Updated: Apr 14
Welcome to another episode of the Solar Podcast. Today, Dave is talking with Bryan Wehler, President and CEO of ARM Group. They discussed some of the ARM Group's most exciting projects to date, including the 18 megawatt Annapolis Landfill Solar Project. They also discuss cutting through the red tape of permitting and zoning as well as the future of community solar. So let's get right into it on the Solar Podcast.
Dave Anderson (00:36):
Well, we'd like to welcome everyone back to the Solar Podcast. I'm Dave Anderson, the host. We're thrilled to have with us today, Bryan Wehler. Bryan is actually an executive in the solar industry. He has his own engineering firm. Does more than that. We're going to dive into it a little bit today. One of the things we talk a lot about on the Solar Podcast with the soft cost of solar and how do we can make it simpler for consumers to go solar. So I'm actually really excited to talk with Bryan, get his perspective on those things as well. Bryan, welcome. I'd love, if you wouldn't mind, for our listeners to give a little bit of an introduction about how you ended up being who you are and where you are in this solar industry today. I'd love to get just a little bit of a background on your journey.
Bryan Wehler (01:09):
Yeah, sure. Thanks, Dave. Appreciate you having me on the podcast. So yeah, I'm Bryan Wehler, I work for ARM Group. We're a environmental consulting and civil engineering firm based in Hershey, Pennsylvania. We have about 220 employees across 14 offices, and I've been with the company now for about 20 years. I guess my origins go back to the early days of growing up and my father was a geologist and he worked for an environmental consulting firm. So I was exposed to this world at a pretty young age and took an interest to geology and environmental science in particular and pursued that with my education after high school and got a degree in geology and environmental science.
Then I had the good fortune of coming to work for ARM Group right out of college and got involved in a number of projects at the time, very diverse types of environmental projects, but there was an engineering component to a number of those projects. It sparked my interest in engineering and made me realize that I could probably do more if I could combine the geology degree with an engineering degree. So I went back to school, picked up a second bachelor's in civil engineering, and since that time I've been able to integrate those educational experiences into my career, which really began working on solid waste projects. So landfill engineering was a lot of what I was doing initially when I joined ARM Group after going back to school and I was doing geotechnical engineering and solid waste engineering. That's really what introduced me to the renewable space.
So I was working on projects at landfill sites and we were getting involved in landfill gas energy projects. Some of those clients began to ask us, "What else can we do with these facilities? We have these gas energy projects, we have these interconnections. We're selling electricity, renewable energy, what else can we do?" So we started getting involved in wind energy projects and eventually solar projects. This is in the late 2000s. So that's really what allowed me and our company to cut our teeth in the renewable space. Then from there, we really focused hard on the renewable market as it began to mature. Since that time it's really taken off and I'm currently leading our renewable energy practice for our group.
Dave Anderson (04:25):
That's excellent. I thought I caught that you said you'd been with the business for 14 years?
Bryan Wehler (04:31):
No, it's 20 years.
Dave Anderson (04:32):
20 years. Okay. That's excellent. So 20 years you've been doing this, and more recently your focus has been shifted towards the renewables practices, so that's the wind and the solar. What's the typical size of a project that you're working on as part of the ARM Group?
Bryan Wehler (04:48):
Yes. We work on projects really of all sizes. I would say the smallest that we get involved with is maybe a 500 KW solar project, and we've worked on projects as large as 300 megawatts in the solar space. We don't do a lot of wind energy work now. The majority of our focus is on solar, but we still do work on some wind energy projects from time to time.
Dave Anderson (05:16):
What percentage of ARM Group's practice focuses on renewables specifically?
Bryan Wehler (05:23):
You mean in terms of the overall business?
Dave Anderson (05:27):
Right. Yeah, you'd mentioned 220 employees and you're obviously leading the environmental side of that, or rather, the renewables portion of the business. Is that becoming a significant portion of ARMs overall work?
Bryan Wehler (05:39):
It is, yeah. It's currently our fastest growing business unit in the company, and I would say it comprises 10 to 15% of our overall business, but that is growing rapidly.
