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Laser used to place solar panels at energy farm
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Laser used to place solar panels at energy farm

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Superintendent Charles compass pointing to
rotator tube mounted on pier

By Bill Frazer

Last week I ventured out to the Solar Farm to see what was going on. Swinerton Solar Energy Superintendent David Dzeima inquired if I had been out to the pier pounding. I said that I had not and he said the pier pounding was underway and I needed to see the operation. On the way to the site I met assistant superintendent Charles Demise and he agreed to show me the technique used to place the solar panels.

When we approached the area I noticed signs “laser beam in use” and wondered what that had to do with driving a metal post into the ground. Charles explained that placing the solar panels strategically required use of the laser beam. The pier pounding machines (I still call them post drivers) operate using the laser beam. The machine operator who is not looking directly at the pier operates the pounder by looking at a lighted panel which tells him if the post is upright and tells him when the pier reaches the proper depth above the soil surface.

On top of the piers (posts) there is mounted a 4 inch steel pipe which Charles tells me is called a torque tube. This rail runs a considerable distance across the top of the aligned piers with an electric motor placed in the middle of the expanse that rotates the solar panels once they are attached to the tube. This electric motor, which uses electrical power generated by the solar farm, rotates the panels 120 degrees to allow the panels to receive the maximum amount of solar exposure. The laser beam is used to rotate the panels during the course of the day.

Laser guided pier pounder

I found it interesting that Charles said the first row of panels installed is called the pilot line. All installation is stopped until the pilot installation is reviewed and approved by all the Swinertion Energy engineers and superintendents.
The pier pounder sounds like a jack hammer or a machine gun. Rat tat tat tat tat which means the pier is pounding at an estimated 100 times per minute. All the employees in the area are required to wear ear noise protection due to the noise of the pounding.

Speaking of noise protection, I was standing next to the pier pounder when the foreman walked over to me and asked if I had ear protection. I told that I did not and he told me to wait just a minute until he got me a set of ear muffs to wear while on site. Safety is a primary issue in the Solar Energy operation.

The weather this past week has almost brought the on site operation to a halt. I am sure it is frustrating to at last receive the shipment of piers, torque rails and panels but be unable to start the installation without interruption.

As Matlock says, “Ain’t nothing easy”. Swinerton Solar Energy has had difficulty in knowing what licenses to do business in Alabama are required. There are licenses required for surveyors, electricians, engineers, carpenters, dirt movers and other trades. These licenses are not posted in a manner that a new business would readily find. They are needed to do business in Alabama, and this has been a problem.

Another headache for the solar farm developers has been the large hardwood trees growing in the streamside management zones (SMZ) that are shading some of the panels. Streamside Management is under the jurisdiction of ADEM (Alabama Department Of Environmental Management) and loggers are reluctant to harvest trees in the SMZ due to fines imposed by ADEM.

I am impressed with the courtesy of these highly trained professionals. Here I am out nosing into their modus operandi and the supervisors not only tolerate the elementary questions but are very cooperative in reaching out to the public.
(Photos by Bill Frazer)