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Neutralizing foundation risks builds solar success

EPCs and developers agree: risk management is the cornerstone of any successful project.

Whether it’s parts supply, installation variables or staff shortages, the unexpected can blow up timelines and budgets, erode margins and jeopardize PV profitability.

Take, for example, a fictional EPC we call “Enlightened Force.” This leader in integrated utilities prides itself on guiding asset owners to make the right decisions for the highest financial return. But it is rarely possible to have all the details of the site in advance; Solar project experience and successful track record alone cannot solve every problem.

Instead, Enlightened Power draws out a project plan that eliminates as many risks as possible from the start. One way to do this is to use smart project feasibility software such as: SIFTING to quickly model configurations, optimize component selection, and execute project IRR scenarios to maximize return on investment from the ground up.

It is also critical to assess underground issues to determine appropriate foundation options. But developers and EPCs often choose a foundation before selecting a scaffolding partner, sometimes even before completing the required comprehensive geotechnical assessments.

Terrasmart’s unique integration simplifies execution

To help Enlightened Power navigate foundation risk/return, Terrasmart experts combine their engineering and PV construction expertise to assess options in a variety of conditions. Terrasmart brings together 600 solar experts who have delivered a combined installed capacity of more than 19 GW in 4,600 projects. With two of his four legacy companies — RBI Solar and the former TerraSmart — with a wealth of experience with ground screws and piles, our foundation experts advise on the cost-benefit ratio between pile systems and ground screws.

Uniquely integrated into a single scaffolding and eBOS partner, the new Terrasmart provides an objective perspective on costs and benefits inherent in both piles and ground screws.

Ground screws:

  • Demand higher initial material and construction costs
  • Eliminate all denials
  • Minimize land division and reduce other civil costs
  • Can be combined with adjustable shelving designed for flexible land use
  • Deliver reliable returns from untrustworthy sites

Pile systems:

  • Standard option for economical PV
  • Can be deployed quickly and reliably from a material and construction point of view
  • May lead to denials on rough or sloping terrain or in unpredictable conditions

Finding a way around denials

A central risk that Enlightened Power considers when selecting a PV foundation is land denial. A reject occurs when the stack does not advance 12 inches for more than 30 seconds or takes more than five minutes to install. Decline requires additional time, resources and materials to mitigate, shred budgets and delay project schedules.

Initial ground screw prices are 26 percent higher than for pile systems. But screws can be deployed more quickly, with 40 percent more installed per day than piles. An important bonus: ground screws do not require remediation of refusal.

When rejection costs are taken into account, remediation adds $250 per foundation to the initial installation price of $68 per unit for a standard drill and drive rig. Refusals also require more wagering time at a rate of 50 units per day. Scenarios that allow for a “cut and drill” remediation add $75 per pile and 100 foundations per day to the schedule.

Practical examples inform smart foundation choices

In a recent exercise to help Enlightened Power come up with the right plan, Terrasmart engineers compared two 10 MW sites to better understand the costs and scheduling implications of denials. One site had limited slopes and soft ground, while the other had a more rugged, rocky profile with high rejection risks. For both locations, they compared component material costs, installation costs and time using piles or ground screws. They then assessed the cost and planning impact of remediation of piles at a site with 50 percent rejections. The goal was to identify a break-even point within that environment above which ground screws would yield better results.

Download the full study here

Admittedly, 50 percent refusals are not the norm. The question then becomes: at what rejection rate do ground screws perform better than piles? And what are the consequences for costs and schedules? The Terrasmart team defined break-even points for both cost and installation time to determine an acceptable bounce rate; the result was remarkable.


From an installation cost standpoint, a 29 percent bounce rate makes a site a good candidate for earthmoving. Any increase above this $400,000 breakeven point — the cost of installing ground screws — would contribute to budget overruns.


Denials slow down projects. In this scenario, both the pile and ground screw systems take 26 days to install, assuming a bounce rate of up to 7 percent. However, every additional 15 percent of stack rejects adds another day to the schedule.

Because every location is different, projects with a 20-30 percent bounce rate require geotesting and technical expertise to ensure you have the best solution for your project.

To learn more about this analysis, please refer to our whitepaper here

Whatever the location, Terrasmart provides the right foundation

As a true partner for success, Terrasmart is the only provider on the market to offer both ground screw and pile foundations. Through a careful objective analysis of the underground profile of each site, we can apply our in-depth experience to different types of foundations. Use our efficient solutions to optimize projects in all conditions on site. We do this together with EPCs to maximize ROI, minimize risk and costs, and determine the best path to project success.

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