September 16, 2021

It might seem counterintuitive but it’s true. If you want to save time and money by avoiding change orders on your solar and energy storage projects, spend some time and money on value engineering before you get too far down the road.

Trial lawyers know how this works. Get all the facts up front so there are no surprises when the time comes to stand before a judge and jury. A good lawyer is more than an advocate. A good lawyer performs a detailed investigation, assesses risk, and works to achieve the best possible outcome.

The same is true about a good project engineer. When you’re building solar and energy storage projects, the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) serves as the judge. The construction crew is the jury. And the engineer who reviews all the technical data and asks all the necessary questions will make the most convincing case for permitting approval.

A structured and repeatable process is important. So is the quality of communication between the contractor and the engineering and design team. And never underestimate the value of experience. Nobody can see into the future, but experience guides us to the right questions to ask and the permitting pitfalls to avoid.

Knowing that, we’ve asked three of SepiSolar’s most experienced engineers to share some tips on how they guard against project delays and surprise budget jumps. Change orders late in the planning process can lead to unhappy project owners and can compromise bids on future projects.

Here are three steps to avoiding change orders from SepiSolar development engineer Taylor Bohlen, design engineer Ryan Mateo, and operations project manager Dylan Brown.

Next-level detail in the site survey

It’s all about the level of detail in the site survey, Bohlen says. The site survey lays the groundwork for potential issues to be caught up front so that they can be accurately estimated and dealt with before the project moves forward to a point where engineering revisions will be needed.

It can also help to verify layout and equipment spacings in the field instead of accepting what you see in off-the-shelf solar design software assumptions. Assumptions baked into the proposal generating process might not align precisely with the reality at the project site. These discrepancies can result in change orders.

Here’s a checklist SepiSolar uses to generate the most comprehensive dataset for commercial and industrial projects and utility-scale projects.

The engineer will evaluate site survey details procedurally at the beginning of a project in context of the final system and its objectives. Structural information will go to a structural engineer for analysis up front. Feasibility of the physical layout will drive decisions related to electrical layout.

Each step of the design process determines feasibility in the steps that follow.

Ripple effects from design changes

There’s a misconception out there about the impact of seemingly small changes in project design, Mateo says. Consider what happens with one of the more common changes, swapping one type of solar module for another.

Contractors often recommend one type of module during the sales process but then find its unavailable. You might find another module that costs about the same and has the same power class but slightly higher short-circuit current rating.

Does that seem like a miniscule change? It can sometimes make or break your ability to run parallel strings in an inverter maximum power point tracker (MPPT).

If you can’t run parallel strings and you don’t have enough inputs in the selected inverter, the module swap can lead to an inverter swap. That’s more than a ripple. It’s a tidal wave.

Every input in project design affects something else. Contractors should work with designers to finalize aspects of the project starting with least dependent portions and moving up to the most dependent.

Finalize layout before moving to wire diagrams. If you remove modules because the roof could not handle the weight, the electrical calculations have changed.

SepiSolar’s milestone process, commonly used in the construction industry, reduces the amount of change orders we see.

Know agreements like the back of your hand

All parties need to understand what’s involved with a project, from timelines to equipment to subcontractor roles. These details should be well defined before project execution, says Brown.

When site owners ask questions about items that are outlined in the project brief, that’s a change order red flag.

If multiple contractors are involved in a project, is it clear who’s responsible for each aspect of the project? Every structural, electrical, or civil detail should be accounted for.

Resist pressure to advance to the next project milestone without obtaining stakeholder approval. Contractors may get pressure from site owners, financiers, even your own boss. If you need a cautionary tale, see what happened when SepiSolar was brought in to re-engineer a project that was initially built for power to flow in one direction and then had to accommodate bidirectional distribution.

The need for re-engineering was an avoidable mistake caused by confusion about who would file an interconnection agreement.

Avoiding change orders is risk management

If you have completed all three steps to avoiding change orders—producing a detailed site survey, recognizing the ripple effects from design changes, and mastering the finer points of your agreements—you’re well on your way to a successful outcome.

For more ideas, download our C&I Risk Management Guide. We put together the guide as a resource to help contractors get consistent, repeatable project planning without surprise bottlenecks, permitting delays, and escalating costs.

