Watts Up With Savings

As the solar energy industry continues to evolve quickly, Chris Gorman is examining ways to use advancements in solar technology to improve cost efficiency without sacrificing safety or operational integrity.

Gorman, who graduated in May 2024 with a Master of Engineering degree in Energy Systems Engineering, Integrative Systems + Design, completed an ISD capstone project: “Implementation of Alternative Technologies on the DC Collection System of Utility-Scale Solar Arrays.”

Gorman’s thorough capstone investigation is expected to lead to significant improvements in the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of future solar utility scale solar projects. 

“My project goal was to make solar park construction cheaper and cleaner while maintaining safe operation,” said Gorman, who works as a Senior Engineer with a Michigan-based utility. “The projected savings could be as significant as 1-2% and may be implemented in solar projects for years to come.”

Utility-scale solar projects stand at the forefront of the energy transition, demanding constant innovation to optimize performance and reduce expenses. Gorman’s research addresses this need head-on; his project scrutinizes the potential integration of Insulation Piercing Connector (IPC) technology into solar array DC collection systems. This technology offers a modular, field-installable approach that contrasts with the current, more costly molded connections that are pre-engineered to be plug-and-play.

Gorman’s methodical approach leverages a multi-faceted analysis, starting with a Pugh Matrix to weigh and score factors like cost, reliability, and flexibility of two connector types. The IPC technology, though relatively novel, held its ground against the conventional system. Further bolstering Gorman’s case, operational data analysis from existing solar parks revealed a mere 0.4% of failures associated with the DC collection systems, indicating a potential window of opportunity for IPC implementation.

Experimental trials served as the crucible, putting the connectors to the test under extreme conditions, including drop tests and water intrusion assessments. The IPC connectors demonstrated resilience, matching the existing system’s performance in key areas. Although IPC technology showed vulnerability to water intrusion, further investigation revealed the test conditions did not reflect normal operation, opening the door for additional, more representative testing.

“We know IPC’s offer a cheaper and more efficient installation process,” Gorman said. 

A financial analysis of Gorman’s capstone project forecasts a potential capital savings of ~1.4% for a hypothetical 150 MW solar farm. These savings stem from the IPC technology’s installation and operational advantages. However, Gorman advocates for a cautious, yet proactive strategy for adopting IPC technology, emphasizing the need for individual vendor evaluations, enhanced quality control processes, and field demonstrations before broader application.

“To decarbonize our generation sources, cost creep for clean technologies must be prevented without sacrificing operational integrity,” he said.

The capstone project culminates with the recommendation that energy owners incrementally introduce IPCs after rigorous vendor-specific evaluations and under stricter quality protocols to maximize solar project outcomes reliably and safely. This innovative approach has the potential to yield substantial advantages for Michigan-based utilities, positioning them as leaders in solar technology integration and furthering the University of Michigan’s mission to contribute to sustainable energy solutions.

Gorman’s interest in renewable energies was sparked while he was earning a Bachelor of Science degree in Chemical Engineering at Michigan Technological University in May 2019 and continued to burn bright throughout his ISD ESE graduate education. 

“I’m extremely excited about the solar industry and decarbonization of the grid,” he said. “Pushing for a cleaner future is really what excites me. Let’s make a solution so cheap and clean that it can’t be ignored. Make renewables the gold standard. I’m a big believer the answer is not all solar and not all fossil. There is no silver bullet. However, the transition to clean power generation requires efficient implementation of renewable technologies. This allows us to take steps towards renewable, on demand sources, like hydrogen. Let’s phase out dirtier energies like coal with reliable, cleaner, and cheaper power.”