Bald eagles constructed a nest in a tree in the middle of the former farmland where Riggs Distler was to install the grid-tied project. Both the installer and the client, Pro-Tech Energy Solutions, were aware of the nest and the eaglets, but figured the eaglets would have fledged and left the nest by the time they initially planned to start the project.
“We were aware of the nest, and the owners were, but basically what they said when we first bid was, ‘Don’t worry about it, we’re not going to start until the summertime, and then we think the birds are going to leave by August, so they really wouldn’t be in our way,'” said Jeff Simpson, operations manager of renewables for Riggs Distler.
But plans changed after learning the utility, New Jersey Resources, was concerned about instituting the power outages necessary to tie the project into the grid during the summertime―a period of high electricity demand. Unless it was done by Memorial Day, it likely couldn’t come online until the end of the year. Since Pro-Tech’s fiscal year ended on September 30, it moved the deadline to the end of May—giving Riggs Distler eight weeks to complete the project.
Bald eagles were removed from the federal list of threatened and endangered species under the Endangered Species Act in 2007, but are still on New Jersey’s state endangered species list due to their sensitivity to environmental contaminants, habitat loss and human disturbance. Riggs Distler wasn’t allowed to work within a 700-ft perimeter of the tree until the eaglets left the nest. That meant 3 MW of the project were on hold until the eaglets left.
So the installer had to get creative. More than 150 laborers worked 58-hour weeks to meet the rigorous deadline. They had to redesign the project so all the combiners and MV feeders were outside of that perimeter so it could be installed and energized before the deadline. Workers developed 17 MW outside the eagle zone first, then finished the remaining 3 MW in May and June after the eaglets left the nest.
Throughout the project, the company had to work with the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife to ensure it wasn’t violating state regulations by disrupting the eagles’ habitat. A representative from the Division came to monitor the nest often, and gave the go-ahead to the Riggs Distler team to finish the project once the eaglets had fledged.
Simpson said the team was treated to great views of the growing eagle family, and they now “know more about bald eagles than you ever want to know.” The crew got the chance to watch the eaglets start experimenting with leaving the nest. First they’d fly out to a branch a few inches away, then that increased to a few feet, Simpson said. They watched the parent eagles fly to and from the Delaware River about 16 miles away to hunt for meals.
“I had a drone I was flying up to take pictures of [the nest] in the beginning, and then everybody started laughing,” Simpson said. “The mom or the dad eagle was chasing after the drone.”
On top of the eagle disruption, Riggs Distler ran into roadblocks with permitting and module delivery. The township would only release portions of the project to them at a time.
“Luckily, we had a good relationship with them so we would go down every day and they would release a little bit more work to us,” Simpson said.
On top of that, the shipping company that was bringing the Hyundai solar modules from overseas went out of business, so the barges with the modules were stuck out at sea and delayed coming to dock.
“They couldn’t get through into the docks because they were stuck out at sea, and then they couldn’t clear customs,” Simpson said. “It was fun.”
Despite the natural and man-made hurdles, Riggs Distler completed the project on time and under budget, and left the site with a new power source as well as an intimate knowledge of the national bird.
This story was featured exclusively in our 2018 Top Solar Contractors issue. See the issue and full list of top U.S. solar installers here.