There’s a weekly sit-down in the Swinerton Renewable Energy (SRE) engineering department. Director Donny Gallagher calls it “the Innovation and Optimization Meeting” and it includes more than in-house staff. Engineering partners from Blymyer, Construction Innovations, SOLV, and others may be part of the meeting that, in many ways, seeks to solve problems that were originally deemed unsolvable.
“We look at three things,” Gallagher explains. “We’re trying to figure out how to optimize around the technology we are putting into the ground today, how we can optimize around the technologies we’re expecting to put in the ground next year, and [how we can] develop new products and designs . . . in 2023 and beyond.”
These would be unusual questions to address in almost any industry other than solar energy. There’s a good chance SRE’s forecast for 18 months out includes technology that doesn’t yet exist. The difference between 2021 and 2023 can be the difference between a DVD player and 4K streaming stick in the renewable energy space, with exponential breakthroughs in energy storage, output, and loss-mitigation occurring so quickly that building codes can’t keep up.
“There are absolutely many different answers to all of those questions,” Gallagher says. “It can be frustrating in many ways because we’ve gone so far as to develop our own technology when the industry wasn’t quite there yet, and a year later, we’ll have to completely redesign it because the technology it’s based on is already outdated.”
Gallagher expresses some of the biggest challenges of his role with a laugh. It seems like a healthy reaction to working on the absolute frontlines of technological innovation, in a space that SRE is helping define. The director has been a part of every utility-scale project SRE has ever done: he was a consultant before his longtime mentor and friend Erik Johnson brought him in-house. Gallagher rose through the ranks at SRE, and after eight years, has become accustomed to the reality of the unknown in his space.
“I think what has helped us continue to be so successful and able to accommodate so many changes are the things that don’t change,” he explains. “That’s been our partners. We’ve worked with the same groups for years and years. That list includes Blymyer, Construction Innovations, Kimley-Horn, Terracon, Live Action, Nextracker, and DE Shaw, and Gallagher says the nature of their business has created a Band of Brothers-like camaraderie that keeps them all committed to innovation in solar technology.
“Blymyer Engineers is proud of our history of partnering with Swinerton Renewable Energy and Donny Gallagher,” says Greg Mazur, the director of engineering at Blymyer Engineers. “Donny has a keen understanding of engineering challenges and brings insight to every project. Besides being an excellent engineer, he is a pleasure to work with thanks to his integrity and passion for quality.”
One of the other aspects that has remained constant at SRE is the people in-house. “This industry has a tremendous amount of turnover,” Gallagher says. “So many of our clients have changed business cards four or five times. But as one of the first 30 SRE employees, I think almost all of us are still here. That must mean we’re doing something right.”
The long tenure of so many at SRE also means there is a wealth of institutional knowledge that makes communication easy, and maybe more importantly, helps provide new employees with a broader perspective on the possibilities of solar energy.
Gallagher believes a great deal of the unified culture at SRE comes from the company being 100 percent employee owned. Everyone has a stake, and the victories can be shared and accounted for by the entire organization.
That organization has grown from 30 employees to more than 700 during Gallagher’s tenure. The progress is impressive, considering the adaptation and flexibility required for the still-burgeoning solar market. That adaptation is illustrated perfectly in the partnership between SRE and Nextracker.
A challenging install site on rolling California terrain was made even more difficult by an error in a topographic survey: the site wasn’t nearly as flat as they had thought. “We started thinking about it differently,” Gallagher says. “Why does the tracker need to be flat? Why can’t it contour and follow the land? It took the whole team and the poor civil contractor [long-term partner Live Action] doing the earth work trying to accommodate every whim we had.”
That rethinking of Nextracker’s product led to innovation that would become a new product. The Nextracker XT being pushed into the market later in 2021 was the result of a botched survey. SRE and Nextracker kept the technology between themselves for two years before offering it to the larger marketplace. “It’s something we take a lot of pride in,” Gallagher says. “There’s a tremendous amount of work with so many partners to make these things come together, and no two are ever the same.”
Gallagher is excited about the potential for solar battery storage that is just starting to roll out now. He sees it as the next frontier for solar technology. “That’s what can make a solar power plant a fully dispatchable resource,” the director says. “The need to produce power can’t depend on whether or not the sun is out, and this allows you to store power and release it as needed. This is what will help us phase out fossil fuel.”
While the power of individual solar cells continues to grow and megawatt inverters balloon in capacity, it’s not one piece of technology that is responsible for the success at Swinerton Renewable Energy. It’s the unified partnerships, enduring collaboration, and the ability to turn a problem into the next big thing that sets the company apart. Gallagher may laugh while he tells you all this, but the innovation taking place at SRE is no joke.