Swinerton Renewable Energy had a lot to worry about surrounding the ITC extension. The company’s bread and butter—multi-megawatt, utility-scale solar projects—was at risk of losing its monetary advantage, bringing Swinerton’s work to a standstill. Once the extension came through at the end of 2015, senior vice president and general manager George Hershman was relieved to start a new business plan to extend the company’s huge progress through 2017 and beyond.
“It’s given us a whole new look into what the solar industry is going to be and what this company is going to be in the future,” he said. “We’re very bullish on the market. We think that there is great opportunity all over and are making investments in things and spending money on equipment that we would not have been buying had it been different.”
No stranger to the ups and downs of the construction industry, Swinerton Renewable Energy is a division of 128-year-old Swinerton Builders that traditionally does vertical construction in markets like hospitality and higher education. The financial downturn of 2008, which threatened to halt construction across all major markets, became an opportunity for the company to enter a new market.
“We saw opportunities to work with our client base, such as community colleges, universities and hospitals, to deploy solar installations,” Hershman said. “We saw solar as an opportunity to redeploy some of our internal resources and employees into areas that had growth opportunities.”
A California-based EPC, Swinerton’s service area covers the three major countries in North America—Canada, the United States and now Mexico. Most of its work focuses on utility- and large-scale projects, so the U.S. Southwest is an obvious hotbed of activity for the company.
“We do probably 95% of our work in the utility sector,” Hershman said. “We still do a number of distributed generation or C&I projects a year. Usually those are strategic partners, not one-off type of projects. We did start in the distributed generation space [but] we’re finding that the utility space really fits better for our business model.”
Working mostly on multi-megawatt projects made Swinerton’s recent announcement of hitting 1 GW of installations an impressive but not unbelievable feat. The scale of work the company has planned for 2016, however, is the more remarkable announcement.
“The interesting part is not the 1 GW we built in the last eight years, it’s the 1 GW that we will build this year,” Hershman said. “We signed a lot of projects in the latter half of last year that had completion dates within 2016 to beat that expiration of the ITC. A lot of our projects were too far along to push back once the extension came. We are seeing a significant amount of volume go into place this year. It’s neat to say we hit 1 GW, but it’s great to say we’ll hit our second gigawatt in the same 12 months.”
Swinerton also has an O&M arm called SOLV that expects to reach its own 2-GW mark by the end of the year for projects under management. Hershman said the end goal is to work on projects through their decommissioning opportunities 30 years down the line.
“It’s a significant growth opportunity within our business and somewhere we can really leverage our plant construction expertise and long-term operations experience to gather and deliver a full turnkey operation,” Hershman said.
Swinerton’s success does come with frequent hurdles. Hershman said the company is faced with some of the same struggles as smaller solar installers, but clearly on a much larger scale. Finding AHJs familiar with large-scale solar work is a big issue for the company.
“We are branching into regions that have not been exposed to large-scale solar projects. Often times the AHJs or the contractors licensing have not really caught up with this scale of project,” Hershman said. “PV is all looked at in one big basket. There’s a lot of differences between a residential installation and the labor required to do that versus the labor required to do a large-scale solar deployment where you’re installing 14,000 modules a day.”
Hershman said the disadvantages given to a local workforce is what bothers the company the most.
“We find the areas that are more restrictive around labor requirements, we’re actually [bringing] in labor from other adjoining states to meet labor laws, permitting requirements and licensing requirements. We just don’t have a licensed workforce in a lot of these rural areas to support the amount of ratios for licensing that’s required,” Hershman said. “We are cutting off access to local workforces. [This] is why we work really hard to educate these states that are new to solar at this scale of what the unintended consequences are of some of these older laws that were put into place.”
Swinerton likes employing a local workforce, since it comes with a passion and sense of accountability not found with out-of-staters. Passion runs strong throughout Swinerton; the company is 100% employee-owned, and Hershman said that’s where success begins.
“Our group as a whole believes they’re empowered to do whatever it takes,” he said. “Being employee-owners, everybody feels accountable. They’re empowered as business owners to make the right decisions. That is the core of what makes Swinerton successful. It’s definitely the people.”