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Mar 24, 2014  | Tom Cheyney  | 1 Comment

The 411 about solar O&M

Recent articles, focused conference this week address the state of solar operations and maintenance as well as new technologies

Although the feel-good focus of the solar industry on all those gigawatts being deployed and interconnected every month is understandable, the task of operating, maintaining, and managing that burgeoning group of renewable energy assets doesn’t quite have the same glamorous appeal. Yet without a proper O&M program, PV power plant owners may find themselves experiencing little or no return on their investments—or worse. In the run-up to this week’s Solar O&M North America conference taking place in San Francisco, several articles provide foundational information on the state of O&M and asset management.

Glenna Wiseman’s timely three-part series at SolarPowerWorld and her overlapping posts at Renewable Energy World provide a solid starting point for the discussion and differentiation of the related fields solar operations and maintenance and asset management. “In the nascent solar photovoltaic O&M industry, definitions fly around and become muddled by lack of standardization,” she writes in the introductory post. “Take for example the terms operations and maintenance (O&M) and asset management (AM). These two terms are seemingly aimed at the higher context of providing a solar owner with the asset’s prescribed energy performance and the expected return on investment. Yet these two terms, while they fuse at some point in the value chain of O&M vernacular, prescribe specialized skill sets delivering on a continuum of the investor’s scope of work requirements.”

Glenna cites the recent GTM Research report’s list of the “five major goals of solar O&M: optimization of plant production for increased asset revenue; reduction of risks for asset owners and investors; protection of asset value and longevity; compliance with applicable regulations (e.g., those set forth by the grid operator or environmental governance bodies); and transparency on plant production, performance, issues, risks and O&M activities.” On the other hand, “asset management consists of financial, commercial and administrative activities necessary to ensure the plant’s energy production translates into the appropriate revenue stream.”

In the third installment of her series, Glenna quizzes Greg Sellers of Clean Power Finance and Joe Kastner of Radian Generation on five topics shaping U.S. residential and commercial O&M. Greg’s response to one question caught the Curator’s eye, since it points out a core truth of the operations-and-maintenance continuum—a less-than-optimal installation often leads to more O&M headaches and expenditures.

“The main challenge for O&M activities is actually system installation,” he opines. “Installation is the single biggest factor in determining how much maintenance a system will need. Minor install oversights can become major maintenance headaches down the road; consistent best practices for installation will be crucial in the coming years as inexperienced new players enter the market and existing players work to ramp their install rate. Standardization is also a prerequisite for large-scale securitization: investors won’t buy into solar unless they can be sure of the quality of the installation.”

The need for solar O&M standardization is one of the main themes in a fresh Solar Novus post cowritten by Jeanne Schwartz of Assurant and Rue Phillips of True South Renewables, who is a featured participant at the Solar Plaza-organized conference this week. The coauthors wrap the article with a no-nonsense précis of what’s needed in the field. “The goals of a sound solar O&M strategy should be to improve a system’s performance and increase system availability, minimize risk, and maximize the project’s return on investment,” note Jeanne and Rue. “These ambitions will be tested as solar capacity in continues to grow and systems begin to age. The benefits of standardizing O&M in the solar industry are many. It will reduce risk, increase quality and energy output, and stimulate further growth in the solar industry.”

For an example of advancements in O&M technology, look no further than a solar farm in Israel’s Negev desert, where a robotic PV cleaning system is helping to optimize system performance. Ecoppia has developed an “autonomous water-free photovoltaic solar panel cleaning solution,” which has been deployed at the Ketura Sun project (owned by Siemens and Arava Power). Said to be “the world’s first autonomously cleaned solar energy production facility,” the 4.95MW array is “cleaned nightly by a fleet of almost 100 water-free, energy-independent Ecoppia E4 robots,” according to the press release. Ecoppia is not the only company to bring robotics to the solar O&M market—SunPower thought enough of Greenbotics to buy the start-up late last year—but the Israeli firm’s first big sale bodes well for automated approaches to PV plant maintenance.


Sources: SolarPowerWorld, Renewable Energy World, GTM Research, Solar Novus, Eccopia, Arava Power, SolarCurator

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