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Rethinking solar development from the ground up

In Episode 14 of the Factor This! podcast, Terabase co-founder and CEO Matt Campbell shared how his company is using software and automation to redefine how gigantic solar farms get built and are managed.
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In Episode 14 of the Factor This! podcast, Terabase co-founder and CEO Matt Campbell shared how his company is using software and automation to rethink how solar farms are built and managed. The episode will publish on Monday, Aug. 29.

With the Inflation Reduction Act's historic investments in clean energy and climate change in place, U.S. solar power development is expected to explode over the next decade.

But meeting aggressive deployment goals won't be easy; siting challenges, interconnection delays, and supply chain constraints all stand in the way. One factor that has largely remained unchanged across the construction sector is site prep: bulldozers, pickaxes and hammers are still the norm, as they were generations ago.

"When you go to a solar site, the means and methods were all available in the 1950s," Campbell said. "We saw an opportunity as the plants get bigger, as the globe scales up."

Terabase targets project development soft costs through data collection, scale, and automation to support the rapid deployment of utility-scale solar projects. Its cradle-to-grave platform is intended to cover all aspects of the development and operation of utility-scale solar projects, including permitting, construction management, and performance modeling, among other factors.

"To go from 10 MW to 100 MW to 10 GW, it's a huge amount of work to scale, and that's what we're focused on," Campbell said.

Founded in 2019, Terabase has raised more than $50 million, most recently from Bill Gates's Breakthrough Energy Ventures and Prelude Ventures.

Subscribe today to the all-new Factor This! podcast from Renewable Energy World. This podcast is designed specifically for the solar industry and is available wherever you get your podcasts.

Listen to the bonus episode from the RENEWABLE +Series on green hydrogen's future, featuring developers, investors, and researchers.

Terabase co-founder and CEO Matt Campbell

Campbell's journey to the nuts and bolts of the solar industry began with semiconductors.

He co-founded an optical semiconductor company that served the biomedical device, space, and defense industries before joining SunPower, then a small company of a few dozen employees, as a senior product manager.

At SunPower, Campbell helped develop novel semiconductor processing techniques that targeted costs and worked with engineering teams to optimize a 400 MW solar cell factory. He wondered how he could bring the seamless automation and digitalization of a solar factory to the field to improve the development and construction processes.

Fast forward nearly 20 years, and Terabase uses machine automation and onsite prefabrication to improve processes like DC cabling and the construction and installation of the steel structures of a solar PV power plant.

"There are projections that the (Inflation Reduction Act) is going to grow the market by a factor of five in the coming years," Campbell said. "There's a real need to speed things up and do things more efficiently."

A Terabase automation tent at a utility-scale solar project. (Courtesy: Terabase)

Emboldened by the Inflation Reduction Act, the solar industry is expected to rapidly scale, but will likely face challenges related to land use and community pushback, Campbell said.

"That's a topic that we need to collectively take very seriously because otherwise, you're going to see pushback; pushback from neighbors, pushback from governments, and that'll slow the adoption," he said.

Terabase and other software providers are working to ease many of those pain points.

Campbell said he sees promise in the utility-scale solar business model shift from a develop-to-sell approach to a develop-to-own strategy that is taking place within the industry— a positive for his company's bottom line, too.

The develop-to-sell model "can drive bad behavior," Campbell said, because it can incentivize sourcing cheap components.

On a recent roadtrip through Nevada, south of Boulder City, he drove past a landscape where gigawatts of solar is installed. He saw some parts of the arrays where the trackers obviously were not working correctly. "That just kills me," he said, "because the people who aren't supporters of solar will point to that and say, 'See? Solar doesn't work.'"

A screenshot of the Terabase platform for utility-scale solar development. Terabase uses software and automation to bring new efficiency to the construction of gigantic solar farms. (Courtesy: Terabase)

With just a slight laugh that makes you wonder whether or not he's joking, Campbell says his dream is to design and build a solar project with the press of one button.

"It's a lot of fun," Campbell said of running and scaling the company. "We've got a really, really smart team and they're performing at a really high level. It's a very creative and productive time."

And that one-click design dream? Well, he—and Terabase—might just do that one day.

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