We call this sustainable approach to development “dual-use,” because in addition to producing clean energy, our projects provide benefits to the environment.
When appropriate and viable these dual-use measures will be implemented once the project is up and running. Most notably, this sustainable approach to development is gaining traction in Massachusetts – you can check out some examples here and here.
How do project timelines impact community solar subscribers?
In short, solar credits will not be added to your utility bill until after your project reaches PTO. And even after PTO, there may be a month or two delay depending on your utility’s billing cycle. As a community solar subscriber, this can mean a long wait time between sign up and savings. You can always check the status of your project on the customer portal, and BlueWave will regularly send email updates.
BlueWave will begin signing up community solar subscribers while the project is in the initial stages of engineering, procurement, and construction. It’s important to remember that the reason we sign customers up for projects so early in the process is because it gives state regulators, utilities, and investors confidence that the project will have the subscriber base needed to be a viable community solar project. It is because of your early support that solar developers can build more solar projects around the region and continue to add solar to our electrical grid. When you sign up for community solar, you’re providing an immediate and meaningful impact. And the benefits will come back to you in the form of solar credits, just a few months later.