A growth spurt brings this solar company's control center to Durham

A major solar-power company, Cypress Creek Renewables, now runs its entire generating network from a new control room in south Durham.
A major solar-power company, Cypress Creek Renewables, now runs its entire generating network from a new control room in south Durham. Cypress Creek Renewables

Contrary to appearances, there's a lot more to running a solar-power array than installing the panels and pointing them at the sun. For that reason, a California-based solar developer has opened an operations center in south Durham.

Cypress Creek Renewables now runs all the 232 arrays it operates in the United States from a new control room that's built to the same kind of security and reliability standards as any other that helps feed the nation's power grid.

The company has also been in an expansion mode, hiring 22 more workers in the first three months. The group includes six operators who will help staff the control room 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.

Some come from large, fossil-fuels power plants, some are ex-military, some are former nuclear plant engineers.

All of them "respond really well to the structure that you have to have in an operations organization," said Kyle Cooper, the company's director of control center operations and a veteran of Duke Energy's Brunswick Nuclear Plant in Southport. "You pick up the phone, you have an incident on site, you have to be able to follow the protocol, keep your cool and go through it."

Cypress Creek's facility on South Alston Avenue near RTP houses a larger operations and maintenance team, along with a group that designs the company's solar plants and another that looks for ways to optimize their performance. All told, about 100 people work there.

The company moved its operations center to Durham last fall, leaving quarters in Carrboro in anticipation of a growth spurt and of building the control room. It's expanded staffing by 150 percent in the past two years, said Joe Brotherton, executive vice president for operations and maintenance.

The center's location is a plus for hiring, as it's close to university programs at N.C. State, Duke and UNC-Chapel Hill that prepare people well for jobs there, and to the state's military bases that likewise turn out plenty of well-qualified applicants.

Much of the staff works in sleek, open-floor-plan office space. The control room, however, is a different matter, with tight security and special construction meant to enforce that.

The security features come from the need to comply with assorted federal and industry regulations that exist to protect the reliability of the power grid. And Cypress Creek is a big enough power generator nowadays that it's subject to those mandates, Brotherton said.

The company operates solar arrays that between them can generate about 2.2 gigawatts of electricity. That's more than the Brunswick plant, which has a rated capacity of almost 1.9 gigawatts.

Cypress Creek has arrays in 14 states, and is looking for build more. It has a notably heavy presence in North Carolina, with about 1.5 gigawatts of generation capacity here.

The control room's software systems give operators the ability to monitor the nation's weather as closely as an airline might, for the obvious reason that solar power depends on sunlight. There are less obvious ones, including the need to protect the panels from high winds and know the odds of having to dispatch maintenance crews to repair damage.

The company relies on its own employees to do much of its maintenance. Some arrays are large enough to have their own crews that report to the site each day. The smaller ones receive visits from workers who might work out of a small office miles away, or who might simply have a company truck and tool set.

The operators in the control center handle the dispatching, based on what sensors tell them about an arrays performance and problems. The software again helps them set priorities.

The team's also responsible for dealing with Cypress Creek's power customers, including the utilities that control much of the nation's power grid. As would a fossil-fuel or nuclear plant, they can take arrays on or off-line and tailor their output to the needs of the moment.

Beyond building its own arrays, Cypress Creek sees opportunity in what Brotherton called "third party operations," meaning that from the Durham control room it can serve other people's arrays as easily as its own.

"This plant was built by whoever, operated by whoever, we go out and say, 'Hey, we can maintain it, here are the systems we’ve put in place to show ourselves as a competent operator meeting all the standards required, here's what sets us apart with our engineering team," Brotherton said. "There’s nowhere in the continental U.S. I'd rule out if it makes [business] sense."

Ray Gronberg: 919-419-6648, @rcgronberg