Dave Anderson (05:57):
Yeah, if you wouldn't mind, I'd love if you could give us a sense on some of the maybe projects that you're particularly proud of or excited about that you guys have worked on as part of the ARM Group or projects that you've been a part of. Are there any that are notable or stick out to you?
Bryan Wehler (06:12):
Yeah, there's quite a few that we've worked on that are pretty interesting and ones that we're especially proud of. One is the Landfill Solar Project in Annapolis, Maryland, that was a 18 megawatt project on a closed landfill. We did all the civil and environmental design work for that project. As you may or may not know, with those types of projects, you get into a lot of unique challenges, especially technically in terms of protecting the integrity of the CAP system, making sure that you're not causing any damage to the CAP and that the methane gas emissions are not going to be a problem for you. Then working closely with the regulators to get those projects through the permitting process can also be challenging. So that's one project that comes to mind. I would say that's one thing about ARM Group that I think is somewhat different from some of our competitors is that we work on these more challenging sites all the time.
So those are the ones that we like to get involved with because they're not the cookie cutter projects where you may just have an open field. These require multidisciplinary teams. We get geotechnical engineers, environmental engineers, solid waste engineers, and we really need all that expertise in order to make those projects successful. Here in Pennsylvania where I'm located, there's also been a lot of historical mining activity. Pennsylvania was one of the largest coal producing states for many years, and maybe it still is, but as a result, there's a lot of projects being developed on abandoned mine lands and historically mine sites. We've worked on a number of those and they come with their own set of challenges, but it's very rewarding to turn those sites into clean energy production facilities because a lot of times those were blighted sites that were an environmental liability. To be part of converting those into an environmental asset is definitely very fulfilling and something that I like to be part of.
Dave Anderson (08:56):
Yeah. So a lot of what we focus on the Solar Podcast is the residential side of the business, and many of our listeners, that's what their focus is on. Obviously the majority of your career, at least as of late, has been more focused on the C&I or the Commercial and Industrial, the larger projects. But I'd love to get your perspective and take, so something that we've talked extensively about is the soft costs for solar in the United States are artificially inflating our costs relative to other markets like Europe, for example, like Australia for example, where you can get solar projects done in the case of Australia for as little as a third.
In fact, they're installing at the residential level for costs that would be similar to multi megawatt projects here in the United States. So I'd love to get your perspective, since you sit in the middle and you're the one that's dealing with the red tape, at least on the C&I side, what's your perspective on the regulations that exist in solar? Do you think that they're too strict? Do you think that they're fair? What would be some improvements that you'd like to see happen from your perspective, given your experience working on these sorts of projects?
Bryan Wehler (10:04):
Yeah, that's a great question. The permitting hurdles are definitely a challenge on a lot of these projects and create delays and add to the costs. I guess overall, we're able to navigate that process pretty effectively, and we do everything we can to try to minimize the costs. One of the areas that is always a challenge, especially with ground mount systems, is the environmental permitting, the storm water requirements, the [inaudible 00:10:49] requirements that are associated with those projects. Some of those can be pretty onerous, and it seems like it's getting more and more that way where there's prescriptive requirements based on the coverage area or the slopes that don't necessarily allow for innovative designs to address those concerns. So that's one area that comes to mind. The biggest challenge that we're seeing now is the interconnection process and the delays associated with that.
Dave Anderson (11:33):
Yeah, and how involved does your firm get on the interconnection side of the business or what role or part do you play in that?
Bryan Wehler (11:41):
Yeah, we're pretty active in that area. We have an electrical engineering team in house, so we're involved on the front end of a lot of projects in terms of preparing interconnection applications, developing single line diagrams, working with the utility or PJM and taking those through the process. So yeah, we play a very active role in that. Yeah, unfortunately it seems like that process even outside of PJM is taking longer and longer, and I think it's just a function of the utilities getting flooded with lots of applications for projects because the demand has been growing and it's hard for them, I think, to keep up with that demand and to hire enough people to review the projects. So that's very much a challenge that we're seeing that's not necessarily getting better.
