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Starting the Engineering Design of a Solar Substation

How does the engineering design of a solar substation start? Utility scale solar projects are popping up throughout the country. Developers, contractors, consultants and others are all looking for opportunities to develop, design and construct new solar installations. The process can be long and complicated, but at Ulteig we strategically focus on engineering design and successful project execution.

The highest level of engineering begins at the planning and feasibility level. The substation engineering typically begins after the planning is complete and financing is set. So how does a solar substation project start? Lots of people have ideas of how to kick-off a solar project. Some of these ideas may include developing a high-level power diagram showing the primary components. Other engineers suggest a site layout conceptualizing the location of solar arrays and a centralized collection area. Maybe the right answer is a design guide. The list of ideas can go on. At Ulteig, I like to begin with the obvious, smaller steps. Let’s start with a conversation, discuss our goals, concerns, and objectives. Let’s get to know the parties involved. This project can be ‘win-win’ as Steven Covey would say. But it needs to start right.

Ok, so now we have the introductions out of the way, then what? Let’s go back to the goals and start there. Surprisingly, goals can vary widely across different substation projects. Some common themes that I’ve seen are schedule, cost, maximum capacity output, and minimum electrical losses (this can be different from maximum output). Other common goals are ease and speed of installation and long-term maintenance obligations. The list can go on.

All of these steps may seem obvious, but it’s surprising how often projects begin without these initial steps fully considered. The next immediate task is making a plan. Project Management 101. The most basic plan needs to include inputs, outputs and schedules. Let’s add responsible parties to the in’s and out’s and we’ve got a great start. At this point the plan doesn’t have to identify who is specifying the gauge of wire used in the control panels. The objective here is to identify the primary pieces of the puzzle and lay the groundwork for a successful project.

Now we all know the parties’ objectives, we know the goals of the project, and we have a plan. Next up: I like to create a deliverables matrix. This starts digging into the details of what is being provided throughout the project. We might identify those wiring specifications here. Creating a deliverables matrix can help identify scope gaps or misinterpretations.

What’s the purpose of this up-front planning model? Why can’t substation engineering be interchangeable? At Ulteig we focus on bringing value to the opportunities and applying resources with a subtle touch. Every single opportunity we encounter is unique and presents challenges. There is no plug-and-play solution. Adding value to each project requires listening to needs of the team and solving specific challenges.

Solar substation projects happen fast. But if we start properly from the beginning, we’ll be in much better shape as we approach permits, construction, commissioning and beyond. This process is what I call Project Execution. Successful projects need a process, a common understanding, and a great start. This is how I manage and ultimately execute projects.

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