From Snow’s Sting to Solar King

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If there is still any doubt in anyone’s mind that the renaissance taking place in Buffalo, N.Y. is real, they need look no further than the project unfolding at the site of the former Republic Steel plant in South Buffalo. There, local construction mainstay, LPCiminelli, has amassed an army of workers and an armada of equipment to construct what will eventually be the largest solar photovoltaic (PV) panel manufacturing facility in the Western Hemisphere. The SolarCity Gigafactory, as it is called, is the centerpiece of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Buffalo Billion economic development initiative ($500 million of that initiative is being invested into the project). Governor Cuomo broke ground for the facility on September 23, 2014 and when complete, the 1.2 million sq. ft. building and the equipment it contains will be owned by New York State. SolarCity will lease the building from the state for ten years at $1 per year. Construction challenges–including the need to meet a dramatically upsized design in a tight construction window–are being met through a combination of good planning, a committed workforce, and reliance upon GNSS technology to streamline almost all of the grading, earthmoving and utility work done on the massive project.

Reversal of Fortune
In its heyday during the 1960s and `70s, Republic Steel’s South Buffalo plant employed thousands and proved a worthy– if smaller–competitor to nearby mammoth Bethlehem Steel. Both companies, unfortunately, fell victim to a weak economy and cheaper foreign steel, prompting them to phase out their Buffalo operations and move to facilities with better locations. With any salvageable equipment moved elsewhere, Republic closed its doors in South Buffalo for good in 1984, was demolished, leaving the site to sit vacant for the next three decades, yet another monument to the city’s faded glory days. But, as anyone familiar with the Nickel City’s economy and state of development of late knows, its fortunes seem to be changing– and changing in a big way.

"The amount of development that has occurred in the last ten years or so–and continues to occur today–is just mindboggling to someone who has lived here all their life," said Keegan Lachut, LPCiminelli project superintendent. "We’ve seen minibooms in the past–revivals that showed promise but just never materialized. But this is something very different. Growth and development are happening in many parts of the city, people are upbeat and committed, and serious investment in Buffalo is taking place–this SolarCity project is proof of that."

Change Happens
The project Lachut is referencing is a 1.2 million sq. ft. production facility located on 88 acres in a South Buffalo development zone known as RiverBend. There, with an overall price tag of nearly $1 billion, New York State is constructing what will be San Mateo Calif.-based SolarCity’s primary solar PV manufacturing and assembly facility. When operational, enough solar panels will be manufactured annually to generate one gigawatt of electricity–enough to power more than 160,000 homes. Getting to that point, said Lachut, has already proven a challenge.

"As the whole world knows, we had a tough winter here last year," he said. "So that meant that, to stay on track, we needed an intensive snow removal effort–in this case removing roughly 50,000 tons of it," he said. "The pace of the project is also extremely tight: 18 months to construct a building that is about one-third of a mile long, as well as all the accompanying structures, parking areas, and so on. Early on, we encountered some serious challenges to that timeline. Even though our company is all about preparation, we also know when it’s time to adapt in order to get the best results."

That flexibility came into play when Ciminelli’s crews started grading for the pad and realized that doing things conventionally was simply not going to cut it.

Burying the Stakes
To imagine staking for a pad greater than the size of four football fields is to envision a forest of stakes and a sizeable crew needed to pound them in. That was not even the entirety of he issue, said Lachut.

"At the time we were getting ready for grading, the ground was still extremely hard," he said. "We literally had guys walking the jobsite pre-drilling holes so we could even get stakes down. We did that for a while and then realized that there had to be a better way. I knew what GNSS could do from training sessions we conducted through our local union and felt certain that was the answer. So we placed a call to Evan Spencer at Admar Supply, our local Topcon dealer–who, incidentally, also supplies the GNSS equipment for our union training sessions–and made arrangements to take this job to the next level."