Dave Anderson (12:42):
Yeah. Staying on the point of interconnection and some of the, again, what I would call bureaucratic or the red tape stuff that you have to do as part of any solar project, what are some improvements that you'd like to see our industry make to make the process of getting and going solar and adding these renewable projects to either streamline the process or to help get some of those costs down to make it even more viable and more affordable?
Bryan Wehler (13:07):
Yeah. One area would be zoning, zoning reform. That is a challenge for a lot of projects because solar is not either a permitted use in a given zoning district or requires some type of special exception or zoning variance. So I think something that would really help would be for some zoning reform that would maybe standardize the process or allow for solar to be installed in a broader footprint, so to speak, where you're not restricted as much as you are today from putting solar in a lot of places and then having to jump through all the hurdles and hoops that go along with getting those permissions.
Dave Anderson (14:05):
Yeah. So having never gone through that practice, what is the counter-argument or the steelman argument that one would make for having restrictions on the zoning and why the zoning restricts solar from being installed as a permitted use in many areas? What would be the counter-argument that people make or to try to justify why that is the case?
Bryan Wehler (14:33):
Yeah, some of it is just the NIMBY argument that people don't want to have it in their backyard or they don't want to have to look at it, or they prefer to look at whatever's there now, which might be an open greenfield space or whatever. So those seem to be some of the opposition, the basis for the opposition that we run into. There's a lot of people, especially here in Pennsylvania that don't like to see these projects being constructed on agricultural land. So there's a desire to preserve the agricultural land for agricultural purposes. So that certainly presents a hurdle and creates opposition.
Dave Anderson (15:30):
Yeah. Outside of the fact that it just has created a lot of demand, has the inflation reduction act changed in any way substantively the way that you guys go about the engineering side of the business for this commercial and industrial part of solar?
Bryan Wehler (15:49):
Not yet. It has not really changed the way we go about it. I think it's already driving a lot of demand, as you mentioned, but I think what it's going to do once the final rules get written is it's going to incentivize the development of projects on more distressed sites. I think the whole energy community's designation is still being defined, but as I understand it, it's geared to incentivize projects in areas that were historically used for fossil fuel development. As a result, I think it's going to encourage the development of projects on some of these more distressed sites I'll call them, which I think is a good thing really. It also is going to create projects in areas where maybe there's not as much economic activity and will help support local economies.
Dave Anderson (16:53):
Yeah. Some things that are certainly going to change on these large scale projects is certainly where we build these, these distress sites as you had talked about it, there's the other component for the C&I groups. I have to talk a lot or think a lot about prevailing wages. So anything over a megawatt now, how you employ people and the wages that you pay are going to change. It does open up some additional incentives, and so hopefully those costs are curved to not make development projects more expensive. Then the last part is the domestic content piece. So using the domestic content also opens up the opportunity for increased or additional subsidies or rebates for these large projects.
I would imagine that some of your projects are probably in a holding pattern a little bit waiting for some of the rulings around these things to be finalized so that these C&I groups or large development groups can make their final decisions in terms of what product they want to use and how and when and where they're going to put these projects. Have you seen any of that or in conversations with some of your partners, or are you seeing some of these projects being delayed or held up waiting for some of those rulings?
Bryan Wehler (18:05):
Yeah, we haven't seen any of the projects that we've been involved relating how to take advantage of those. But yeah, we haven't seen it hold things back, but everyone is certainly eager to understand the fine print and figure out what it all means and how you qualify for these ITC adders.
Dave Anderson (18:31):
Yeah. So obviously the Inflation Reduction Act is great in terms of increasing the amount of demand and the amount of projects that developers want to work on, which I think is great for our industry. What are some other things that keep you excited or have make you excited about the industry and future growth opportunities or places where you'd like to see our industry go?
