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‘You need to be versatile more than anything’

Category:
Innovation & Sustainability

Date:
28 July 2020

Richard Weemen, a project leader at Rooftop Energy, oversees the development and construction of solar energy systems on the rooftops of businesses. He also supervises the implementation of engineered solutions such as highway noise barriers and solar panels installed on top of multilevel parking garages. His role requires both knowledge of a wide range of disciplines and outstanding communication skills. ‘As a project leader, you’re one of the people responsible for setting the mood and for getting everyone in line.’

The setting may be the picturesque Dutch coastal town of Bloemendaal aan Zee, but let there be no mistake: Richard Weemen is here strictly on business. On the morning of our interview, he is supervising the installation of 10,000 square metres of solar carports on two car parks along the beach of this seaside town. Weemen: ‘This is by no means a cookie-cutter project: we’re installing nearly 5,000 solar panels on a covered parking facility, which involves the use of steel, construction work, earthworks, paving, installing cables, work on the sewage system and lighting systems, an IT backbone, the installation of transformers and charging stations – the list goes on. You need to be versatile more than anything to coordinate this type of project.’

The project also presents an exciting opportunity, as solar carports have the future. And having hands-on experience will lead to new projects and – which is at least as important – reduce costs per project. Weemen: ‘We try to complete these types of projects, which involve a lot of steel construction, at the lowest possible cost. The same is true for rooftop solar panels: it’s a steep learning curve.’

Complex negotiations
Rooftop Energy finances and operates solar power plants for different types of commissioning parties – or ‘end clients’, as Weemen calls them. These might be property owners, commercial lessees, landowners, or local councils or semi-public authorities. The Rooftop Energy Sales Team initiates most projects – even if some companies have also been known to contact the business directly. Weemen: ‘Our Sales department usually does the legwork, but once things start getting too technical they refer the client to Project Management & Engineering, which is my department. Since you need to perform a fair number of technical checks to be able to assess the financial viability of any project, part of my job as a project manager is to provide input for the commercial process.’

Once the client officially approves the quote, the application for subsidies is normally submitted. The actual contract negotiations for the final contract begin only after the grant has been awarded. Weemen: ‘That’s another process in which I, as a project manager, am usually closely involved. These are complex negotiations: what measures need to be taken, does the roof need to be renovated before we can get started, are there any existing contracts which may affect our contract, and so on. You need to negotiate with suppliers and grid managers, as you also rely on the grid for the energy that's generated. Both timing and planning begin to play a key role at this stage of the process.’

Exciting work
If the parties agree on the project, Weemen is involved in drafting the various purchase contracts. ‘That’s another area where you need to exercise due diligence, especially when it comes to the allocation of work: where does one person’s job end and the next one begin?’, he says. ‘You try to select the right subcontractors for each stage of the project – we tend to work with contractors we know and can trust.’ According to Weemen, the right expertise is also essential at this stage of the game. ‘It has been my experience that if you assign work to third parties without knowing exactly what they will be doing, chances are there will be inconsistencies in your project at the time of completion.’

He refers to the moment when the actual work can start as a ‘fleeting moment of reassurance’. He continues: ‘There are so many things you need to get sorted out in the run-up to a project that I’m always glad when we can finally get started. How busy you’ll be really depends on the schedule, but the old adage that time is money generally holds true. The longer it takes for the project to be completed, the longer it takes for your business to receive the revenues. The Bloemendaal local council even imposes a contractual penalty for project overruns, as the summer season will be starting at some point and operators of beachfront businesses want to start opening everything up again – although this is by no means certain amid the current pandemic.’

Weemen, whose own background is in IT and commerce, describes his job as ‘about as multifaceted as it gets.’ ‘I’m responsible not just for monitoring progress, the budget and on-site safety, but also for liaising with the client and coordinating with suppliers and subcontractors. As a project leader, you’re one of the people responsible for setting the mood and for getting everyone in line. In some cases, you need to remind the various parties involved very clearly of their responsibilities. But all those aspects combined – and especially the ongoing learning process because you talk to so many different parties – make this job a lot of fun as well.’

Solar carports in Bloemendaal aan Zee
Rooftop Energy is in the process of developing its own energy label, which makes it possible to supply the electricity generated locally or by postcode, in some cases offering priority status or a discount. The launch of the new label is scheduled for Q4 2020. Over time, the locally generated electric power will be consumed by local users, including beach cafés and restaurants, campsites and holiday resorts located in the immediate vicinity. The electricity generated will also be used as power supply for vehicle charging stations. Rooftop Energy operates a scalable charging infrastructure at this site, providing an initial number of 30 charging stations. The infrastructure currently in place can accommodate an increase to up to more than 100 charging stations, in addition to fast charging units. This site is the first to offer a direct payment facility, which drivers can use to pay for their charging sessions. Both Dutch and international beachgoers can use their debit or credit card to pay efficiently and securely for the kilowatt-hours consumed. The charging rate at this site has been capped based on the MRA-E standards.

Also read: ‘Rooftop Energy gets the green light to install 94,000 solar panels on Bavelse Berg waste mountain’

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