Sun Set in Stone

National solar array expansion leads to dawning opportunity for Midwest mine drilling company receiving Power Moves rebates

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After spending days operating a heavy rig drilling holes into Maine’s glacial sediment in subzero temperatures, Joe Martin was warming to the idea of his next job in the Appalachian Mountains.

A Hardrock Drilling rig drills new holes to set mounting poles for solar array panels. The business has drilled into glacial sediment, mountainsides, and even granite to create new solar arrays in states around the U.S.

It was -16 degrees when he left Bangor, Maine, for Virginia. Subsequent days of rain and storms led to the drilling rig sliding down mountainsides and other delays that turned an anticipated 4-day project into a 7-week debacle.

But just like in Maine, Martin’s business completed its job: prepare people to benefit from future sunshine.

The two drilling projects were part of a rapidly growing business segment for Hardrock Drilling, which specializes in blasthole drilling in Midwestern limestone quarries. The Francesville, Ind., business received $2,280 in Power Moves® rebates from Jasper County REMC, its local electric cooperative, for energy efficient lights installed in its new workshop and office. Hardrock Drilling built the new workshop in 2022 to handle more equipment for the boom in business. The company received a request in 2020 from a former client that wanted to leverage Hardrock Drilling’s expertise in bedrock and topography to drill holes to set foundation posts for solar panels in a new array. A new business opportunity was dawning.

Hardrock Drilling co-owners Charlie Deutscher, left, and Joe Martin, right, with Melva Deutscher, center, who is Charlie’s wife and the office manager for the business. Hardrock Drilling received $2,280 in Power Moves® rebates from Jasper County REMC, its local electric cooperative, for energy efficient lighting installed in the facility.

“It was the easiest job we’ve ever done. There was an extreme amount of luck in it,” Martin said of their first solar array job, which was in Illinois. “It happened to be that the project was next door to a stone quarry in Kankakee that we worked at before. We knew the ground conditions. We had a bit of an advantage.”

The development of solar arrays across the nation also led to new challenges. In some places, the terrain is difficult to set poles needed to mount solar panels. Yet not many companies specialize in drilling 8 or 12-inch diameter holes typically 7 to 14 feet deep into difficult topography, said Charlie Deutscher, who co-owns Hardrock Drilling with Martin. Supply chain challenges the last few years also limited equipment available and extended wait times for ordering new drill rigs, he added.

Word spread about the company among solar array developers, while others learned about Hardrock Drilling work on LinkedIn. Before long, the business received inquiries for solar array work across the nation, from Colorado to the Atlantic coast.

“Contractors that are geared up to do blasthole drilling in stone quarries have their customer clientele and their schedule set up for the year, and now they’re trying to work these solar construction projects into the mix,” Deutscher said. “There are very few contractors out there that have the resources to drop everything and tackle a project in Maine, Georgia or Arkansas at the drop of a hat.”

An aerial view of a solar array site with a Hardrock Drilling rig drilling holes for poles to support solar panels in the new array.

Deutscher and Martin created the company in 2017 and business has grown steadily. They have contracts with more than 30 Midwestern quarries, and the growth into solar projects led to the need for the new office and workshop, where they perform maintenance on the drill rigs. When they started the new construction project, the duo researched lighting before visiting a local store that informed them about the Power Moves rebates offered by Jasper County REMC. They upgraded to more energy efficient lighting, leading to long-term energy savings.

“We’re really thankful. It was a big expense, but with the program that was offered by Jasper County REMC and the services we received by the lighting vendor, we were very happy with the end result,” Martin said. “The service life of our upgraded LEDs should be a lot longer than if it was something we had just shopped for on the internet.”

Hardrock Drilling worked on multiple solar projects in the first part of 2022 before business slowed down. Yet they noted that the continued investments and public policy in states pushing for renewable energy development should lead to future solar array drilling projects.

“Every job we’ve been on has been a learning experience,” Martin said. “Each one has offered its own unique set of challenges.”