Building a 200,000- panel solar park takes planning and perseverance

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When Paul Lisecki, construction supervisor for DTE’s Major Enterprise Projects unit, saw the 250- acre Lapeer Solar Park project site he’d be working on over the next year, his first thought was “Wow, there’s a lot of land.”

“Then you start seeing the numbers. The equipment starts coming in, the modules. Hundreds of thousands of modules coming in, it gets you a little excited,” he observed.

In the spring of 2016, DTE Energy broke ground on its Lapeer Solar Park, which was, at the time, the largest solar array east of the Mississippi River.  The site became operational in May 2017, and Paul’s team handed over responsibility for the daily operations and maintenance to DTE’s Renewable Energy Operations and Maintenance team. Anthony Morabito, a senior strategist for the Renewable Energy team, is one of the people now responsible for the site.

Solar energy technology, like wind, is evolving rapidly, making it increasingly cost-competitive with other forms of energy generation such as gas and coal. Anthony talked to me about how solar makes sense  – even in Michigan’s four-season climate.

To hear our full conversation, click on the media player below:

Podcast Transcript:

David Lingholm:  [00:08] When DTE Energy announced the Lapeer solar array project it was billed as the largest project of its type in the United States east of the Mississippi River. Soon afterward other large solar projects were announced that took the title, but the Lapeer solar array is still the largest in the state of Michigan.

[00:26] To give you some perspective on how large that array is, consider that most of the solar projects DTE Energy had done to that point took anywhere between 6,000 to 7,000 modules to finish. In Lapeer that total was almost 200,000. That’s a number that includes solar panels, inverters, and other materials needed to complete the job.

[00:50] Recently, I had a chance to talk with Paul Lisecki, who is a construction supervisor for DTE’s Major Enterprise Projects unit, and Anthony Morabito, who’s a senior strategist for the company’s Renewable Energy unit.

[01:05] Paul was responsible for the construction management, and Anthony’s responsible for the day‑to‑day operations of the array now that it’s producing energy. We had a great conversation about what it takes to do solar arrays at this scale, not only from the construction aspect, but also from that day‑to‑day operation.

[01:26] I’d like to start, Paul, with a project of this size, and really, we were trying to get that Lapeer solar array done pretty quickly, from the construction side what does it take to get a project done like this?

Paul Lisecki:  [01:45] A good contractor, a good engineering firm, and a really good plan. You’ve got to have a good plan for something this big.

[01:53] It’s really easy work. It’s repetitive. When it’s so big like that, we really had to work on having a good plan to get it done in a timely manner.

David:  [02:05] When you got out to Lapeer for the first time, what’s that like, when you see what’s supposed to be the plan? You see the site, and you know that you’ve got this timeframe. What went through your head? What was on your mind?

Paul:  [02:25] You can’t really see the full scope until you’ve cleared out the area and you get surveyors out on site. Once the surveyors get out there and you figure out where X is, and where Y is, and where Z is, that’s when it’s like, “Wow, there’s a lot.”

[02:42] Then you start seeing the numbers. The equipment starts coming in, the modules. Hundreds of thousands of modules coming in, it gets you a little excited.

David:  [02:54] [laughs] Because this is a lot different scale than anything DTE has done before in solar. This is a significantly bigger footprint.

Paul:  [03:05] Most of our projects were probably six, seven thousand modules, where this one was close to 200,000 modules that we used, and multiple inverters. Instead of just one central inverter, or a few string inverters, we had multiple central inverters.

[03:23] A pretty big system, substations. The Lapeer site is set up into two different sites, so there’s actually two different substations that we used to get the power to the grid.

David:  [03:38] Now that the array is operational, we’re generating power out of it, Anthony, I know some of that design has got to be a lot easier from your perspective because, again, this was a much bigger scale. You don’t want to have that much power offline at any one time.

Anthony Morabito:  [03:56] Absolutely. Fortunately, the project team did a really good job thinking ahead, in terms of how this site would operate, compared to some of our smaller existing arrays.

[04:06] A lot of thinking went into, now that we’re creating all this energy at one site, how do we manage things in a way that we’re going to limit our liability to speak, in terms of having issues on the site.

[04:19] We can isolate things easily. We have good monitoring systems in place that alert us when we have problems. We can be quick to react to issues, and we can isolate those issues so it doesn’t have a larger impact on the local grid and in terms of DTE’s day‑to‑day electricity generation.

David:  [04:38] When you got out to the site, when you found out that you were going to be the one that was responsible for the day‑to‑day, and you got out there for the first time, what did you think?

Anthony:  [04:48] One, it’s amazing, in terms of its size. It sets you back a bit when you see it.

[04:57] To Paul’s point, the site is laid out in a cookie‑cutter fashion, where every subpart of the array is identical. In that regard, it’s refreshing to know that you’re not going to be surprised with what’s going on.

[05:14] I would imagine in a short amount of time we’ll understand how the site works. Because it’s just repetitive, if we do have issues or see things that we could fix or make better, we’ll know how to dispatch it across the entire site.

[05:31] It’s manageable from that perspective. In the whole scale and how this fits in the with rest of DTE’s portfolio of solar projects, it’s very unique.

David:  [05:43] One of the things that’s a part of the DNA at DTE is this idea of continual improvement, of always learning from the process ‑‑ mistakes or what’s working ‑‑ and getting better, doing better. What have we learned about the way we do solar that you would be doing differently down the road?

Anthony:  [06:13] In terms of how the grounds are laid out. We had some restrictions, in terms of what sort of vegetative cover we could apply on the site.

