O&M strategies to improve efficiency of solar assets

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From pv magazine USA

As the solar industry matures, pressure for asset owners to deliver higher returns continues to mount.  Not surprisingly, so has the demand to improve operations and maintenance (O&M) efficiency – the single largest component of a utility-scale solar asset’s post-construction budget.

Whether an asset owner performs O&M in-house, outsources to a third-party, or utilizes a hybrid mix of the two, getting strategically smart about O&M can substantially boost efficiency. Four strategies to consider are people, equipment, construction and technology.

Approach to people  

Hiring and retaining competent people is one of the biggest threats that could impede the global transition to clean energy. In 2022, 44% of solar industry employers said it was “very difficult” to find qualified applicants. That’s the highest such percentage ever recorded in the US Interstate Renewable Energy Council (IREC) National Solar Jobs Census. Competition, a small applicant pool, and lack of training and technical skills all contribute to the peril.

With 16,585 reported solar operations and maintenance jobs in the United States, that’s a hefty challenge, which falls heaviest on asset owners who aren’t technically in the ‘people business’. But O&M service providers are  especially large national players.

It’s complicated. Getting bogged down in the day-to-day of hiring, training and managing talent can be a risky distraction for asset owners, steering their focus away from their number one priority: performance and production of the solar asset. It’s especially challenging when the asset resides in remote, or less desirable locations. Yet, ensuring preventative and corrective maintenance is mission-critical to the asset’s performance. And that requires highly trained people with superior technical and safety skills.

One solution for asset owners is to get out of the people business, and instead leverage resources whose business is people: third-party O&M service providers. For staffing challenges, service providers with a national presence have the ability to pull the right resources to meet immediate needs. And for remote assets, they may already service density in the area, meaning they might already have other assets they operate and maintain nearby.

Outsourcing to a qualified partner alleviates an asset owner’s workforce development headaches too. Becoming a master solar field technician takes years, and with the proliferation of new technologies, the learning curve never stops. While inhouse solar installers may amass years of experience building projects, they are not likely to develop all of the skills needed to become a field technician, much yet to climb the company’s career ladder and move into critical project management roles. Asset owners provide limited opportunities to field technicians requiring  specialty electro-mechanical training or mentoring.

Alternatively, O&M service providers are in the business of growing talent at scale. Larger, national firms have invested heavily in workforce development infrastructure – from breaking ground on a multimillion-dollar renewable energy training facility to a mobile university that takes the training right to the job site.

Ensuring that technicians receive vital safety training, certifications, and recertifications needed to comply with OSHA requirements is squarely in the service provider’s wheelhouse as well.

Equipment strategy

Solar supply chain issues have been a new-world reality since the pandemic. Even as availability concerns ease, managing panel, inverter, and other equipment inventory to meet preventative and emergency maintenance needs at multiple field sites is a major challenge, especially for owners of large asset portfolios.

Ten different projects could require maintaining inventory from 20 different panel and inverter suppliers – not surprisingly, as the projects were likely built by different engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) service providers who sourced parts from those available at the time. Unfortunately for the asset owner, that adds up 100 different types of parts  – or 200+ spares to ensure swift replacements and avoid dreaded and costly downtime. That’s a big challenge for asset owners who maintain their own spare parts inventory. Even if they’ve outsourced to a third-party spare parts provider, they’d face the daunting task of contracting separately for each project.

As the solar industry matures, forward-thinking asset owners are factoring their equipment needs into their O&M strategy. They are standardizing requirements for new projects. When replacing worn out panels and inverters, they contractually require EPCs to source from a short list of preferred manufacturers and OEMs. By leveraging similar equipment across  multiple projects, asset owners can allocate capital to make bulk purchases of fewer types of panels and inverters to alleviate spare parts and inventory challenges. Or, if they outsource spare parts inventorying to a third party O&M provider, they can put a master service agreement in place to cover all projects and substantially reduce the time and effort associated with contract negotiations.

Not only does this strategic approach lessen inventory issues for spare parts, it enables asset owners to proactively ensure that their projects are being built with the highest quality components, and optimize procurement pricing in bulk. Training needs diminish too, as technicians are servicing fewer types of equipment. Less equipment variation also results in faster knowledge transfer and more rapid deployment of technicians from one project to another for corrective maintenance or some unforeseen catastrophic issue.

Construction plans

Selecting an EPC is one area where the old adage of ‘pick two: fast, cheap, or high quality ’ holds true, especially from an O&M perspective. Fast and cheap have the potential to lead to long-term issues that erode the performance and productivity of an asset, not to mention catastrophic failures.

Choose an EPC with a reputation and history of delivering quality projects on time and on budget. Be sure to have a 100 percent complete site design before entering into the EPC contract. Don’t leave the final details to chance – that’s where panels get installed and where the wiring and cabling takes place and where many O&M nightmare begin.

That’s because some EPCs normally employ a handful of experienced in-house professionals and outsource a lot of the labor to install panels and wiring. When it comes to labor, make sure the EPC isn’t picking cheap over quality.

Tech outlook

Condition monitoring is a vital O&M task which requires sifting through and analyzing substantial amounts of data – from power outages to identification of faulty modules, calculation of module efficiency, and compliance to grid standards – to ensure optimal PV system performance.

Traditionally, condition monitoring has been manual and dispersive. Fortunately advancements in condition monitoring automation and data performance analytics are changing that. Today, sophisticated asset owners are turning to remote condition monitoring software to inform their O&M strategies and corrective maintenance plans. Monitoring takes place in remote operations centers – like the Pearce world-class NIRC/CIP Remote Operating Center, designed to meet the North American Electric Reliability Corporation’s (NERC) Critical Infrastructure Protection (CIP) standards. At these centers, performance analytics specialists have a bird’s eye view of multiple production sites at once.

Automated condition monitoring gives Pearce 24×7 visibility into any site’s performance levels, identifying inefficiencies and performing data analysis to pinpoint the root cause of a problem. Analyzing and diagnosing a challenge remotely without sending a technician to the job site to assess the situation helps manage cost. And it accelerates the ability to get a project online faster, significantly reducing downtime.

Condition monitoring systems are making O&M servicing smarter and more efficient. Armed with data about the exact point of failure – whether a dirty filter panel, a faulty PV connecter, or a malfunctioning inverter – the asset owner or their outsourced O&M service provider can deploy a technician with the right knowledge to exactly the right place to resolve the problem faster.

Utility-scale solar has come a long way since the first solar park was built nearly four decades ago. As the industry continues to evolve, O&M best practices and technology will too, paving the way for asset owners to deploy smarter strategies and achieve greater  performance.

Author: Daryl Ragsdale

Daryl Ragsdale is vice president of business development for Pearce Renewables, a national provider of operations, maintenance, and engineering services for mission-critical infrastructure. For more than a decade he has specialized in delivering innovative, simple solutions to solve complex challenges in the wind, battery energy storage, and solar industries.

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