There are no practice rounds in project management. You need to know that designs are always accurate and error free. Find out how in the risk management guide.


November 29, 2019

A recent Greentech Media article brought to light new details about a lithium battery fire at the Arizona Public Service (APS) McMicken Energy Storage facility that occurred in April.

According to GTM, the fire involved a thermal event affecting one battery rack but not a thermal runaway event affecting multiple battery racks. This is very good news, as we’ll explain below. The article also suggests that venting energy storage enclosures to release combustible gases may be a solution. We respectfully disagree.

A few months after the fire, we gave some initial suggestions on how project managers can design risk out of energy storage systems. This post presents our take on the facts as we now understand them.

We still don’t know the root cause of the fire. However, we know enough to conclude that more ventilation is not the best approach to battery fire prevention. We also know that storage projects need a failure plan, and they need to comply with higher standards.

Read on for our recommendations to help energy storage contractors prevent lithium battery fires.

No thermal runaway

After the Arizona fire, an investigation from APS and battery provider Fluence found that only one battery rack containing 14 modules had “melted.” Evidently the fire did not spread to adjacent racks, setting up a more hazardous thermal runaway scenario, which could have added to the fire’s propagation many times over.

This is encouraging. It’s not the failure of a single cell, but rather the propagation of that failed cell that causes all the damage we see in lithium fires. We should understand why the propagation stopped at the rack level. Here are a few possibilities.

(A) The spacing between racks in the system design was wide enough to stop the fire’s propagation in other racks.

(B) The original equipment manufacturer’s design of the battery pack itself helped prevent rack-to-rack propagation.

As the investigation proceeds, we hope to understand not only the root cause of the APS fire but also the design criteria that helped prevent rack-to-rack thermal runaway. APS is reporting investigation updates here. Independent research and third-party lab testing can also produce findings that improve design and engineering for battery safety.

Venting is not the answer

APS director of technology innovation and integration Scott Bordenkircher told GTM that the McMicken facility fire will prompt engineering and design changes, balancing fire suppression with the removal of explosive gases.

A better answer might be to make sure fire response professionals do not open containers designed to enclose and isolate what’s inside. Do we know enough today to arm firefighters with the correct training to protect themselves and suppress fire? A system designed to fully contain explosive gases may be part of the solution rather than the problem. While investigating ways to improve lithium battery safety, it’s also a good idea to explore best practices for first responders.

Root cause unknown

While it is encouraging that rack-to-rack propagation did not occur, the root cause of the APS fire is still unknown. A root cause analysis will help engineers modify future designs to improve lithium battery safety. Following the chain of events backwards to the point of origin (modules within the rack, cells within the module, and down to the cell level) can yield key insights.

If the root cause of the fire was truly “spontaneous,” which is a real possibility when large quantities of lithium cells are manufactured, no design or manufacturing changes can eliminate the possibility of another freak accident occurring. We may have to accept that spontaneous lithium failures are inherent in lithium technology and manufacturing processes. If this is the case, the best we can do is focus on controllable areas of fire suppression, isolation, and safety at the component- and system-level, rather than at the cell- or module-level.

With that in mind, what can energy storage companies do to eliminate or mitigate lithium battery fires? Here are two recommendations.

Plan for failure

In the event of a lithium battery fire, projects need clear and well-documented protocols to assist in fire suppression, cleanup, and investigation. These prevention and remediation plans ought to be provided as part of the project-specific safety plan or permitting process. This would ensure the information is provided to local authorities and site personnel. System design should also be informed by the possibility of system-level or component-level failures. Fire, building, chemical, and electrical safety codes and standards may be consulted and referenced.

For instance, in the APS fire, the bad rack was positioned in the middle of several batteries that maintained a 90% state of charge. As a result, the APS/Fluence team spent 9 weeks removing and de-energizing all of those batteries.

“There was absolutely no playbook,” Bordenkircher told GTM. 

If this experience leads to the creation of a proactive project failure plan, that would be a positive outcome. It could help guide future safety code iterations and standards development.

