A small whizzing sound reverberates across 1,100 acres of flat land about 40 miles south of Houston. It ceases after a few seconds, followed by a quick hissing and then restarts.

The sounds come from CIVDOT, an autonomous ground rover developed by San Francisco-based technology firm Civ Robotics to mark where piles will be driven for Cutlass Solar II, a 218-MW solar energy project being built by a Bechtel-led team in Fort Bend County, Texas, for a North American unit of Turkish developer Sabanci Renewables.

500,000 bifacial solar panels

More than 500,000 bifacial solar panels are being installed for the Cutlass Solar II project.
Photo courtesy Bechtel

With some 500,000 bifacial solar panels that absorb energy from two sides, Cutlass Solar II will produce enough renewable energy to power 40,000 homes when completed this spring and save about 600,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere every year, says the developer.

Power generated by the project will be transmitted to ERCOT, the utility that manages 90% of the state energy grid. The firms did not disclose the project cost. Bechtel Enterprises, the contractor’s project development and financing arm, said last year that it “was instrumental in the development” of Cutlass Solar II.

CIVDOT wheels around on 4-in. rubber tires, stopping every few feet to release a dot of orange paint that marks where a pile will be driven. Standing 5 feet away is field engineer Jorge Careaga, with his head down and fingers dancing across a tablet screen that ensures CIVDOT maintains course and directly follows the pile staging plan.

The pile driver for the 90,000-plus piles features a touchscreen and joystick that enable an operator to pound them deep into the ground. From an open-air seat, the operator delicately handles the joystick guiding a steel pile while keeping a close eye on the touchscreen to ensure it is driven straight. If the pile goes astray, the screen instantly informs the operator to reverse course.

single-lane dirt road divides Cutlass Solar II

A single-lane dirt road divides Cutlass Solar II from the Cutlass Solar I project in rural Texas that was completed earlier.
Photo courtesy Bechtel

With that many piles to drive, the technology is key in saving hundreds of job hours, according to project team members. CIVDOT improved the survey time sixfold; and the pile driver’s instantaneous quality feedback has expedited that task by three to five times compared with traditional methods, Bechtel officials note.

“Drone images  from daily flights are uploaded to the entire team for faster, safer and ultimately smarter decision-making."
—Wyatt Ferguson, Equipment Specialist, Bechtel

Frank McAlpin, Bechtel project manager for Cutlass Solar II, says an array of technology is being used to expedite project schedule and quality. The firm is responsible for managing project design, engineering, procurement, construction and commissioning. The project’s 100% digital delivery includes data-driven automation, survey robots, machine-controlled equipment and drones.

Bechtel equipment specialist Wyatt Ferguson noted drone use from the early design phase to customer handover for reporting, inspections, quality foundations and land clearing. “Images from daily flights are uploaded to the entire project team for faster, safer and ultimately smarter decision-making,” he says.

Customized Bechtel software collects project work process elements to create a “full interactive map-based visualization,” making data-driven decisions easier and faster, says Jeremy Blackwell, project control cost lead.

“The Cutlass Solar II project offers not only a glimpse into how this team is leading innovation in the engineering and construction industry but also a prediction of how construction projects could be built more efficiently in the future,” he says.

Cutlass Solar II

When Cutlass Solar II is completed this spring, it will be able to power 40,000 homes.
Photo courtesy Bechtel

Scope and Workforce

“Developing utility-scale solar power facilities is one of the most efficient ways to reduce emissions and put the world on a path to clean energy. ”
—Kelley Brown, Vice President - Renewables, Bechtel

Across a single-lane dirt road from Cutlass Solar II is the Bechtel-built Cutlass Solar I project, where much of the technology was launched. The 345,000-panel site started operation in January 2023 and generates 140 MW on 700 acres.

But Cutlass Solar II, considered industrial scale, poses a bigger challenge given its size and timetable, according to site manager Taylor Carlson. The project has a 10-month construction schedule and two-month start-up and commission period, she says. “Every minute matters,” Carlson says, although she is confident the team “will be successful” in meeting targets.

At peak, there were more than 300 people on site, says McAlpin, with support team members off site in Texas, Virginia and India.

Amid the sea of deep blue solar panels, workers in reflector vests and white hardhats tip their heads or throw up a hand to visitors. A noticeable number are women. Bechtel officials say about 15% of project craftworkers are women, versus an industry standard of 6%. McAlpin says that 30% of workers who were on Cutlass Solar I also are building the second renewable energy project. In February, the team is set to complete installation of the final Cutlass Solar II solar panels.

Crediting the entire project development team, McAlpin says he is “both proud and inspired with how [the team] has worked as a cohesive unit to exceed our project plan.”

solar 272-MW project

Texas energy grid utility ERCOT will purchase power from the 272-MW project.
Photo courtesy Bechtel

Rising Renewables

Bechtel and owner Sabanci have forged a successful partnership in renewables development, firm officials say. They are also set to finish by 2025 the 232-MW Oriana solar energy project in Victoria County, Texas.

Growth of renewable energy and demand for it have both risen significantly over the last decade, says Kelley Brown, Bechtel EPC operations manager and principal vice president for U.S. renewables, in an interview with ENR. After California, Texas is the second-largest U.S. solar power producer and is set to install more than 4 GW of capacity over the next five years to become the national leader, she says.

Sabanci Holdings, parent of the developer, plans to expand its U.S. renewable power investment to about 1 GW by 2025, including utility-scale solar, onshore wind and battery storage in Texas as well as in two regional transmission markets.

To achieve that goal, developers and decision-makers must look not only at the number of solar projects but also at their scale, Brown says. A key factor in the company’s focus on technology is to insure projects are delivered with speed and high quality. She describes Texas as a renewables “hotbed,” seeing “several prospects” in the Gulf Coast region.

solar project workers

About 300 people worked on the solar project at peak, with women making up 15% of craft ranks.
Photo courtesy Bechtel

Brown says the Reston, Va.-based Bechtel has spent more than 125 years helping customers navigate shifts in energy consumption, technological change and financing challenges, and it now continues to develop a sharper focus on sustainable alternatives. The firm sees value in supporting carbon-free energy production to meet global energy transition and demand growth, including wind, solar, hydro-electric, nuclear power as well as battery storage. Bechtel also has an active interest in renewables in Australia and the U.K., she says.

Known for its engineering and construction megaprojects, Bechtel is helping customers decarbonize their energy portfolios and adapt to use of renewable energy, she says.