Texas solar project spurs local workforce development

Credit: McCarthy Building Cos.

Turning a utility-scale solar developer’s vision into a reality requires many hands. On some projects, that could mean hiring hundreds of laborers to be on-site all at once.

When a region doesn’t have a qualified labor pool to build a project, there’s always the option of job training. That was the case for Elm Branch, a 163-MW solar project located in Ennis, Texas, a community 40 miles south of Dallas, that was developed by light source bp and built by McCarthy Building Cos

McCarthy has led job training programs at previous solar projects, but Elm Branch was unique for one reason — 20% of its 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 received solar job training before starting work.

McCarthy partnered with Adaptive Construction Solutions (ACS), a Texas-based, veteran-owned construction apprenticeship program, to recruit the veterans. The two-week classroom course that followed covered topics like the basics of solar and renewables construction and certifications for safety, first aid and fork-lift operations.

“But they really teach them about all the aspects and what they’re going to be doing out 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, project director for McCarthy.

Then, when on-site, the trainees work with construction superintendents and crew to build the array. Wallace said there’s more certainty 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 capabilities as well. So, we see those guys elevate themselves to the crew lead and to foreman positions at a much quicker rate than we do on somebody we’ve just hired off the street.”

McCarthy administers this type of job training program on each job, with the intent to create more qualified workers for the solar industry.

“We’re starting to build this more formal program, and when you have people go through a formal program, they end up with credentials at the end — they end up with clarity that they’ve learned skills and they’re able to carry that onto 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 decide even to go to one of our competition, they’ve got something specific there that helps them show they’ve got a career path.”

McCarthy retained several veteran hires from the Elm Branch project who have already started traveling for other projects. The company tries to keep at least 20 of its best trainees from each job to become teachers and trainers for the next project.

“For us, one of the big challenges in solar — and it’s a good challenge — but you’re hiring up very large workforces,” Canada said. “So, we’ll have about 1,800 craft workers on McCarthy’s solar jobs this year. You’re typically fairly remote. In this case, we’re close to Dallas, but you’re definitely on the outskirts, and so to have the maximum economic impact for the area and get the job done, we tend to hire local and tend to take on folks who have not had a long history in the construction business.”

Growing Elm Branch

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

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

An aerial shot of ACS hires at the Elm Branch solar project. McCarthy Building Cos.

Like its workforce, much of Elm Branch’s solar components are locally sourced. The project uses single-axis trackers from Albuquerque, New Mexico-based Array Technologies; TMEIC inverters that are assembled in the Houston area and panels manufactured a bit further away — by First Solar in Ohio.

Elm Branch is installed on cultivated pastureland, which came with a construction challenge: The clay soil made the worksite slick after rains and took at least two days to dry out afterward. Due to the site’s location and size, crews were transported using buggies. It was difficult to receive equipment shipments when the site was wet.

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

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

“Aside from a once-in-a-hundred-year winter storm and a pandemic, everything went pretty smooth,” Smith said.

Lightsource bp leases the land under its solar projects for 25 to 30 years. With that in mind, Lightsource and McCarthy enacted regenerative site practices on Elm Branch, sowing native seed crops to promote soil health and encourage pollinator activity. They’ve also introduced sheep from a neighboring farm to graze the site and maintain vegetation.

Choices like hiring and training locally and using land stewardship best practices will have impacts on the Ennis community for the long term.

“We’re an employee-owned company, so it’s amazing how much pride they take when we’re able to go home and say, ‘I grew up in the Dallas area, my folks travel down to the Ennis area on a regular basis ,’” Canada said. “There’s a certain pride that comes from figuring out how to do it right and solving the problem better.”

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