Words: Don Buck: Senior Manager, Service Business Development, SMA
Many factors contribute to the success of a PV plant: professional design, top-quality components and precise installation, to name just a few. However, accounting for and choosing the right operations and maintenance (O&M) plan is vital to achieving maximum power production and long-term profitability.
Because a properly maintained solar plant can increase energy yield by up to 30 per cent, the demand for O&M services has significantly increased in recent years. This is a trend that GTM Research expects to continue, with the global O&M market for plants larger than 1 megawatt estimated to triple by 2017, reaching 150 gigawatts.
With this growth will come diverse product offerings under the O&M umbrella. Already, these service plans go by many names, from solar asset management to PV investment backstop. While this may just seem like semantics, all O&M plans are not created equal and the services performed and teams behind them rarely allow for a direct comparison.
Therefore, it’s essential to understand which O&M services are needed and which provider is capable of minimising unnecessary operational expenses while maximising lifetime energy yield when making a selection.
Identifying and mitigating risk
Mitigating risk is the overarching goal of any successful O&M plan. Every potential issue with a PV plant represents a risk factor, which can be any number of things from module soiling to compromised wiring to shading caused by overgrowth and many more.
Each of these risk factors can reduce performance, seriously affecting system production and creating monetary consequences that can negatively affect profitability or even destroy it altogether.
An effective O&M provider must be willing to proactively identify potential issues and address them before they can impact an owner’s bottom line, whether that means controlling a rodent problem, clearing vegetation or cleaning the array. Rather than simply checking the boxes on a list of tactical duties, the O&M provider’s main goal should be reducing risk by future-proofing every aspect of the PV plant in order to maximise plant performance and value for the system owner.
Real-time remote monitoring
One of the most important O&M services is system monitoring. While every O&M provider offers this to some degree, it’s important to recognise the difference between simply monitoring a PV plant’s performance and actively managing a solar asset using the most advanced technology available. Leading service providers utilise analytics and expertise to diagnose and remotely resolve challenges in a proactive timeframe before they turn into larger complications.
Perhaps the most comprehensive solution is 24/7, real-time remote monitoring through a globally distributed service network, which is now offered by some companies. Providing an added level of security, this service is becoming increasingly valuable for PV plant owners who are expanding their portfolios across substantial geographic regions or are inheriting an aging PV plant that is using outdated technology, for example.
A robust and well-rounded O&M plan that includes real-time remote monitoring can offer a wealth of advantages that maximise performance while minimising downtime. These include performance profile analysis for maximum power generation; quick reaction to alarms and assessment of on-site service personnel needs; and automated ticket creation and dispatch of field service engineers as necessary.
They also provide thorough reporting on performance, uptime and financial information; management of preventative maintenance schedules and timely completion; rapid response to utility and grid operator needs; and tracking and reporting on warranty claims.
Service should be scalable
Leading O&M providers are able to cater to the needs of a variety of PV plants within a system owner’s diverse portfolio. They offer a menu of options that address both commercial and utility-scale PV plants and can be adapted to suit a given system owner’s business model. For an owner with extensive experience and a robust, in-sourced business model, that may mean a preventative O&M plan that covers the essentials.
On the other hand, a bumper-to-bumper package that addresses all performance-related factors may be the best fit for a leaner-run organisation. To determine what makes the most business sense, system owners should contract with a service partner that can tailor the O&M services to ensure the long-term growth of their organisation and profitability of the individual project.
Choosing the right service partner
With the anticipated O&M market growth will come legions of new service providers competing for the business. This is not unlike the inverter, module and BOS segments, which have experienced the same influx of competition over the years. However, prudent system owners will be able to narrow the pack based on a key differentiator: experience.
System owners should consider myriad factors when selecting a service partner, including the company’s installed base, size of service team, length of time in business and bankability, among many more.
An O&M provider should also have a diverse team of subject-matter experts to support plant owners, particularly when it comes to components such as the inverter. The inverter is the brain of the large-scale PV system, with all plant-wide faults and alarms communicated through it. That’s why it’s imperative to partner with an O&M provider who has extensive experience and expertise with these technologically complex devices.
SMA is not only the global leader in solar technology, but also the top-ranked service provider by third-party analysis. Since launching its plant-wide O&M service only one year ago, SMA has been trusted with countless commercial and utility contracts. SMA has successfully built upon its experience as the largest servicer of PV inverters in the world with more than 30 GW installed globally, offering the best O&M team to represent the needs of PV plant owners.