Bryan Wehler (18:52):
Well, that's an interesting question. We're excited about what's happening now, and there's so much activity. There's a ton of projects happening as it gives work to looking forward. That is exciting to me as the potential for community solar to become law here in Pennsylvania, there's a ton of projects that are out there that are basically in a holding pattern waiting for some type of legislation to go through. So that's an area that we pay close attention to, and we're very hopeful that that will happen sometime in the next year or two. But on top of that, we are doing more work with battery storage on these projects. So that's an area where I see additional growth, but we're really just scratching the surface. I think in Pennsylvania, there's still less than 1% of the electricity is generated from solar, at least the last time I checked. So there's tremendous growth potential and it's exciting to be part of that. I think that could continue on.
Dave Anderson (20:15):
We've talked a little bit about the permitting, and we've talked a little bit about the interconnection, but maybe if you wouldn't mind diving into your company or ARM Group's contribution towards trying to keep costs down or cost reduction methods or innovative installation practices, and how much of your practice is centered around those sorts of things?
Bryan Wehler (20:34):
Yeah, we certainly play a role in that, and one of the areas that we can help with cost reductions is on the design side, in particular with our constructability reviews of the projects. So now that we've been developing projects and developing designs for the solar industry for a number of years, we've seen a number of projects go through the full life cycle from inception through design permitting and construction. So we've been able to see what actually happens when these projects get built and what works well and what doesn't work as well. We've been able to get a lot of feedback from the contractors that are building these projects, what they like what the dislike.
So we've been able to apply that knowledge to our designs and our permitting efforts to help streamline those designs. Number one, it helps avoid change orders because we've thought about everything that needs to be thought about upfront. Number two, we've tried to develop designs that are efficient that can be installed cost effectively. One example would be with our stormwater management designs, we're really focused on low impact designs. So rather than having to construct large basins or other costly features, we tend to use low impact, low profile infiltration type features to manage stormwater on projects. So that's one area where we're able to help our customers save money and help expedite construction, avoid change orders. I think the other thing is that we have an integrated design team.
So many times we're doing the civil design, we're doing the structural design, the electrical design, all in house. So our engineers are working together, which I just think makes for a better process, and it allows us to identify potential problems or conflicts in the design phase rather than during construction, because when that doesn't happen, what often occurs is that you have one firm prepare the civil plans, maybe another firm does the racking or the structural design, and another firm does the electrical. Then you bring those all together at the time to build, and you find out, "Oh, well, there's a conflict here. We didn't think about that." That can create a lot of challenges. So that integrated process on the design side I think can be very helpful and can avoid problems down the road.
Dave Anderson (23:38):
Yeah. You mentioned the stormwater collection. I'd be curious, given the amount of time you've been working on these sorts of projects, what other really fascinating engineering or innovations or installation practices you've seen that have been really cost reducing and things that have made these projects a lot more viable and better in your time of working on these things?
Bryan Wehler (23:57):
Yeah, I have to put some more thought into that as far as what else can help drive down the costs. I really think a lot of it is in the design phase and just really trying to optimize the design and make it as efficient as you possibly can. So one of the ways that we do that is we do our designs in 3D, so we're really looking at the topography and we're looking closely at the row spacing, and we're looking at shading impacts and how can we really optimize this site to get the most solar generation out of the least amount of space? Because obviously, land is not cheap, and if you can pack more into a smaller space, you're saving money, you're saving land, and it's a much more efficient design.
So that's one of the things that we've been doing. We also look pretty hard at the AC to DC ratio, row spacing, and we use some software to help us optimize that design. So to take a lot of the guesswork out of that, you're really developing the most efficient design from a return on investment standpoint when you're factoring in those key variables. So that's an area where we focus pretty hard, which that wasn't happening, I would say routinely even a few years ago. So I think those are some important advancements. They're not necessarily the sexiest ones, but they can have a significant effect on the bottom line.
Dave Anderson (25:41):
So it's become a pretty popular topic of conversation amongst the largest companies, and as companies try to understand what their own ESG goals are going to be, their Environmental, their Social, and their Corporate Governance goals are, and ESG is an acronym gets floated around a lot. So what contribution or what's your role that you play with some of these projects and with these companies in terms of helping them reach their ESG goals? Or is that something you guys focus on at all?
