Have you considered timber mats on your large-scale solar project?

Article adapted from a white paper by World Forest Group

Timber mats are used in transmission, wind, heavy civil and pipeline industries to provide ground protection and increased job efficiency. They are primarily used as temporary access roads and are often required before most other ground work starts.

Solar is different than large sectors like pipeline construction and wind project development. The scale is different. A transmission or pipeline may stretch for hundreds of miles, while most solar projects are much, much smaller. And the utility-scale solar market is greatly affected by small price changes with hardware and labor.

Why do these differences matter?

If contractors operate at large scale, for example, in transmission lines or pipelines, they can capture economies of scale if they set up and operate efficiently. If there’s an issue in one area they can move to another. In solar, contractors operate at a small-scale; they need to get start execution right from the beginning. And all solar EPCs ride the price and efficiency curve. They can only control those costs slightly. See chart below.

What differentiates solar EPCs from each other is execution on the ground rather than access to solar hardware. They control what they can. That means getting people and resources in and out quickly, safely and executing efficiently. With matting, solar EPCs have a competitive advantage instead of being left with risk and possible cost overruns instead of project efficiencies.

After a winter rain, this solar site became impassible.

Utility-scale solar is also interesting as – so far – ground protection hasn’t been mandated either by EPCs, owners or regulatory agencies. It’s likely just a matter of time before matting becomes an integral part of successful solar deployment.

Here’s a short list where matting may add value to the owner, EPC, and/or contractor.

  • Brownfield and landfill solar where soils are unstable or puncture of the cap is a potential issue.
  • Agricultural soils, where compaction or aggregate roads remove land from productive use.
  • Difficult operating conditions such as water-logged areas.
  • Ecologically sensitive areas, for example, adding pollinators or native grasses, and/or where compaction would slow down ground cover regrowth.
  • Stakeholder issues, for example, when a road crosses other owners’ lands to get to the site, and where low impact is required or mandated.
  • Where spark or fire risk is high and where matting will reduce such risk. (West coast electric companies do this in high wildfire risk areas.)
  • Where the use of sustainable matting and exceptional environmental stewardship demonstrates superior thought leadership to provide a competitive advantage in being awarded the EPC business.

World Forest Group offers eucalyptus timber mats because of their lower total cost of ownership. They are stronger, safer and more sustainable than other mat materials. Because eucalyptus is stronger, the contractor can get by with a 6-in. thick mat that will last a long time instead of an 8-in. mixed hardwood mat. World Forest Group’s E7M mats – a replacement for cross-laminated timber mats (CLT) or three-ply bolted mats – provide the labor and efficiency savings of CLT or three-ply bolted with a much longer lifespan.

Eucalyptus mats can provide a stable work path on solar projects.

Sustainability: Eucalyptus mats are more sustainable for four reasons:

  1. Plantation-grown eucalyptus creates ground cover where none existed.
  2. Plantation-grown eucalyptus sequesters about five-times the amount of carbon per land area vs. U.S. mixed-hardwoods and about 66% more carbon per tree.
  3. Using eucalyptus matting reduces pressure on U.S. hardwood forests (particularly Southeast U.S. hardwood forests).
  4. Eucalyptus timber mats have a lower carbon footprint because you can get more mats per truck vs. mixed-hardwood mats.

Utility-scale solar is a unique industry that will continue to enjoy the benefits of fast expansion and significantly lower cost structure. Therefore, EPCs have to ride that cost curve and find other ways to reduce costs. The competitive advantage is in on-the-ground execution with people and machinery. The payback for using mats can be substantial, and using a sustainable matting solution like eucalyptus may provide the difference between getting the job or not.