With many facilities across the country struggling to perform at a production capacity that was promised in the development phase, solar operations and maintenance (O&M) is now understood to be an integral part of any PV system’s operational requirements. Without question, the value proposition of solar O&M has been established in the last fifteen years, for a variety of reasons from low ROI on projects to safety hazards that result in costly repairs. The requirement to maintain and optimize site performance should be in every contract.
What we have seen in the industry is that due to system aging and new technology, the requirement to remove and replace part or all of an existing system is being considered and becoming more common. This requirement is often accelerated due to deferred or ignored scheduled maintenance plans.
It’s difficult to understand how a system could be left without a maintenance plan or needed repairs but it happens regularly and at different times in the energy production lifecycle. The reasons for this deferred maintenance or even abandonment is varied but run the gamut from poor budgetary planning to company and asset management turnover. This can cause even a much bigger problem than underperformance.
The largest hidden cost is failed power production expectations and the potential of having to remove and replace some or even all the system’s costly components. Customers plan, forecast, and budget based on the expected power that is estimated during the design and construction phase. A PV developer’s future financing and business model can be seriously affected by an underperforming project or the missed opportunity to accurately forecast long-term system replacement costs.
Expensive repair costs, extensive downtime, and additional resources to manage and repair the asset can add up quickly. Any component of the system has potential for failure, and every component left uncared for will deteriorate and fail over time.
Finding and contracting with a reputable and experienced PV O&M provider can be time-consuming and challenging. Knowing how much service to contract for and at what price can be a difficult process to work through unless you find an experienced and qualified service partner. Many O&M service providers offer a standard menu of services that can be customized to address your specific site’s scope and schedule. Ask your service provider to explain and propose their full offerings in detail and inquire if they have the experience and capability to remove and replace an older existing system. Developing a relationship with a qualified full-service provider is more essential now than ever in assuring expected energy production.
It’s important to remember that not all sites are designed or constructed the same nor are they located in common environments. A well-scoped and scheduled maintenance plan is essential to the customer’s ROI. This maintenance plan should be customized to the system that it is being used to maintain and not a generic form that is good for every system in the “fleet”.
Preventative maintenance should be performed at least once a year. However, each site’s characteristics will vary. An agricultural packaging facility may need service multiple services a year, whereas a college campus may only require an annual visit. A utility site may require continuous service and repairs. It is important to seek a provider who can develop a maintenance package that suits each individual system’s needs. Data Acquisition Systems (DAS) can provide a suite of useful information that shows the service provider what and when essential maintenance services are needed.
The optimum time to clean solar modules or set a tracker program can be determined through a DAS, as well as the replacement of system fuses and modules. Visual inspections including drone fly-by and thermography play an important part in scheduling maintenance tasks and photographs of the site are always an important resource.
Reputable service providers will always provide reports upon completion of any maintenance service. This documentation is vital to the effective maintenance of the system. It details the scope, schedule, and service history that is unique to the system. It can and will save the manager or owner time and money in the short and long run of the power systems service life. Maintenance documentation can be an essential requirement when addressing warranty coverage and many warranty holders will not provide service without it.
Though documentation may require more involvement on the owner or manager’s side, it allows greater scrutiny and protection of your investment. Regular maintenance could mean the difference between a short-term year high production lifespan or an extended years-plus, decreased production lifespan, and ultimately a corresponding ROI. Reactionary services on a PV system tend to be costly, and full unit replacements may be necessary to return the system to operation. Systems that operate at 95%-99% availability for the production year typically earn a high ROI and increased customer and industry confidence
There comes a time in the life of every facility, system, or component that a decision needs to be made to repair or replace some or all of it. The alternative is to lose the asset and its expected value. An active and long-term maintenance plan is essential in maintaining and assuring production but even then, time may take its toll and a system will need to be remediated. When considering this tough decision, make sure to reach out to those companies that have experience in the full spectrum of services required for the work.
It’s very important that you select a company that can provide the critical service provisions that will assure your project is completed with the expected value and reliability, and that the most current design and components are utilized in the project. With a trusted O&M provider and long-term maintenance plan in place, your solar asset can be productive for years to come!
Wayne Williford is a seasoned technical expert with skills across a range industries and more than thirty years of experience in testing, deploying, and supporting advanced technologies and complex mechanical systems.
Wayne is currently Vice President of Operations at Day Electric and has held positions as V.P of Commercial O&M at Stellar Energy, SunSystem Technology, Director of O&M Business Development at REC Commercial Solar, V.P of P.V Services Group at Soligent and Director of Service and Warranty at SPG Solar, Mr. Williford has managed teams of technicians responsible for servicing and maintaining more than 300 large-scale commercial solar photovoltaic systems.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own, and do not necessarily reflect those held by pv magazine.
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This is a big problem for new large solar farms coming online and wanting to connect to utilities and figure their Kilo watt hour power values based only on the job completion price and prorated for 25 years without adding the maintenance costs to the figures they give utilities. I see prices of 1.5 cents per kilo watt hour and wonder how that will hold up once a full Maintenace, repair/replace program gets implemented. utilities us these lowball prices as their calculations on what they are willing to pay for rooftop solar rather than what the systems really cost to build, run and maintain. Having both an on-grid and off-grid solar panel systems since 2007, the maintenance, repair/replace on inverters, batteries, cracked solar panels plus cleaning of solar panel surfaces and maintaining trackers all add up to extra costs beyond the original installation costs. Like when buying a new car, you really don’t think about tires, windshield wipers and fan belt replacements, oil and filter changes, transmission servicing and radiator services at the time of purchase. Only after you drive a few years do those additional costs add up and eventually you need to replace the whole car. If you skip the services, the car does not last as long, and neither will the solar panel systems.
Interesting, a real in depth O&M piece that never mentions vegetation maintenance. This is an example of why vegetation service providers are doing well reseeding projects that fail due to the ignorance of this part of the O&M plan. You can pay us now, or pay us more later.
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