Preparing for a Site Walk: Interview with Project Developer Cameron Thorne

One of Borrego Solar’s most experienced project developers, Cameron Thorne, answers our questions about how customers can get the most out of their solar site walk.

What is the purpose and format of a solar site walk?

The purpose of a site walk is first and foremost for the customer to meet the solar developer and convey their overarching goals for the project and how they got to this point. It’s typically an opportunity for customers to convey more of the background associated with the project, their formal and informal goals, and to engage in a productive question and answer session. This process helps the developer assemble a better proposal that will better accomplish the customer’s true goals.

At Borrego, we want to hear from whomever has a stake in the project—such as the head of facilities or the sustainability officer—about what they are expecting from us and what their chief concerns may be. The site walk typically begins with a discussion and then moves to actually touring the site.

The primary goal of the site tour is for a solar developer to review the proposed location where the solar arrays will be installed and any adjacent facilities or utility infrastructure. We look for obstructions or shading issues and considerations for ADA compliance if the installation will be over a parking lot. Similarly, if the installation will be a ground-mount, we look at the soil, terrain and quality. If we’re installing on a roof, we’ll look at the condition of the roof, make an initial structural assessment, and consider potential array tilt angle azimuths.

The last item we examine in detail is the potential point of interconnection: where the project will tie-in with the existing utility grid. This is an essential part of determining feasibility.

At what point in the process does the solar site walk happen?

We can do about 80% of the site discovery process using satellite imagery, so by the time the site walk happens we can focus on getting familiar with the more nuanced aspects of the facility and focus more on customer goals for the project. The site walk doesn’t have to be a part of the initial meeting, but can be hosted after an initial project feasibility analysis has been performed. Typically solar site walks are conducted after an RFP has been issued.

Should solar site walks be a mandatory part of the RFP process?

I think so, even though it’s not always done that way. If a bidder is committed and serious enough to make the trip out to the proposed project site, that’s a good indicator of a solar firm being serious about the project. About 80% of the time it is a requirement.

Who is responsible for managing the solar site walk?

The solar site walk is usually led by the customer representative who is most likely going to manage the solar project and is invested in a successful outcome. For larger customers, that person is often the head of the facilities department. That person will sometimes work in tandem with a representative from the procurement or contracts team. Developers often need to access the electrical switch gear, which is usually locked up, so customers should be mindful to include someone on their end who can navigate all areas of the facility for the bidders.

Who from the entity and solar firms should be there?

From the solar firms’ perspective, the project developer and sometimes an applications engineer. It’s ultimately up to each firm whom they choose to send.

What documents or materials should an entity have available for the solar firms?

Either at the site walk or shortly following, the customer should provide an electronic version of the site drawings, especially the electrical single line drawings. The drawings, combined with the facility site walk process and discussion with stakeholders, enables the developers to flush out that last 20% of the analysis we need to put an accurate proposal and scope of work together.

What are best practices of conducting a solar site walk?

From a developer standpoint, we put a lot of value on being able to get our questions answered during the visit. However, some entities limit the dialogue to email so they can record what is being conveyed to the bidders. In these cases, entities will allow developers to do the site walk but don’t necessarily answer verbal questions. This is a lost opportunity. The best site walks are transparent and encourage as much dialogue as possible. We understand that clients often cannot provide final responses verbally, but the natural back and forth while touring a site provides invaluable project information.

The customer should try to encourage attendance from whomever on their side will be working on the project or making decisions regarding the project. It not only ensures bidders get their questions answered, but it can save the customer time in reviewing RFP responses and questions. By including all key customer stakeholders, alternate opinions about timing, primary objectives, site access, etc., can be brought to light. It could also happen that we ask important questions that the customer hasn’t thought about before or concerned themselves with, providing greater value to the customer.

In general, the solar procurement process is very different from other areas of a business. Most people haven’t gone through the installation of a large commercial solar project before, and there is inherently a steep learning curve. The customer can climb this curve faster and avoid some pitfalls by encouraging an open dialogue early on, especially during the solar site walks.

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