Renewables: get the foundations right

Like any diversification project in your business, installing renewable energy carries a big outlay in terms of time and money. Ensuring that you don’t have sleepless nights and potential disasters may cost you more, but it may be the best investment you make in the longer term.

Before installation, consider the following areas:

Personal risk. There are three options available for development: lease, joint venture or self development. Identify what you and your business partners want before embarking on a route. Remember that even if you get planning permission, you don’t need to develop the project yourself – the planning consent has a value to it depending on size and other factors.

Product selection. Most people who are selling equipment and will tell you what you want to hear, but there are normally several options for any renewables equipment. Get quotes, and, importantly, understand the service cost, service contract, warranty and what it covers.

Warranty on products. You should have warranty from the manufacturer rather than the supplier and need to look at it carefully. Is it just parts and labour or does it cover loss of income?

The good warranties will cover your losses if the turbine fails due to a mechanical breakdown even if the sun is shining or the wind blowing.

It’s important to have warranty for longer than your proper payback (after finance and tax allowance). If you don’t, there is risk that you still have debt outstanding without any cover in place.

Who’s liable?

Many farmers are installing single “mid” wind turbines of between 50kW and 500kW to cover their farm needs and provide export payments. These machines are installed by the turbine manufacturers, with separate civil engineering companies building foundations, substations and access tracks, often subcontracting some of the work.

Your grid operator will also be on site carrying out electrical work. You will need to contract separately with all of these organisations: contracts are complex and you will definitely need to take legal advice from experienced solicitors before signing.

Balance of Plant contracts. Balance of Plant (BoP) refers to all the infrastructure of the project excluding the turbine and its components. It’s vital that you have a contract with your BoP providers that makes clear who is liable in the event of a problem.

Many civil engineers will subcontract some of the work so ask yourself if you have appropriate collateral warranties in place to claim against them personally if, for example, the company fails to use adequate materials for the foundations or, in the worst-case scenario, disappears. It is vital to make sure that you are not held liable.

Insurance. Talk to your own insurers at a very early stage. Does it include debt repayment cover in the event of a turbine toppling or your 50kW PV system falling through the roof of a barn? Does the policy cover your Feed-in Tariffs (FiTs) and export payments, and for how long?

Major replacement parts may have an order period of nine months so you will need to be covered during that period as well as for the rebuild. Take out insurance that covers all reasonable eventualities.

Health and safety. It is important to bear in mind that under the 1974 Health & Safety at Work Act you are responsible for health and safety on site. Under the Construction (Design & Management) Regulations 2007 (CDM) you will need to notify the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) if there are going to be more than 30 days spent on site. This will almost always be the case.

If your installer or civil engineering company does not have a CDM co-ordinator, you will need to bring in a specialist consultant to make sure that health and safety legislation is followed. Failure to do so can lead to a delay in the project or even, in the case of a fatal accident, criminal proceedings.

Wind turbine foundations. Depending on soil type, topography and location, your turbine might require a poured concrete pad or a pile-driven base for enduring stability. To assess this, a borehole should be sunk by a suitably qualified surveyor to assess ground/rock type and water table depth. The results of this test should then form part of the specification for the foundation works.

Moorings for ground-mounted PV systems. It is important to have soil testing carried out in order to establish how the mountings will be made secure. In many cases, the S-shaped metal legs are pile-driven, although in very light soils or on very rocky sites, other techniques may be required. Warranty period must be established for these mountings.

Roof-mounted PV. The best scenario is to put a PV array on a new building, so that load- and wind-bearing can be built in. For older buildings, it is important to use a chartered structural surveyor so that the load bearing and life expectancy of the roof can be assessed. If your roof is fibre cement and already 20 years old, it is unlikely to be suitable for a PV array that will be there for 25 years.

What to do if the worst happens

If your renewables system has been installed correctly, and you’ve done everything in accordance with the advice given opposite, then the two nightmarish scenarios described below aren’t going to occur. But let’s just say you haven’t taken enough care in the planning and installation stages What do you do when the worst has happened?

Wind turbine falls

You have an 80m wind turbine installed by a reputable company and it topples over one windy night. This is extremely unlikely to happen. Large turbines have a complex system of vibration sensors built in and, together with an array of safety systems within the hub and remote monitoring for each machine, it is very rare for a larger turbine to fall over, whether there is a problem with ice on a blade or a crack in the foundations. However, vandalism is a potential issue and all turbine owners should be prepared for the worst.

Firstly don’t let anyone near the installation – remember that it is an electricity generator and could be live. As the owner of the turbine, you have legal responsibility for making sure that it is made safe. Ensure that no one has been hurt and that the fallen turbine is not affecting road traffic. If fencing has been damaged, check that stock is moved to avoid the possibility of animals straying on to a road.

Larger machine contracts will include remote data monitoring to look after your turbine, so your installer should know about the problems before you do and will instigate its emergency procedures, which will include securing the site and notifying the grid operators, fire service and other stakeholders.

If you have a smaller turbine without remote monitoring, notify your installer and make sure it is able to deal with the situation. Call your operational insurance company as soon as possible and take lots of photographs from a safe distance to record the scene.

You should have complete public liability insurance cover in place so this will come into force if anyone has been injured. Once the turbine is safe and your insurance company is involved, you will be able to consider the next steps.

You should have set up an operational insurance policy that covers the cost of complete reinstallation but make sure that your debt repayments and “down time” are also covered. You will need to notify your electricity supplier and your power purchaser that your contracts with them need to be suspended, but you will be able to claim the same FiTs rate as for your original turbine, since the replacement will not be a new development.

Roof collapse

Roof-mounted PV is a very popular choice for farmers, particularly those who have a high electricity demand, such as broiler chicken producers and grain-drying operations. If the worst should happen and your roof collapses with your PV system in place, safety is the most urgent issue. If you’ve used a suitably qualified, competent person (NICEIC or NAPIT accredited) to install the system, your electrical connection should simply fuse if the roof collapses.

However, if the wrong fuses or cables have been installed, hotspots can be created, generating enough heat to set fire to any flammable materials or fuels in the shed and causing an emergency situation. This is a very rare event but has been documented in several countries. The cause is always faulty electrical installation.

Again, your PV insurance should cover reinstallation and downtime but this is not the case with all insurance policies. Before installing, check the warranty on your farm building roof – the PV installation may invalidate it.

Victoria Lancaster is renewables project manager at gfw-Renewables

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