Owning O&M: How C&I solar installers can turn a nuisance into new business

O&M on-site worker

The commercial and industrial (C&I) solar segment has lagged behind residential and utility-scale to this point, but not because of the opportunity. In terms of available surface area and financial impact for asset owners and off-takers, C&I arguably has the most potential.

Yes, C&I solar is a perfectly ripe piece of fruit, but it hangs much higher up, requiring a different mindset and set of tools to reach it. For solar installers bold enough to pluck it, building out a robust operations and maintenance (O&M) strategy is essential for a few reasons. For one, a focused approach to O&M can develop a more stable solar business, when riding those oh-so-familiar ups and downs of the C&I solar coaster.

“With our first clients who started taking it (O&M) seriously, it became a really good part of the solar business,” says Zoltan Milaskey, president at Mana Monitoring. “Because you have projects that take off, then you’re waiting for PPO, then you need to furlough the crew and wait for the next project to get off the ground. O&M becomes a critical part of running a solar operation because it keeps your crew busy and stay busy in between projects, and it keeps your clients happy.”

Milaskey makes a good case for investing more in a robust O&M strategy, especially in C&I. Before launching Mana Monitoring five years ago, Milaskey was a project development manager at Hawaii Pacific Solar where he rode the ebbs and flows. Plus, doing business in Hawaii is like living in the future of the U.S. solar industry – a high penetration of solar and no net-metering incentives. Simply installing a system and fixing stuff when it breaks isn’t going to cut it.

But where to start? And what to focus on? And … um, why, again?

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Perfecting customer service

Mana monitoring site tickets

Snap a pic; set a low priority ticket. Next annual PM visit, there’s a proactive list.

Consider maintenance tracking. Keeping a record of maintenance work completed, with photos from the site, is valuable for your own work and often needed in case of a warranty claim. It’s also a good look when customers login and see that you are on top of stuff. This builds trust, which is important considering that any hiccups in up-time or performance can cost a company thousands in either lost time or hiked demand charges.

“Every company wants to build out its own CRM, but a lot of stuff still goes through email and is lost in translation,” Milaskey says. “The goal here is to have a repository to store it, to save it and be able track what was the RMA process, how the modules were replaced, etc. … Down the line when you go to upsell batteries, for example, clients will know that you have the supporting data and have been tracking it for several years.”

Proactive and preventive maintenance is becoming more important, but for your own knowledge.

“We find in preventive maintenance, with an integrated ticketing system, you have a field guy that can go out and fix what’s broken, but also notice any new issues and note them. Snap a pic; set a low priority ticket. Next annual PM visit, there’s a proactive list. It seems minute, but they add up –and you can take that combiner box with you next year.”

Keeping it simple

A real focus on O&M starts by simplifying: 1) reining in the system alerts to the essentials and 2) aggregating all of your PV sites into one monitoring platform. This accomplishes a few things. Simplifying alerts means basing them on outages, potential power as a function of irradiance, and on performance expectations.

“Once you are getting a lot of emails, there is no value there,” Milaskey says.

On the system side, funneling everything to a single third-party system avoids issues with boxing yourself into one or two inverter ecosystems, and it keeps your entire organization on the same page. Workers out in the field are accessing and working from the same ticketing system and site profiles as the office admins (and customers – more on that in a minute).

Mana Monitoring dashboard

“By consolidating our portfolio of sites into a single platform, Mana has streamlined monitoring and invoicing, making management of the sites significantly more efficient,” said Allen Wilson, Project Finance Manager, RC Energy Group. “Mana’s updated validation and reconciliation features have further improved our ability to reliably consolidate production data from various sites, ensuring timely and accurate billing.”

There are some next-level third-party monitoring systems out there to do this, but they are often too big and costly for the under 20-MW segment.

“Mana was able to integrate our existing hardware instead of trying to sell us their own meters,” notes David Dwelle of Pacific Power Renewables.

Aggregating stakeholders

mana monitoring dashboard

Each stakeholder has their own portal to site data and maintenance tickets, plus their own toolbox of added value.

Mana Monitoring has pulled in over 500 MW of energy monitored nationally and has integrated 15,000devices. Its true differentiator is how it aggregates not just site data, but every stakeholder involved in a project – the third-party financier, the off-taker and the O&M provider.

Each stakeholder has their own portal to site data and maintenance tickets, plus their own toolbox of added value. The owner of a mall or multi-family apartment complex can set up a sub metering billing system to easily bill tenants.

The Outlets of Maui shopping center, a Jones Lang LaSalle property, for example, blends its solar power and utility power to sell to its tenants. Mana is able to simply cut bills for each user’s load every month. While you, the solar company, doesn’t need to worry about that, being able to offer that as a value-add within your monitoring system is baller customer service. It could also improve your sales approach and expand the types of projects you are pursuing.

“The industry needs to get more creative and design systems more carefully than you did even three years ago, which plays into the longer term vision for your role in the system’s life,” Milaskey says. “This relates back to the front end. Selling a commercial PV system has different needs, and you can provide creative solutions. It’s not NEM 1.0., and we need more arrows in the quiver.”

What’s in it for you?

Hopefully, an additional profit center. Along with whatever warranties you have, include optional O&M contracts in your proposals right out of the gate. Structure them to spell out how and when you’ll roll a truck and commit to an annual maintenance plan. When a third-party financing group is looking for a partner to get projects done, having all of these tools handy and processes in place is super valuable. And of course…

“It all leads to longevity of the system,” Milaskey notes, which is usually good too.

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