[06:21] Obviously, in the news you hear a lot about solar sites and being pollinator‑friendly, butterfly‑friendly, things like that. We try to incorporate those practices into our jobs, and we will at the Lapeer site in areas. Unfortunately, because of the scale of this project, it wasn’t feasible to do over a 250‑acre plot.

[06:43] We learned a little bit, in terms of timing things out, when we were seeding things, getting the site ready for day‑to‑day operation.

[06:54] We tried thinking ahead, in terms of how we could reduce grounds maintenance, so not having mowers and heavy equipment out on the site, having to really go against what solar really stands for, is clean energy and being a good steward of the environment.

[07:12] If you have a bunch of lawn equipment that you have to run constantly to maintain the site it defeats that purpose to some extent. We did a lot to plan for getting the right plant species in place that would be low maintenance, and trying, again, to incorporate some of those pollinator practices in the site.

[07:32] If we could have done the project again, or when we build another solar site, we’ll go even further to incorporate more of those practices.

David:  [07:43] Paul, when you were driving off that job site for the last time, you’d spent quite a bit of time out there, from surveying, and overall, with the construction effort. What did you think? What was it like driving off that site that last time, and have you been back?

Paul:  [08:07] Anthony and I talk all the time, even though I’m MEP. That’s another good part of this, to roll this into your last question, too. Solar’s changing every day. It’s all brand new equipment. When I first started doing this six years ago, our panels, the wattage on them was probably 140 watts. Now they’re 335 watt panels that we’re using.

David:  [08:34] That means we can generate more energy out of each panel.

Anthony:  [08:39] Everyday solar’s changing, and you learn something new every day because of all of these changes. This project now, looking back on it, it went great.

[08:59] We worked with substations. We worked with underground. We worked with overhead, engineering. Everybody had something to say.

[09:09] There’s a few people out there that think solar’s not, but I think a big part of Edison’s portfolio here is to learn and go farther with this type of technology.

[09:25] I think it’s great that it’s built. Now they have panels, since we built this, that are 400 watts, since we started this.

Anthony:  [09:34] It’s constantly evolving.

David:  [09:35] The technology’s evolving really quick?

Paul:  [09:37] Constantly. It’s always changing.

David:  [09:39] Off of that idea, that all of the changes in solar, the technology’s rapidly evolving, how does that affect the ongoing operation of the project?

Anthony:  [09:55] The industry is continuing to learn and continuing to grow. What we’re seeing with its widespread deployment across the globe, solar is unique in the fact that it can be deployed in a lot of different ways.

[10:10] It can be small. It can be large‑scale, like the Lapeer project. It can be used on sites that maybe aren’t suitable for other land uses. There’s a lot of work going on with brownfield restoration and incorporating solar.

[10:24] It can be rooftop. It can be ground mound. It can be floating on the water. There are a lot of unique implications for using solar and making it fit, from a land management perspective, and fulfilling a need to generate electricity.

[10:42] We’re seeing a lot of that. We’re seeing a lot of, as Paul mentioned, equipment changes. The system voltages that we’re using on our sites is constantly changing. The types of panels, they’re getting more efficient, they’re getting to have greater capacity.

David:  [11:00] One of the things that I hear quite often, actually, is “Why in Michigan? It’s so cloudy,” or “In the winter how are you ever going to generate any kind of electricity out of it?”

[11:14] It sounds like that technology’s evolving enough where it makes a lot of sense to have something like this in Lapeer.

Anthony:  [11:21] There was probably a point in time where renewable energy was sort of a niche thing. We wanted renewable energy just because of its green aspect, and it fulfilled some wishes from private corporations who wanted to be more Earth‑friendly or sustainable‑practice conscious.

[11:38] What’s different now, though, is the prices have come down so much it’s become cost effective, and that’s in relation to all forms of power generation. When we decide to build a winter solar site, it’s not about having a good story anymore. It’s the fact that wind and solar are cost competitive with gas, and coal, and nuclear, and other forms.

[11:59] They all have their unique capabilities, and there is necessities for things like gas, and coal, and nuclear for base load generation. We’ll continue to have those in the future, but renewable energy now is at a point where it can compete from a cost standpoint.

[12:17] Even in a place like Michigan, similar to the story we’ve seen unfold in Germany, it’s cost competitive. You can generate power even on a cloudy day, and it works.

David:  [12:31] It sounds like quite a bit more power than you could even a year ago.

Anthony:  [12:34] Absolutely.

Paul:  [12:35] It’s really going to change the face of the Earth when storage technology…then it’ll blow everything else out of the water.

David:  [12:46] Because that’s the knock on it right now, was that you’re just producing it to be able to use right now. That storage, that changes that game.

Anthony:  [12:57] Absolutely, and storage costs have already started coming down tremendously. We’re seeing a similar pricing trend in storage as we did with solar four or five years ago.

[13:06] We’ll continue to see storage fall at a pretty steep decline over the next couple years. It’ll become more common to incorporate storage with renewable energy, or intermittent generating sources of power. It makes a lot of sense.

David:  [13:22] Anthony, in closing, I’d like to give you a chance to talk a little bit about what the future of renewable energy is for DTE Energy, in particular.

Anthony:  [13:34] I will say, in DTE’s long‑term plan we do see the build out of an awful lot of renewable energy. The company’s committed to reducing our carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2050. A big portion of that carbon emissions reduction is going to come in the form of renewable energy, both wind and solar.

[13:55] We see the next several decades building out more and more wind and solar. It’s going to become a bigger and bigger portion of our generation portfolio.