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Swinerton goes big on solar-plus-storage, navigates Biden and unions

The president of the top U.S. solar engineering, procurement and construction firm talks to Canary about labor, unions, diversity and zip ties.
By Eric Wesoff

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When 130-year-old construction firm Swinerton shifted into the renewable energy business during the financial crisis of 2008, it was with the hope that it could temporarily reposition its workforce until it could start building high-rises again,” according to George Hershman, president and first employee of Swinerton Renewable Energy.

Now, in a long-boom utility solar market, SRE has secured the ranking of the No. 1 solar engineering, procurement and construction outfit in the United States, according to IHS Markit (No. 2 according to Solar Power World). SRE installed about 1 gigawatt in 2019.

We look at a solar project as somewhere between warfare logistics (with thousands of people and trucks driving into the middle of nowhere) and a manufacturing facility. Somewhere between there lies a utility-scale solar project,” said Hershman.

We’re looking at projects in Missouri, Nebraska — areas that have traditionally been the solar wasteland.” He added that Swinerton has built the largest solar projects currently operating in Minnesota, Wyoming and a number of other states.

This is no longer just a Western market or a Southwest market,” he said. Our biggest market will be in West Texas in the Permian Basin. And we are starting projects in Illinois [and] the upper Midwest. It’s a nationwide industry and job creator — and more than ever, rural.”

Utility-scale solar generation is clearly what drives the U.S. solar market.

U.S. solar PV installations and forecast, 2010-2030E

Source: Wood Mackenzie

Biden, unions and the prevailing wage

President Biden has lauded the employment potential of green jobs, but Biden could also be the most pro-union president in America’s history. That creates the potential for conflict between unions and renewable energy constructors like Swinerton.

Politico reports: Democrats are cranking out bills filled with carrots for developers of zero-emission infrastructure, but with pro-labor strings attached, including wage requirements, job certification and Buy American provisions.”

Hershman, who also chairs the board of the Solar Energy Industries Association, responds: Our concerns are the addition of requirements around certified apprenticeship programs. It’s kind of a backhanded way to get a union requirement. That’s not going to work in a lot of the country.”

We’re going to end up bringing in a workforce to an area rather than hiring local. We’ve seen this happen before in areas where we can’t hire local union people — you have to bring in union people.

There’s not a one-size-fits-all solution around union labor, because there are many different states and many different counties. We need to be sure that we are creating a supportive labor policy that needs to work in the Central Valley of California and…the Permian Basin. It needs to work in southern Illinois, and it needs to work in eastern Alabama.

The policy structure that best fits that is prevailing wage,” Hershman contends.

The 11th annual Solar Jobs Census, carried out by the The Solar Foundation, shows that the U.S. solar industry has a unionization rate of 10.3 percent, a figure that’s in line with the economywide rate.

Hershman said, We built our business in the 2008 downturn. Now we’re in the next economic downturn in an economy that needs well-paid, service-level jobs — utility-scale solar is that. We can train displaced oil and gas workers,” he said, adding that coal and fracking workers have a home in solar.”

Innovations and efficiencies at utility scale

Hershman rattled off some areas where the company continues to improve.

In balance-of-system [materials], we’re getting more efficient in the way that we’re wiring plants together. Little innovations matter. How do you save $1 million on zip ties because you came up with a new way of string wiring?

We’re more thoughtful in the way that tracker systems are designed around topography, so we’re not moving as much earth around.

Obviously, modules are getting more efficient; we’re installing 500-watt modules instead of 280-watt modules and using half as many modules on a 100-megawatt site.

We are seeing commodity prices at some historic highs — steel and copper — and that’s challenging the economics of these projects, so we continue to drive cost and innovate.”

As for storage, Hershman says, Everything in 2022 will have a storage component. The vast majority will have storage in 2021. In California and the West, every contracted asset is going to have storage. We’re seeing the scale go up and cost go down, and we understand how to monetize it — it’s here to stay.”

Tackling diversity challenges head-on

We’re also learning to recognize our diversity challenges, and it’s great that we’ve turned the sunlight on all of them. We’re a 130-year-old construction company in a male-heavy industry to begin with. We promote from within, which is something that is great for culture, [but] it’s terrible if you’re trying to change,” he said.

Hershman continued: We looked at where our traditional pipeline of people came from [and] the schools that we went to to recruit from. If you’re going to continue to go to Cal Poly…you’re going to get to the same people. We have really tried to look at ourselves differently, and we’re changing our practices.”

Some recent SRE solar project news of note:

  • The company has broken ground on Prairie Wolf, a 200-megawatt National Grid Renewables-owned project in Coles County, Illinois. Expected to begin operation this year, Prairie Wolf has a virtual power purchase agreement (PPA) with Cargill. 
  • The 294-megawatt Muscle Shoals solar project in northwestern Alabama, which was recently sold to Ørsted, has a 20-year PPA with the Tennessee Valley Authority. Modules will be First Solar’s Series 6 technology.
  • SRE served as the engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) provider for the Prospero 2 Solar Project, a 331 MW project in Andrews County, Texas; Longroad Energy is the developer, owner and operator.
  • The 215 MW Little Bear Solar Project in Fresno County, California was acquired by Longroad Energy from First Solar last year. SRE was the EPC provider, and the project used Series 6 panels from First Solar, inverters from Power Electronics and trackers from Nextracker.

Eric Wesoff is editorial director at Canary Media.