|Combating Elements, N.Y. Members Build
East Coast's Largest Solar Farm
While millions of Big Apple residents endured the bitter nor'easters and massive snowfall that snared traffic and knocked out power two winters ago, scores of Long Island, N.Y., Local 25 electricians were laying the groundwork that will finally harness the energy of brighter skies ahead.
Dozens of members finished the last hook-ups on a vast new solar array spanning 200 acres on east Long Island. Nestled within the thick foliage neighboring the U.S. Department of Energy's Brookhaven National Laboratory — a preeminent science research facility that studies physics, energy and the environment — Long Island Solar Farm is the largest in the eastern U.S. and dwarfs other installations in the Empire State. Now pumping out 32 megawatts of power, the plant will offer carbon-free energy to more than 4,500 homes year round. Constructed in partnership with the Department of Energy, the farm will also provide scientists with unique research opportunities.
More than 180 journeyman wiremen and apprentices working for signatory contractor Hawkeye LLC installed more than 164,000 photovoltaic panels in an environmentally protected wetland and forest outcropping near Brookhaven's labs. The $124 million project was a boon to the local's membership, who logged tens of thousands of man-hours.
"It's a delicate area, and we couldn't just go in and level the ground to get the panels uniformly lined up," said Local 25 member Bob Kenney, who worked as general foreman from the job's groundbreaking in fall 2010 until completion last October. "We needed to be very careful and maintain the existing contours of the earth."
To do this, survey crews used computer-aided GPS systems to individually drill posts for each panel. The IBEW team then began the painstaking, meticulous work of installing acres of underground conduit, assembling panels and running thousands of miles of wire to connect the arrays to separate substations before being plugged into Long Island's power grid.
"Overcoming some of the harshest weather conditions last year made this project a real challenge," Kenney said. Fighting nearly two feet of snowfall and digging trenches through 18-inch-thick ice, members also persevered through the fallout after Hurricane Irene, which felled trees and wreaked havoc on the site.
Once weather improved, members stepped up efforts and pulled weeks of overtime to bring the farm online — on time and within budget.
"We got the wrong winter to do this," Kenney said. "It was a sloppy mess with the rain and snow." To make up for lost time, the crew's typical schedule was to work five 10-hour days per week, then six days toward the end.
But with completion came pride. "For me, it was the best thing I ever did," said Kenney, a 14-year member.
Sealing the Deal
Long Island Solar Farm was built through a partnership between BP Solar, the Long Island Power Authority and the U.S. Department of Energy. Hawkeye LLC was able to secure a successful bid thanks in part to effective marketing from Local 25's leadership.
"When BP was getting ready to announce the details of the project, they came to Long Island to do some promotion," Local 25 Business Manager Kevin Harvey said. "They were selling the plan to local politicians and people in the industry." Harvey connected with BP's project manager and later began an e-mail dialogue to promote the IBEW's skill in spearheading large-scale jobs.
Hawkeye's track record edged out the competition. "When you take on a 32-megawatt project, there aren't a lot of people who can do it," Harvey said. "Our contractor had more than ample manpower and ability to do the job. We've built generating stations and switchyards, so BP felt good about going with us."
At the same time, Harvey and other business managers across the state are working with local officials to try to pass a bill that would give companies building solar arrays a renewable energy tax credit to encourage more clean energy development. Harvey said it would be a win-win for cash-strapped municipalities and companies expanding into solar.
"The state is looking for revenue, and investors are looking to invest," Harvey said. "To give companies who are promoting green energy more of an incentive would be icing on the cake for their businesses. We've had some productive discussions in the last year, and we're working on it on a regular basis."
Huge Project, Tiny Footprint
Estimates suggest that the green energy generated at Long Island Solar Farm will reduce pollutants by 30,000 metric tons each year by displacing other forms of electricity generation. Brookhaven and the Department of Energy have also committed to preserving nearly 3,000 acres of sensitive forest nearby, improving conditions for rare local species.
While IBEW members were on the job, neighboring wetland areas were left untouched and construction activities were timed to reduce disturbance to birds and wildlife. All this helped contribute to the effort winning the "Best Photovoltaic Project of the Year" from the New York Solar Energy Industries Association by using construction practices that sustain the environment.
From Hardhats to Lab Coats
In addition to providing green power, the solar farm offers a brain-twisting homework project for scientists at Brookhaven who are studying how to pump solar energy from various sources into the grid.
"For the past 100 years or so, electricity has been generated at large centralized power sources, such as dams and power plants, and then delivered to customers through the existing distribution grid of transformers, power lines, etc.," wrote scientist Pat Looney, chair of the Sustainable Energy Technology department at Brookhaven, in a recent blog post. "With solar energy sources as large as the [new farm] and as small as arrays installed on roofs of homes, electricity from multiple power sources is now being integrated into that same grid, and the impacts of integrating this distributed generation are not well understood." Data culled from the solar farm will help researchers develop methods to address this challenge, he writes.
Another practical piece of research will focus on solar's reliability. Many factors — how bright the sun is shining or whether there is cloud cover, for example — determine how much energy the PV panels generate. As a result, solar-powered generation can be fickle and "[t]hese fluctuations could adversely affect the electric grid," Looney states. "With innovations and upgrades developed as a result of our … observations, we want to make the grid and the electricity it provides as efficient, secure and resilient as possible."
'The Work Force of Choice'
The success and positive community attention the project has generated spells more jobs for Local 25 members, as more and more solar ventures come their way.
Members will be expanding on the large Brookhaven array by constructing smaller sites nearby strictly for scientists to use for experiments to develop new technologies.
"Local 25 has a good relationship with the Department of Energy, positioning us as the work force of choice for solar in the area," Harvey said. "They know that we're a good fit for this type of construction."
The local — which is working closely with another renewable energy developer, enXco — is also installing another 18-megawatt series of arrays over county parking lots. It's a job that members might not have gotten without Long Island Solar Farm being on Local 25's résumé.
"We're taking unused space and using it to produce green energy," Harvey said.
For Kenney, the general foreman, the Brookhaven project offered a steep learning curve that he says will give him the tools to tackle challenging solar jobs in the future.
"Prior to this I'd done converter stations, commercial buildings, schools and other sites," he said. "When I was gearing up for this big job, I did a ton of reading and research. You always want to do the project right the first time.
"Now that we have this under our belt," he said, "there isn't anything that Local 25 electricians can't handle."