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It Takes a Village:
Collaboration, Tenacity, and Creative Problem Solving in Utility-Scale Solar Development

November 13, 2017

By Mike Walters

Developing utility-scale solar projects is inherently complex. That was especially true for the Gulf Coast Solar Center, a massive 120 MWac portfolio spread across three Navy and Air Force sites in the Florida Panhandle. As the person responsible for leading the project’s development efforts, I learned two big lessons: 1) the importance of cross-department and cross-organizational collaboration to achieve success, and 2) the power of tenacity and creativity in problem solving to make great projects happen.

The GCSC portfolio spans more than 1,000 acres and was unlike anything else I had developed before. The challenges that occurred throughout development were numerous and often substantial, exacerbated by the sheer size and scale of the projects and the extensive federal and state regulatory oversight required. From lease clauses with the DoD that made financing inherently complex, to environmentally protected species requiring extensive monitoring and mitigation, one development hurdle after another seemed to impede the entire portfolio. There were certainly days when I wondered if the projects would ever come to fruition.

After initially trying to resolve many of the early obstacles on my own (and enjoying very little, if any, progress), I began to realize that these challenges could only be overcome with something both simple in concept yet complex in its execution – genuine teamwork. I did not possess the experience and expertise to navigate such a multi-faceted, high stakes portfolio of projects; no one person did. A vigorous collaboration process—and a commitment to tenacious and creative problem solving—would be necessary to ensure the GCSC portfolio’s success. A regulatory/permitting “SNAFU” with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) provides an illustrative case in point.

When Aviation Restrictions Threaten a Solar Array

In early 2016, nearly two years into the development of the portfolio, Coronal received unexpected and potentially catastrophic news from the FAA: the development and construction of our proposed 50 MWac project at the Naval Outlying Landing Field (NOLF) Saufley site could not proceed as designed. NOLF Saufley is an active military installation with old, disused runways that would host row upon row of solar panels, and in an adjacent field, there were still in-use radar and other aviation navigation equipment. An FAA technical analysis suggested that a significant section of our proposed solar facility and transmission line at NOLF Saufley would adversely impact the aviation navigation equipment.

Significantly reducing the project’s system size and relocating the transmission line underground to avoid any interference with the aviation navigation equipment were simply not economically viable options. Without any obvious solutions after weeks of investigation, the largest project site within the GCSC portfolio was destined to fail. Or so it seemed.

Getting Creative to Solve a Seemingly Intractable Problem

With little optimism about finding a viable solution to the FAA issue at NOLF Saufley, I turned to the various members of the project team for their feedback. Fully invested at this point in the project’s life, the team was hungry to problem solve. Ideas began to flow: was the FAA’s technical analysis the final word, or were there other perspectives on the array’s potential impact? Could the transmission line structures be re-designed to eliminate any adverse impacts to the aviation navigation equipment while remaining above ground? Was there additional acreage on site to relocate the PV array, and could we obtain the necessary easements required to possibly re-route the project’s transmission line? What were the repercussions of any potential revision to the design and location of the project from a permitting, interconnection, cost and schedule perspective? As the project team brainstormed amongst one another, potential solutions grew into real possibilities.

Every member of the project team weighed in on the issue given the complexity of the problem and the fact that no component of the project was immune to its impact. Collaboration became the watch word. We collaborated with a team of internal and external electrical engineers to revise the PV array design and transmission line structures. We collaborated with real estate experts from the U.S. Navy and the interconnecting utility to identify expansion land that would preserve the original system size, as well as additional easements for an alternative transmission line corridor. We collaborated directly with the FAA and federal aviation permitting consultants to understand the scope of the problem from a technical perspective and how we could mitigate the impacts. We collaborated with attorneys and permitting experts to understand the legal feasibility and impacts of any potential solution. And we collaborated with our finance team to determine whether a potential solution would be economically feasible.

A Pathway to Success

Ultimately, over the course of countless e-mails, conference calls, in-person meetings, and consultations, a solution was agreed upon that would preserve the project’s original system size, location, and economics, while securing the approval of the FAA. Aerial images of the array today evidence part of the solution: a radius of module-free land surrounding the aviation navigation equipment.

In the end, a slight modification to the project layout and a revision to the project’s transmission line quite literally saved the largest project in this groundbreaking portfolio. While the solution may sound simple on paper, reaching it required dozens of concept iterations across six months, and a team of collaborators both inside and outside our company that was multi-disciplined, multi-agency, and diverse in nature. It also required an endless supply of tenacity, creativity, and teamwork.

Obstacles like the one we faced with the FAA at Saufley Field exemplify the “never give up” attitude and collaborative approach necessary to develop utility-scale solar projects, where the margin for error is often quite small and the challenges faced are often bigger than any one person can overcome.

As I set my sites on Coronal Energy’s next fleet of solar development projects, I look forward to engaging with our project teams to overcome whatever future obstacles we might face. The success of our projects depends on it.

Mike Walters is a Director of Project Development at Coronal Energy.  Mike led the development efforts of the Gulf Coast Solar Center portfolio from its inception in early 2014 through the conclusion in late 2017. The three-project portfolio is amongst the largest solar installations on military bases in the world.


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