In addition, it is interesting that APS used LG Chem batteries. According to SepiSolar research, LG Chem batteries have among the widest temperature range needed to initiate thermal runaway. LG Chem batteries also have a fire incident history that reportedly led the battery maker to shut down some of its own storage systems in South Korea.

Raise project standards

The risk of a lithium battery fire is lower in residential and commercial applications than in utility installations. The reason: such projects must comply with the UL 9540 and NFPA 855 safety standards. Utility projects, on the other hand, are basically self-regulating.

UL 9540 addresses construction, performance, and testing of energy storage systems, including how the system handles combustible concentrations and fire detection and suppression.

If we hold utility projects to higher safety standards, battery fire risks will go down.

Improve risk management

It’s more important than ever to understand and manage the risks associated with energy storage projects. That’s why SepiSolar is writing about the APS battery fire and why we will continue to write about it.

Our experience balancing cost, speed, and safety in energy storage projects contributed to the development of the new C&I Project Risk Management Guide. Download a free copy today.

Feature photo by Constante Ken Lim.


October 16, 2019

Every once in a while, we get a familiar request — a contractor asks to “fast track” a new solar project. We say: Be careful what you wish for. You might just get it.

Our response wasn’t always this way. At one point, customers wouldn’t even have to ask to speed up the design and engineering process. They wanted deliverables quickly — yesterday — and at low cost. We delivered. Sort of.

Soon, we learned that while we could deliver on the front-end, we had too little control over the back-end. We were working too quickly. Customer requests for design changes would come weeks, sometimes months, after delivery of the original plan set. This increased project costs and risk in the long run.

At SepiSolar, we have introduced structure, definition, and organization to the project design and engineering process with discrete handoffs, milestones, stages, and defined activities. We control project costs, timeline, scope, quality, liability, customer success and safety, reducing cost and risk to the project.

We used to try explaining to customers one-by-one why no engineer has the power to expedite projects.

Each project dictates its own timeline according to the project data at hand, the complexity of the project, climate, and other variables that we cannot control. If a commercial property has no as-built plans available, someone needs to conduct a site survey and perform discovery on key aspects of the facility. There are faster ways and slower ways to perform discovery, but you cannot fast-track your way through it.

In other words, the job of the engineer is not to tell the project how much time it has. Rather, we listen and then help the EPC get through it.

Since we have these conversations with some frequency, we decided to take some of our core insights and share them in the C&I Solar Risk Management Guide.

What’s in the risk management guide?

The C&I Solar Risk Management Guide covers the key milestones from starting a project plan set to matching the as-built conditions of a completed project. Milestones include:

  • Project kickoff
  • Preliminary analysis
  • 50% design
  • 90% design
  • Permit plan set
  • Revised permit plan set
  • As-builts

Managing risk means having a clear and complete idea of the scope of work up front and catching all components and elements of design and engineering that need to be specified, budgeted for, and tracked. When changes occur, it is usually due to lack of specificity in the original scope of work, or something that nobody saw coming. Surprises increase cost. We don’t like surprises in construction.

By thoroughly defining the scope of work up front and identifying potential surprises that could come back to bite us, we proceed with projects in stages, never getting too far ahead of ourselves without all the necessary information.

Subway, the fast-food chain, recognizes the value of risk management. At the lunch counter, the selection of bread drives the development of the meal. You might ask for the pit-smoked brisket and then wonder why your server holds still, waiting for you to choose between six-inch and foot-long subs made of Italian bread, whole wheat, or something else. You’re hungry. Can’t they go a little faster?

If the server rushed ahead with the wrong bread, there would be an even longer delay as he builds your sandwich a second time. Bad move. Now you’re really getting hangry. Subway’s process won’t set any sandwich-making speed records. But it’s dependable, time and time again.

How to use the C&I Solar Risk Management Guide

Our goal with the solar risk management guide is twofold. First, we want to point out how engineering and design can have a big impact on project success, even though it accounts for a small share of project costs. Second, we want project and operations managers to know what you can expect from a structured, highly organized project design process.

Have a look at the guide. Download a copy of the project milestones, and share it with your team.

How does your project design process compare to ours? Are we following similar paths? Where are the differences? If you have questions or comments about the C&I Solar Risk Management Guide, join the conversation with us on LinkedIn.

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