As the solar industry matures well past the early adopter stages, smart asset management and operations and maintenance (O&M) practices have increasingly become the focus of savvy solar plant owners and investors. Optimizing uptime has now become a critical foundation of ROI, and one of the keys to achieving optimized plant performance is a comprehensive data acquisition and monitoring system backed by an experienced O&M monitoring team.
Historically, O&M was often added to engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) contracts to sweeten the deal. Monitoring was heavily used during the commissioning and performance guarantee period but was not often maintained thereafter. Only egregious faults were captured, if at all, and failing but not yet dead components would usually be overlooked.
How times have changed. Numerous tech advancements have increased the capability and granularity of O&M monitoring, including:
■ Device-level communication and alarms.
■ Calibration/configuration algorithms to ensure equipment is reporting accurately.
■ Real-time multiple model comparisons to actual performance (financial, operational, historical).
■ Application programming interface (API) tie-ins to computerized maintenance management systems (CMMS) for automated work-order generation.
■ Camera/sensor feedback for soiling, vegetation, snow and similar issues.
■ The use of multiple sensors and cameras for calibration verification and site security.
In today’s solar O&M marketplace, data drives data. That is, the more actionable data you can extract from systems, the more you learn about the “real-world” behavior of those systems, and the more proactive you can be in maintaining systems at their maximum performance.
Of course, an equally important part of the equation is to have a skilled team that can properly configure alerts and alarms, monitor system data, identify how real-world incidents impact performance and understand the balance between uptime and ROI.
The goal today is to accurately diagnose the problem and determine what equipment or parts are needed long before a technician arrives onsite. This capability can decrease system downtime, reduce the number of tech visits and increase the owner’s uptime and ROI.
There are many specific benefits that smart O&M monitoring backed by an expert O&M team can bring to system owners. For example:
■ Panel washing and vegetation abatement can be scheduled more timely.
■ Contractor compliance can be scrutinized more effectively, helping to answer what is for some a critical question: Did the subcontractor do what they said they would do?
■ Programmed alerts for the CMMS can generate automated work orders and make dispatch efforts more efficient.
As more solar plants enter the secondary market, the benefits garnered from ongoing, comprehensive monitoring takes on added value of its own. If the current asset owner can show prospective buyers in-depth operational and performance records, as well as real-time data metrics and modeled expectations based on real-world conditions, a successful sale is much more likely.
Think of it this way, are you more inclined to buy a used car from an owner who can provide a complete history of maintenance and work records or one whose operating and maintenance history is a mystery?
So, what does the future of solar O&M monitoring hold? Since the industry is driving toward more data and greater granularity, we can expect to see the development of further refined algorithms that can identify ever-more nuanced issues. We can expect to see improved real-time control and forecasting models, remote fault diagnostic and reset capabilities, RMA generation without the need for a field tech visit, greater CMMS and inventory management tie-in and more software automation built around prognostic/predictive tools.
Yet, despite the increasing levels of data finiteness, at the end of the day, there will also be an equally strong need for experienced O&M experts, since the best monitoring platforms truly are only as good as the people who set it up and are capable of performing the operations.