Pile On: Horne Brothers Construction explains the dramatic growth of its solar division

The solar division of Horne Brothers Construction is hitting its stride in today’s hot market. Based in Fayetteville, N.C., the division has expanded from around 30 employees to over 400 in just three years. The highly specialized company handles everything from driving piles and installing racking and modules to land clearing and erosion control.

“Many of the companies we work for started in the solar industry around the same time we did, and as their needs expanded, so did our services,” explains Tom Kosto, EVP of solar for Horne Brothers. “They’re working on multiple projects all over the country and by virtue, so are we.”

Keeping busy in Texas

While Horne Brothers have projects happening all over the country, Texas has been the hotbed of activity for the company over the last two years. Kosto says last summer his team was working near Sherman, Texas, constructing five new solar farms that produce approximately 75 MW. This year, Horne Brothers is working around Sherman, Greenville, Waco, Wallace, Warren and Beasley.

“We’re working our way toward Houston, and when we wrap up the last one, we’ll have completed 100 MW in 2018 in Texas alone,” Kosto adds.

The majority of the work is being done for the same customer, Cypress Creek Renewables. As one of the nation’s leading utility and community-scale solar companies, Cypress Creek Renewables has worked on more than 250 projects and has 2.3 GW of solar facilities currently deployed across the United States. The company is responsible for developing, financing, constructing and operating each of the facilities. The relationship Horne Brothers has formed with Cypress Creek Renewables has proven to be advantageous for both companies as well as the communities where each project is being located.

“Cypress Creek Renewables continues to grow, just like we do, but the number of jobs created doesn’t stop there,” Kosto says. “Each project has a need for local labor during construction, and sustainable new revenue streams are created in every community. Solar is a huge win for everyone involved.”

Equipment driving efficiency

Texas isn’t the only place that Horne Brothers has crews working. The company’s workforce is spread out across the nation, working at 30 different solar farm sites. In 2017, Horne Brothers installed 800 MW across 5,600 acres, and at presstime was on track to do more in 2018.

To get all of the work done, Horne Brothers rely on specialized teams to perform different phases of the job. A land-clearing crew is usually the first team in on most new jobs. They are responsible for clearing brush and trees. After the perimeter is cleared, the next team comes in with dozers and graders to verify the site has proper drainage and controlled erosion. Once that phase is complete, construction of the racking can begin.

“Driving the piles can be a pretty involved process,” Kosto explains. “For example, on the average 14-MW site, we’ll have to drive approximately 4,500 piles into the ground, and the spacing between each one has to be exact. Our team has it down to a science. In fact, it’s one of the fastest phases of any job.”

The Horne Brothers solar division operates more than 35 pile drivers with the Vermeer PD10 pile driver representing the majority of its fleet.

“To be efficient at this phase of the project, we prefer to have between two and six units on any given job,” Kosto says. “The Vermeer PD10’s compact design allows us to get multiple units on a trailer, which helps cut our transportation costs and saves time.”

On the jobsite, Kosto says the Vermeer pile driver’s operator controls, auto plumb and GPS integration are essential to his pile driving team’s efficiency.

“These features make it much easier for our people to get on and off a job faster and with precision when it comes to spacing the racking. In turn, that makes our racking crew’s job go more smoothly. They don’t have to worry about pile spacings being off,” he says.

The efficiencies of Horne Brothers’ pile driving team and equipment has allowed them to pick up extra jobs in the areas where they already have crews working.

“We tend to do everything on a project, except for electrical work,” Kosto says. “But there are also a lot of solar companies that hire out different contractors to perform each part on a job. We keep the Vermeer PD10 pile drivers working on those types of projects as well. We put a lot of hours on them, and they stand up well. They are also compact and lightweight compared to other pile drivers on the market, which makes a difference when transporting them and helps to minimize ground disruption on the job.”


Divide and conquer

Breaking each solar project into phases and using separate crews to complete the work has helped Horne Brothers work efficiently.

“It’s important for each team to understand every step of building a solar farm, but each crew member doesn’t need to know how to do all of the tasks involved on a project,” Kosto says. “Using multiple crews on a job allows our people to be more focused which has helped ensure we’re delivering a quality end product for customers, cost-efficiently and as quickly as possible. This approach is a big reason why we do so much repeat business with our public utility and commercial solar customers.”

Another contributing consideration for Horne Brothers overall efficiency is the equipment manufacturers that they choose to do business with, with the dealer networks being a primary factor in those decisions.

“While solar is going strong right now in Texas, North Carolina and South Carolina, there are many other states that we have crews working in, which is why it’s so important to choose equipment that has support, wherever we go,” says Kosto. “Also, since many solar farms are installed in rural areas, we need equipment partners that can support us even in more remote parts of a state. We get that from Vermeer and its dealer network. No matter where our crews are working, we know we’ll receive a high level of service and parts support.”

Predicting the future

While the present marketplace for solar energy is bright, tariffs and the phasing out of tax credits is a significant concern for the people that make their living in solar. Kosto explained Horne Brothers has experienced 40 to 50 percent growth year after year for the last three years but is concerned that market uncertainties may impact projects in the future.

“Many of the solar farms we’re constructing today have been in the works for a year or two,” Kosto says. “For the industry to continue to grow, there needs to be stability in its future, and that means being able to keep costs in check. Our process and the equipment we use has helped us operate lean and efficiently, but material pricing could impact solar energy production costs soon, which could reduce solar energy as being as successful as it is today for energy companies.”