As solar technology continues to become more efficient, construction of solar plants is expanding rapidly around the world, including in colder environments that, in the past, may have lacked the irradiance necessary to make solar feasible. Installation of solar panels north of the frost line creates some additional risks that solar developers, owners and contractors should consider. We have recapped some of those concerns below.
- Who carries the subsurface risk and what does that risk extend to?
- Post-driving in northern climates requires attention to the “heave,” or the impact of frost expansion of soils during winter months on the driven piles that support the panels. Frost expansion can cause uplift and sinking of piles that create serious warranty issues after a plant is operational, and, because the cause of the warranty issue occurs underground, it may be difficult to ascertain or assign responsibility after-the-fact. Parties can and should work together to define and assign this risk during contract negotiations to avoid unnecessary and potentially expensive disputes during a project and after completion.
- Who is responsible for weather impacts and how will weather delays be addressed?
- In many construction contracts, the notice to proceed date is left to the discretion of the owner/developer once the contract price and scope have been negotiated. Contractors and subcontractors should be wary of an open-ended NTP date or any kind of protracted negotiation after the award of a bid in regions that suffer from early-onset, harsh and lengthy winters.
- Solar contractors, in particular, focus on creating efficiencies and managing a compressed schedule to make the work profitable. The manufacturing-like process of solar farm construction demands that contractors maintain a high level of productivity to achieve project goals. If a contractor allows owner-financing or material availability concerns to push its NTP date into late summer or fall in a colder climate, the contractor may be vulnerable to winter weather impacts that could cripple its productivity, spelling disaster for a project.
- For example, frost penetration can make malleable soil take on rock-like qualities and seriously hamper pile-driving operations. Similarly, installation of racking and panels in sub-freezing temperature may require additional equipment/materials to keep laborers warm and may require more skilled or expensive labor to work productively in such harsh environments. Even where construction is completed before winter sets in, a contractor should consider potential impacts weather may have on testing requirements. For instance, a contractor may have difficulty demonstrating required performance standards if panels are covered with snow for prolonged periods.
- To account for winter weather impacts, a savvy contractor will look for additional protection beyond the standard force majeure language that may appear in many contract forms. Force majeure provisions do not always cover weather impacts that are ordinary or expected for a particular climate even if such conditions are typically harsh or difficult. Instead, a contractor should look for additional protection by addressing winter weather impacts and delays separately and clearly assigning responsibility for associated costs to the appropriate party.
- The contractor, to the extent it will rely on subcontractors for any of the work, must clearly understand what that entity believes is “winter work,” before agreeing to definitions or relief with the owner/developer.
There are obviously other considerations that solar industry participants should evaluate when pursuing work in cold weather climates. But the above examples may encourage you to think more deliberately about the various unforeseen issues that might arise. And, indeed, regardless of where you are pursuing new work, it is always a valuable exercise to consider potential environmental impacts, especially in a marketplace with a fast-expanding footprint like solar energy.