Texas solar project spurs local workforce development

Credit: McCarthy Building Cos.

It takes many hands to turn a utility-scale solar developer’s vision into reality. For some projects, this may mean that hundreds of workers have to be on site at the same time.

When a region does not have a qualified labor pool to build a project, there is always the option of job training. Such was the case for Elm Branch, a 163 MW solar power project in Ennis, Texas, a community 40 miles south of Dallas, developed by Light source bp and built by McCarthy Building Cos

McCarthy has led job training programs on previous solar projects, but Elm Branch was unique for one reason: 20% of the workforce was represented by military veterans.

Building a regional solar workforce

For Elm Branch, McCarthy recruited 250 construction workers, mostly from the local job pool. Of the 250 workers, 50 . were military veterans who have undergone solar orbit training before going to work.

McCarthy collaborated with Adaptive building solutions (ACS), a Texas-based, veteran-run construction curriculum program, to recruit the veterans. The two-week classroom course that followed covered topics such as the basics of solar and renewable energy construction and certifications for safety, first aid and forklift operations.

“But they really teach them about all aspects and what they’re going to do on the site so that when they come to the job they have that experience and that expectation of what they’re going to be working on,” said Dave Wallace, McCarthy’s project director.

Then, when on site, the interns work with construction inspectors and crew to build the array. Wallace said there is more assurance in the quality of the hire when working with military veterans.

Veteran contractors hired to build the Elm Branch solar project. McCarthy Building Cos.

“They’re used to working in a team, they’re used to taking orders, they’re used to figuring out how to complete a mission,” he said. “Then they all have extreme leadership capacities. So we see those guys elevate themselves to crew leader and foreman positions much faster than we do with someone we just hired off the street.

McCarthy runs this type of job training program for every job, with the intent of creating more qualified workers for the solar industry.

“We’re starting to build this more formal program, and when you put people through a formal program, they get a diploma at the end – they get the clarity that they’ve learned skills and are able to use that in their next job,” said Scott Canada, executive VP of renewable energy and business unit leader at McCarthy. “Hopefully it’s a McCarthy job, but if they even decide to go to one of our competitors, they’ll have something specific there that they can show that they have a career path.”

McCarthy retained several hired veterans of the Elm Branch project who have already gone on to travel for other projects. The company tries to retain at least 20 of its best interns from each job to become teachers and trainers for the next project.

“For us, one of the big challenges in solar energy — and it’s a good challenge — but you’re hiring a very large workforce,” Canada said. “So we’re going to have about 1,800 artisans on McCarthy’s solar jobs this year. You are usually quite remote. In this case we are close to Dallas but you are definitely on the outskirts, and to have the maximum economic impact for the area and get the job done we tend to hire local people and we tend to hire people to assume that did not have a long history in the construction industry.”

Growing elm branch

The Elm Branch project arose from a request for proposals from L3Harris Technologies, a defense contractor based in Melbourne, Florida. Lightsource bp presented the Elm Branch project and L3Harris agreed to a 100 MW power purchase agreement, which provided the funding to initiate array construction.

Lightsource hired McCarthy to handle engineering, procurement and construction services for this Elm Branch project and its sister project Briar Creek. After approximately 18 months of development, construction on Elm Branch began in January 2021 and was completed in November of that year.

An aerial view of ACS employees at the Elm Branch solar project. McCarthy Building Cos.

Like the staff, many of Elm Branch’s solar components are locally sourced. The project uses single-axis trackers from Array Technologies of Albuquerque, New Mexico; TMEIC inverters assembled in the Houston area and panels manufactured a little further afield – by First Solar in Ohio.

Elm Branch was installed on cultivated grassland, which came with a construction challenge: the clay soil made the yard slippery after rain and it took at least two days to dry out. Due to the location and size of the site, the crews were transported by buggies. It was difficult to receive material shipments when the site was wet.

“That was our biggest challenge, being able to receive modules and all deliveries on site when we had those conditions,” said Wallace.

A month after construction began, most of the state’s electrical grid was shut down due to winter storm Uri. Many Texans were without power for several days during the strongest winter storm the state had seen in a century, and construction on Elm Branch accordingly halted during that time.

“Apart from a 100-year winter storm and a pandemic, everything went pretty smoothly,” Smith said.

Lightsource bp leases the land as part of its solar projects for 25 to 30 years. With that in mind, Lightsource and McCarthy conducted regenerative practices on Elm Branch, sowing native seed crops to promote soil health and encourage pollinator activity. They have also introduced sheep from a neighboring farm to graze the grounds and preserve the vegetation.

Choices such as hiring and training locally and using land management best practices will have long-term implications for the Ennis community.

“We’re an employee-owned company, so it’s amazing how proud they are when we can go home and say, ‘I grew up in the Dallas area, my parents regularly travel to the Ennis area,’” Canada said. “There’s a certain pride that comes from figuring out how to do it right and solve the problem better.”

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