Bryan Wehler (26:07):
Yeah, so our role in that is really to help attack the E portion of the ESG, and our focus has really been on the emissions reductions through the development of customer generator, renewable projects. So that has very much been a driver of business for us. Our customers, many of them at least, are focused on ESG and are looking to do better. So to the extent that we can help them through the development of renewable energy projects, that's really where we come in.
Dave Anderson (26:48):
Well, given your background and the amount of work that you've put in, I know it's supposed been on the C&I side, one concept that's been floated around a lot about is this idea of a standardized permitting process or being able to use a similar plan set, essentially pulling one permit for multiple projects. It's a practice that's used in Europe, it's used in some places on the residential side where you can use a single permit for multiple projects, or there's no permit required at all. Is that something you've thought about, or is that something you think could work for the types of projects you're working on, or is that just a dream that's probably not going to come to fruition?
Bryan Wehler (27:25):
Yeah, that's interesting. I haven't really considered that before, but I think in the C&I space, it's hard for me to imagine that happening here in the US or at least in the mid-Atlantic region, and the site conditions can just be so different from one site to the next that it really requires careful analysis and consideration for each site. So I don't know, as I sit here, it's hard for me to imagine that. Maybe for rooftop applications there could be a more streamlined process, but for rooftops, you really don't typically need to do a lot of permitting. Once you get through the zoning process, then you're just talking about building permits. So it's typically not all that onerous.
Dave Anderson (28:22):
Yeah. So I understand that you're also a pilot, is that correct?
Bryan Wehler (28:28):
Dave Anderson (28:29):
So have you ever used your ... I think it's a hobby for the most part, you're flying. Have you ever used it as an excuse to go check out some of the areas that you're surveying or to do flyovers of some of the projects that you've worked on?
Bryan Wehler (28:42):
Yeah. Yeah, I have. It's a great way to get a bird's eye view of a site or a project, and yeah, I try to take that opportunity whenever I can.
Dave Anderson (28:53):
Yeah. So I know you followed in your father's footstep chasing with engineering. Do you feel like you have any of you ... Are there any young Wehler's out there that are going to follow in your footsteps, maybe be the next people that are working in the ARM Group?
Bryan Wehler (29:05):
Yeah, I don't know. At this point, it doesn't look like it. But anything's possible. But as of now, the kids are pursuing different interests unrelated to science and engineering, so it's not likely, but I won't rule it out.
Dave Anderson (29:25):
Yeah. Well, Bryan, I got to tell you, I genuinely appreciate what you do for our industry. It's fantastic that there are organizations and firms like yours that are out there that are working to facilitate and make these projects happen. For a lot of the times, it's fighting the good fight with the local jurisdictions that in a lot of instances aren't super excited about having these projects built. I think it's just a requirement for our society. It's a requirement for our country that we can move more towards these renewables. You'd mentioned in Pennsylvania, you're maybe at only 1% penetration, and there are states obviously doing a lot better than that, but we love anyone that's working on solving the problems of making solar simpler and easier. So thank you for your contribution that you're making there, and genuinely, we appreciate you coming on the Solar Podcast to explain and help us understand a little bit about what you do and help us understand ARM Group's contribution to that as well.
Bryan Wehler (30:13):
Well, thanks for having me, Dave. I enjoyed the dialogue and appreciate being here.
Dave Anderson (30:17):
Yeah, yeah, fantastic conversation. We'd love to continue to follow the ARM Group in which you guys are working on. I'm sure that there are some really cool projects maybe facilitated by the IRA, maybe just because you guys have established yourselves as an incredible firm in the industry, but I'm sure that there are some really cool projects to be worked on that we'd love to follow up with you and hear more about.
Bryan Wehler (30:37):
Dave Anderson (30:38):
Great. Thank you, Bryan.
Bryan Wehler (30:39):
Yeah. Thank you.