Several years back, Tempe, Arizona-based One Source Freight Solutions took on project logistics for the Ivanpah solar power facility, what would become the world’s largest concentrated solar thermal plant. This mammoth $2.2 billion project, constructed in California’s Mojave Desert, involved moving glass from manufacturers based in the Midwest to mirror polishers in Arizona to the installation site itself. It required the acquisition of specialized trailers and handling equipment.
Since Ivanpah began operations in 2013, the market in concentrated solar has tanked, at least in the US. That’s largely because its solar rival – photovoltaic arrays—is so much more economical; the cost of manufacturing photovoltaic cells continues to plummet. But One Source’s solar business has flourished. It moved deftly into photovoltaic-based projects, working with both engineering, processing and construction (EPC) contractors and, more recently, the suppliers themselves. One Source has a dedicated solar power-related division. The company now oversees solar projects not just in the Sun Belt, but as well in some 16 states, plus Canada and Mexico.
“The [geographic] diversity has increased significantly over the last 18 months,” said Mark Borgman, One Source’s vice president of logistics.
We’re not talking your rooftop variety solar project. These photovoltaic arrays supply up to 400MW, enough installed capacity to power 65,000 homes.
To assemble these large-scale photovoltaic power plants requires hundreds of 40-foot containers containing the modules and railing. Handling these projects is akin to running a “mini-manufacturing site,” Borgman said. Just like a factory, “you need a steady, constant flow of material, every single day.”
Too much supply and there’s no place to store it. Too little supply and workers won’t have anything to do. Both those manufacturing the panels and those building the solar plant itself pay close attention to inventory control and management. One Source has invested heavily in information systems technology to keep on top of the task.
“Managing a customer’s data is just as important as managing materials,” Borgman said.
Safely handling the panels is, of course, vital as well. “You may have to drive 50 miles on a rutted dirt road to get to the job site,” said Borgman.
Manufacturers have become increasingly adept at packing these fragile items.
Those manufacturers are offshore. As prices have plummeted, American manufacturers have pretty much lost out to Asian and European solar panel makers. Suniva, one of the last remaining American manufacturers, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in April.
Now, the Trump administration is threatening the entire industry, with several projects on hold or delayed. “There’s a lot of trepidation,” Borgman said.
When asked how One Source is insulating itself from the possibility of a significant downturn in the solar industry, Borgman said that his company has tapped into the growing market of large-scale modular buildings, including hospitals, nursing homes and multi-family dwellings.
One Source is building on its solar power project cargo management skills.
After all, Borgman said, “solar is just a construction project.”