Efforts to address climate change through the diversification of global energy sources have been rapidly gaining momentum over the past 15 years. According to the International Energy Agency, global solar photovoltaic (PV) capacity is set to surpass coal to become the energy source with the greatest power capacity in the world by 2027.

PCL is a leader in this market. It entered the renewables space in 2009 as a utility-scale engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) solar solutions provider and today its solar operations now span Canada, the United States and Australia. To date, PCL has led the EPC works for more than $5.7 billion CAD ($4.2B USD), surpassing capacity of 6-gigawatt direct current (MWdc) with upwards of 8 million solar panels installed. Additionally, PCL has integrated over 800+ MWh of Battery Energy Storage Systems into its projects, totaling more than $58 million CAD ($43M USD). This energy output generated through our projects is enough to power more than 1.4 million homes, helping to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate the impacts of climate change.

Yet this success is only one part of the bigger picture. PCL is driving a holistic approach to the life cycle of its solar projects, implementing a phased multiyear sustainability strategy that provides guidance to employees, clients and partners to lessen environmental impact.

Andrew Fleetwood, chief estimator and manager of preconstruction services for PCL Solar, says there are many opportunities for PCL to reduce greenhouse gases within the design and construction processes.

“We recognize that as an industry we need to make more conscientious decisions during design and construction,” he says. “By collaborating with our clients, design, engineering and trade partners and equipment rental companies, we at PCL can make better decisions concerning embodied carbon, waste disposal, renewable energy, net zero and energy efficiency.”

From design to construction to end-of-life management, the challenges presented at each stage of the project life cycle are nuanced. They require solutions that are tailored to each specific project and the client's needs. “Each phase in a project’s life cycle has environmental impacts,” Fleetwood says. “Identifying which construction processes have the largest impact and making eco-conscious choices at every stage will decrease our carbon footprint and help preserve the planet for generations to come.”

While the long-term investment in sustainable construction is invaluable, building sustainably can be more expensive up front, and it can be challenging for clients to allocate additional funds within their budgets. However, a number of tax credits, grants and rebates — such as Canada’s Clean Investment Tax Credits, the United States’ Inflation Reduction Act and Australia’s Small-scale Renewable Energy Scheme — make sustainable builds more accessible for clients. Furthermore, these tax credits promote responsible sourcing by stipulating that certain components must be manufactured within the country offering the credit.

Yet PCL recognizes that it has a role to play in making solutions more accessible. PCL formed an action team to perform an extensive review of projects in three countries. “The action team’s vision was to first examine the construction processes’ environmental impact from the case studies and compare each project’s process effects to find any leading trends, large emitters and environmental effect bottlenecks, and then to make subsequent recommendations,” Fleetwood says. The findings were presented by the action team to PCL Solar senior leaders and early stages of implementation have begun on sites across Canada, the United States and Australia.

Reducing and even eliminating the use of fossil fuels, both on-site and in the transportation of materials to and from site, is the most impactful way to reduce carbon emissions. For example, water serves numerous purposes in solar construction, including dust suppression and trenching compaction. On every project, PCL surveys the land for water bores to source local water and reduce the need to transport it to and from site. Fleetwood says, “Transitioning away from fossil fuel-powered machines offers various benefits to the industry, too. Electric machines require less maintenance because they have fewer components. When maintained correctly, they have a longer life expectancy than diesel-powered equipment.”

PCL is also working hard behind the scenes to ensure that any newly acquired equipment meets its rigorous safety standards. Moreover, smaller changes add up and can be just as effective at moving the needle. At project sites in New South Wales, Australia, the PCL team minimized waste disposal by working with a local plastic recycling company to transition material waste into much-needed underground mechanical cable protection boards and electrical warning tapes. This cutting-edge process recycles contaminated plastic films without using water.

PCL Solar continues to prioritize sustainable practices, making a positive impact on local communities wherever it works. One example is enhanced geotechnical investigation and testing. Preliminary investigations and testing performed on a project site in Gulgong, New South Wales, Australia, allowed the team to uncover thermal sand — a material valued for its efficiency when paired with solar energy systems. The team harvested 54,000 tons of sand, avoiding long-haul routes and diverting roughly 1,400 trucks and trailers off public roads.

The move benefits PCL and provides solutions for its clients. “To help combat inflation and the rising costs of solar, we estimate approximately $2 million CAD ($1.5M USD) in savings by harvesting thermal sand on-site,” explains Jeff Ewert, field operations lead in Australia.  

Repurposing wood pallets used to transport PV panels to a project site is another way PCL demonstrates its commitment to sustainable practices. "The industry is advancing pallet shredders for solar project sites, which break the pallets down and create mulch for surrounding vegetation,” explains Fleetwood. This not only eliminates the need to transport the pallets off-site but also serves several valuable functions for the soil, including weed and erosion control. PCL also uses balers to compress cardboard from module packaging, minimizing what is needed for transportation off-site and abating CO2 emissions.

Preserving the natural landscape is a fundamental practice for PCL on all projects. The commitment spans from minimizing land disturbance during pile testing to comprehensive restoration efforts at project close-out.

"For instance, with Stubbo Solar in New South Wales, Australia, there are five landowners involved in leasing the land for the project. So, upon completion, we'll need to install stock fences near the property lines. While it's a challenging task given the installation of numerous modules, we're committed to reinstating the stock fence and adding gates for access to allow landowners to continue farming their land," Ewert says. Ewert also says that PCL challenged the interior road design for the project, which ended up reducing the gravel and taking an additional 1,500 trucks and trailers off the road.

Each phase of the project life cycle contributes to an overall amount of embodied carbon — the carbon dioxide created through a construction material’s manufacturing, transportation and usage on a job site. With PV modules representing 70% of the total upstream embodied carbon emissions, careful consideration of not only the manufacturing process but also decommissioning plans is key. PCL prioritizes comprehensive sustainability practices from start to finish, working closely with owners and developers to ensure responsible end-of-life management.

To further minimize embodied carbon, strategic design, specifications and procurement choices are imperative. Fleetwood says, “PCL Solar will continuously need to validate scenarios through discussions and carbon-emitter models where the teams have the best available historical data to feed the models. Remaining vigilant and constantly seeking innovative approaches, products and opportunities is essential to drive progress."

Sustainability in the solar energy industry’s construction practices remains paramount in shaping a greener future. Harnessing the power of solar energy is not just about revolutionizing how we consume energy; it is about setting new standards for every stage of a project’s life cycle. “It is imperative that PCL act as stewards in our industry and enact positive change now,” Fleetwood says.

By integrating sustainability into core practices, PCL aims not only to lead the way in clean energy innovation but also to inspire meaningful change across the industry and beyond. Solar projects like Travers, Shakes and Stubbo are just a few examples of the remarkable expansion in solar capacity, representing a pivotal step in our collective efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate the impacts of climate change.