An installation boom is coming to the Northeast and its temperamental soil conditions

Solar is prevailing in the Northeast following a string of passed legislation creating community solar programs in New England. States like New Jersey, Maryland and Maine all recently created community solar programs, and Pennsylvania may soon follow.

It varies by state, but many markets in the Northeast are still fledgling, with Maine, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New Hampshire and Vermont each reporting under 1 GW of total solar installed.  The creation of these community solar programs will undoubtedly lead to development of ground-mounted solar projects, the primary setting for community arrays. The Northeast is a unique environment for such installations. APA Solar Racking reported that 40% of its PV structures and foundations sold are for projects in that region.

APA Solar Racking

What makes the Northeast a challenge for installers is a combination of its soil conditions, wind speeds and precipitation. The region is home to compacted soils with high presence of glacial till, cobble, boulders and bedrock, and given its longitude, the ground-mounts are also susceptible to frost jacking/heave.

“The frost in those markets is extremely deep,” said Josh Von Deylen, CEO of APA Solar Racking. “Those loads of a pull-out force that you would maybe see in Ohio of 3,000 pounds in Maine may be like 8,000 pounds, mainly because of the frost jacking forces, that foundation will see just a very drastic difference there.”

With the heavy presence of stone, installers need to be deliberate with foundation choices, selecting solutions that can work around or through those obstructions. Von Deylen said about 90% of the foundations purchased from APA for projects in New York and New England are ground screws, which are designed for rocky soil conditions.

“In Minnesota, you might have rock, cobble and glacial till, but that’s also going to be in soft soil,” he said. “So potentially, you can push past it and get through it a little bit easier. The New England market has very highly compacted, very stiff soils with all this rock in it, so it makes for a very hard scenario to look at the pile-driven foundations or helical foundations.”

The Northeast is prone to heavy snowfall, with several states receiving the most in the country, like Vermont, which averages about 90 in. annually. Plus, New England has a hilly topography and significantly less landmass compared to other regions.

“Flat area has really been utilized in development already, so anything that you’re going to see is a very rolling topography,” Von Deylen said. “High topography sites are very difficult for solar projects and definitely take a higher level of engineering and expertise to do the install vs. a lot of the rest of the United States.”

Despite its environmental qualities, the Northeast United States has policy backing its foray into significant new solar development.