The race to install renewable energy capacity is not unlike a military operation. It involves an urgent mission—to combat greenhouse gases (GHGs) and to take advantage of dynamic economic factors—as well as a demand for logistical expertise, technical know-how, and an ability to lead large battalions of workers to get the job done.
That’s why Shannon Richardson—who is responsible for engineering, procurement, and construction (EPC) at 8minutenergy Renewables LLC—is the right man for this job. Now a senior director with the firm, he formerly served in the US Navy as an officer in the Civil Engineer Corps and later as a civilian in the US Army Corps of Engineers. He also was enlisted in the Air National Guard while earning his bachelor’s degree in civil engineering at the University of Arkansas.
Shannon’s engagement in renewable energy began all the way back in the eighth grade. “I built a solar-powered water heater for a science project,” he says. “Solar energy has always interested me.”
Working for San Francisco-based 8minutenergy since 2016, he puts that interest to work in his role developing and building some of the company’s largest projects that dot the sunny landscapes of rural California. The company currently has 7,500 mW of solar panels under development on more than 20,000 acres of land in Imperial and Kern Counties, in the far southeast and central inland parts of the state, respectively. These projects require up to 1,500 workers over the 9–12 months it takes to construct a solar farm.
Assembling a solar array of that size still might look simple, comparatively speaking, to builders of high-rises and infrastructure in more urban areas. “Yes, open sites are easier than, say, building a tunnel in a city,” he says. “But we have to identify protected species habitat and handle all the environmental permitting and mitigation planning beforehand.” Additionally, California is America’s center of gravity for solar power development. The demand for labor is high, particularly when developers are trying to beat bureaucratic deadlines such as when investment tax credits face expiration. Managing material delivery is also a matter of precise timing and other logistics.
Why Veterans Make Great Leaders in Solar Farm Development
Shannon Richardson cites characteristics of military training that apply to his civilian career in renewable energy:
Materials are sourced from Asia, affecting pricing and shipping.
Fast solar farm development requires tight synchronization of up to 1,500 workers at a time.
The tight labor supply reflects the demographics of the general population.
The faster they build, the sooner that solar farms generate revenues and reduce GHGs.
Projects such as 8minutenergy’s 260mW Mount Signal 1 or the 191mW Springbok 2 solar farms, now supplying energy to the cities of Los Angeles and Palo Alto, California, are good examples of such large and complex undertakings. In many respects, they are similar to projects Richardson was responsible for in the Middle East. In Kuwait, he set up a 44-bed, temporary Navy hospital that was capable of accommodating a surgery center and advanced imaging equipment desperately needed to treat wounded soldiers.
“When you work on a project in a deployment environment, you have to have plans A, B, C, and D,” he says. “You can’t just run to Home Depot when things aren’t running correctly.”
He has also had other assignments of significant size and logistical planning with the Department of Defense (DOD). Stateside, he was responsible for relocating Army assets from Forts Campbell and Knox to Fort Benning, Georgia, which meant building roads, sewers, buildings, barracks, dining halls, schools, and gas stations to accommodate 20,000 soldiers. They did this in less than 24 months—earning Richardson the Department of the Army Achievement Medal for Civilian Service.
Richardson has cycled back and forth between private industry and the DOD in various capacities, with stints as a project manager, site leader, resident engineer, and EPC responsibilities, largely in solar farm development and for an ethanol company.
Why has he spent so much time in the renewable energy sector? “There are a lot of projects, and it’s fast paced,” he says. “A lot of the materials involved are commodity driven—such as steel, copper, and photovoltaic panels—that are financially relevant. When prices on any of these drop or there is a change in the tax equity markets, the work accelerates.” He adds that in the solar construction industry, which involves government contracting, his bidding experience has proven to be valuable.
But given the degree of innovation in the industry, people like Richardson can’t just stick to a script. He points to trade battles between American and Chinese solar panel manufacturers as a big dynamic and one which impacts costs. Also, bifacial panels (which collect solar energy on the top and bottom faces) and batteries are emerging technologies that will likely increase the value of solar in the near future, adding further strength to industry activity.
The war against greenhouse gases is real, and Shannon Richardson is leading the charge.
Photo: Dee Richardson
Swinerton Renewable Energy (SRE) is proud to be a continuing partner of 8minutenergy. SRE offers utility, commercial, and high-voltage EPC and SOLV O&M services for solar photovoltaic plants throughout North America. Ranked a top 3 US solar contractor, SRE has built over 2.5 GW of solar capacity and our SOLV team currently manages 4.5 GW of PV plants.