After discussing LPCiminelli’s immediate needs with them, Spencer and Admar set them up with a Topcon base and a number of rovers, Topcon X-63 machine control on a pair of John Deere excavators (Model 470G and 670G), as well as its flagship 3D-MC2 system on three dozers, a pair of John Deere 850Ks and a Komatsu 51EX. For grading work deep inside the recesses of the massive structure, a Topcon laser control system was selected for the Komatsu unit to augment its machine control. Lachut said the Admar team was excellent in helping get his operators up to speed with the new technology.

"Evan and Mike Conley were out here daily, monitoring our operators’ progress, answering any and all questions, getting up on the machines with them," he said. Obviously, with the time frame being as tight as it was, we didn’t have a lot of time to learn a new technology; fortunately we didn’t need it. Topcon systems are designed for user-friendliness–we heard that from every operator. And that extra effort on Admar’s part really allowed us to hit the ground running."

Transformative Technology
Considering LPCiminelli started the SolarCity project as non-GNSS users, it’s particularly impressive to see just how farreaching the technology has become at the SolarCity site. According to Lachut, a week after its introduction and run-through, there was a GNSS-controlled machine at work in almost every grading, earthmoving and excavation facet of the project.

"We were so confident in what machine control could do–and the speed it could do it at–that we used it in virtually all of our site grading," he said. "That included using the John Deere 850K to handle the rough grade and subgrade for the building pad which, alone, was more than 30 acres in size. We also used it for grading outside the building footprint, including all our roadways, parking lot areas, etc. It just turned things around for us."

LPCiminelli had a rare opportunity to see firsthand the effect machine control can have on an operation when compared to a traditional approach. According to Lachut, the impact was immediate and evident.

"When we first started the pad, and trucks were dumping stone onsite, material was literally piling up–the dozers simply couldn’t keep the pace. However, once we went to GNSS, grading was so quick that dozers were now sitting waiting for material to be delivered. In fact, we had to actually hire on more trucks–there was that much of a difference between the two approaches. We found it to be easily two and a half to three times faster with the Topcon system."

Utility by the Mile
With a facility as large as SolarCity’s PV plant, it’s no surprise that the utility facet of the project would be as daunting as the grading. To meet those needs and maintain the necessary pace, Lachut said they needed impressive GNSS performance from their excavators–and got it.

"Every single ditch dug for utility work–and there was roughly 12 miles of it at SolarCity– was done using GNSS. That includes all the sanitary sewer, the storm sewer, water, fire protection, electrical, the grounding system, bioretention ponds, everything that was installed in the roughly mile-long circumference of the structure itself. In addition, there are spurs and electrical lines running to the parking lots that needed to be dug."

If 12 miles of utility work isn’t impressive enough, most ditches actually had to be dug twice: once to uncover and demolish concrete footers from the old plant which were buried, and a second time for the actual utility install.

"For most of the first digs," says Lachut, "we had a tandem set of excavators at work; one with a hydraulic hammer chipping away at the footers, and another, the GNSS machine with a bucket, used for both excavation and loadout of concrete and other debris. This was a serious amount of digging using the GNSS, and the ease of doing so made all the difference for us. For an operator to just come in every morning grab his monitor, jump in his machine, plug it in and go to work with no delay or need for assistance from a survey crew has been huge."

Really Grand Opening
With a tentative completion date set for fall of 2016 and plans to be fully operational the following spring, the mood in Buffalo–indeed in all of Western New York–is very upbeat. Estimates put the workforce for the SolarCity PV plant at nearly 1,500 workers with an equal number of additional jobs needed to service and supply the facility. For a city that has seen its labor force decimated by decades of plant closings and relocations, SolarCity’s commitment to Buffalo is most welcome.

"Even though this is just one of many local districts that are seeing tremendous growth, this is still a huge shot in the arm for Western New York," said Lachut. "This is one of the biggest projects we have ever undertaken as a company and we are proud to be a part of it. There are a lot of eyes watching as this job progresses, so being able to have the team in place that we do, using the technology that we are, is a positive for everyone involved. We could not be happier with the way things are going."

Larry Trojak of Minnesota-based Trojak Communications, is a freelance marketing content specialist. He writes extensively for the geopositioning, utility, aggregate processing, recycling, construction, and demolition markets.

A 8.996Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE