SolarWorld solar blog

Installing, Testing, Permitting, and Commissioning 450 Solar Panels in Four Days Flat

Posted 13 March 2013 12:00 AM by Mike McKechnie, President of Mountain View Solar

I first heard about the Water Missions International project while I was having dinner with my friend Ben Santarris from SolarWorld last year. He was telling me about this charitable group that SolarWorld had developed a strategic partnership with and about a 100-kilowatt project that the company wanted to build at Water Missions’ new headquarters in Charleston. S.C.

I immediately inquired about how the project was going to be pulled together, and before you knew it, I had volunteered the firm that I founded with my brother – Mountain View Solar team in West Virginia – as the SolarWorld authorized installer for the project.

Months went by, and we started to talk about the engineering and planning of the project with SolarWorld and the folks from Water Missions. We scheduled a weekly phone conference and started to work out the details. I still did not know who Water Missions was or what it was all about. But in the meantime, there were lots of details of planning, engineering, procurement, coordination, logistics and material donations to pursue. Over time, we all started to see the project planning come together and the target time frame for the installation selected: the first week of March.

Installing the ground mount rails
Ground cleared & ground mount system getting installed

I had offered our team whenever timing worked out best for the project. Yet, the first week of March is the beginning of one of our busiest times of the year, trade show season, so I knew it would be a tight squeeze, not to mention that my wife and I have a 4-month-old baby at home. Early March was going to be a tough time to be out of the picture for a whole week. I asked myself more than once why I had committed to this project at this time of year – and 10 hours from home. My wife, Faith, asked me more than once, too. I felt like I needed to go, but I did not know why.

We planned for a one-week installation. To make that happen and maintain our workload back home, I could only take along three others from our team. We knew the project team had two electricians with good alternating-current experience in Charleston, but it had no direct-current experience. Our group – I as well as Jason Arnold, Dave Fleeharty and Jay Smith – would need to tackle the DC side all on our own and train volunteers to help us get the job done.

Mike McKechnie from Mountain View Solar, a SolarWorld Authorized Installer, teams up with volunteers to help install a 100-kilowatt solar system
Mike McKechnie from Mountain View Solar, a SolarWorld Authorized Installer, teams up with volunteers to help install a 100-kilowatt solar system

As I put together the labor schedule, it also became clear that we’d need a large group of volunteers to have even a chance to make the short timetable work. Water Missions knew that we needed some volunteer labor, too, but when I ran the numbers, I was a little concerned about the number of people we needed: at least 32 volunteers each day for the whole work week. I emailed off the schedule, hoping Water Missions could line up the volunteer staff that we needed.

We packed our truck as well as Volkswagen diesel beetle – our company logo wrapped all over it – and left at 5:30 a.m. Sunday, March 3, in hopes of getting to the site before dark so that we could check it out before needing to direct volunteer work on the site first thing in the morning. We arrived at 5:30 p.m. at Water Mission’s site, where we met WMI managers George Greene IV, Rogers Hook and Jay Cook. They gave us a tour of their new quarters in a derelict military warehouse they were restoring, and they explained what their mission was all about.

Nearly finished installing the solar panels
Nearly finished installing the solar panels for Water Mission International's 100-kilowatt solar system

They showed us pictures of the people they are working with in developing nations all over the world, along with the conditions that exist there. We were immediately taken over by our emotions as we listened to the stories of young people carrying dirty water for miles each and every day and then drinking while we knew all along that it would make them sick or worse. Kids and adults were dying from the dirty water each day. I was not ready for that; it hit me real hard. I felt like I needed to do more and wanted to help. We were there to help and now I knew why.

SolarWorld solar panels and Water Missions International in Peru
A Water Missions International clean water station serving a community in Peru

We began work early Monday morning, to our surprise, with a wealth of volunteers. In coming days, we worked with as many as 90 volunteers a day, virtually all without ANY solar experience. We also faced several significant procurement issues during the project that seemed insurmountable. But ultimately we finished the solar system, tested it and secured permitting for one of the largest PV arrays in South Carolina in just FOUR days. This was truly a blitz-build solar project. Along the way, we had worked very long days, made some great friends and learned more about WMI’s mission.

As it turns out, we and Water Missions have the same mission: to make significant and lasting change in the world.