Deployment operations management systems tackle soft costs in utility-scale solar

Cloud Computing

This column was contributed by Fadi Abourjeily, Energy Solutions Product Manager for Sitetracker.

Plunging solar photovoltaic system costs – down 64%, 69%, and 82% for residential, commercial-rooftop, and utility-scale PV systems since 2010, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory – haven’t come with corresponding drops in the costs of designing, permitting, installing, commissioning, and financing.

That’s not news to those in the solar business. We’re are all too aware that soft costs amount to about two-thirds of a solar PV installation’s cost for commercial and residential installations. (Utility-scale installations fare somewhat better, with soft costs totaling about a third of the tab.)

What is news: New IT systems can do a lot to tackle soft costs. These cloud-based systems – collectively called solar deployment operations management solutions – combine the strengths of project, asset, and field management software to track and manage job sites, assets, and field crews in real-time.

They do so by feeding and then tapping into a single information repository continually updated by everyone from field crews to top management. That single source of truth, based on standardized processes, delivers consistent, structured data enabling real-time reporting and predictive analytics. That’s in sharp contrast with the classic issue of project information scattered about in the bric-a-brac formats of email, docs, slides, and spreadsheets residing in SharePoint, Dropbox, and various laptops.

Solar companies are using these systems to address soft costs in several ways, but the bottom line is boosting efficiency and delivering high-quality projects faster. It’s about improving execution across planning, design, engineering, procurement, finance, permitting, construction, closeout, and maintenance.

Standardized but customized

While these are sophisticated systems, they’re conceptually simple, and they’re user-friendly (they have to be, because if they’re weren’t, staff would work around them rather than with them). They use templates, checklists, forms, and other intuitive tools to formalize, structure, and centralize knowledge much more effectively than possible in the past. They emphasize standardization across repeatable projects, yet are customizable to reflect local or project-specific requirements. This all lets team members, and contractors share accurate, timely information throughout a project.

Now, a caveat: While residential solar installers do use these systems, they’re mainly suited to deal with the complexity of managing multiple, multi-week commercial and utility-scale solar projects simultaneously.

Let’s consider a simple example. A field tech following vague instructions attaches a wire incorrectly. He catches the mistake a few steps later, but it costs him a couple of hours to backtrack and fix it. Not long ago, that knowledge might have stayed parked between the tech’s ears, or perhaps his immediate teammates might have heard about it. If the tech moved on to another job, there was a good chance that that knowledge left the building with him.

That’s changed with solar deployment operations management tools. Through chats linked to work steps, the tech can daylight the drawing’s shortcomings and suggest updates, complete with photos. That’s immediately reflected in a note in the templates being used by other project teams, and the drawing gets updated faster. The tech’s knowledge becomes institutional knowledge.

That same philosophy permeates schedules, budgets, resources, production plans, and more. The greatest immediate beneficiary is the project manager. These systems can save hours a week in document generation while offering higher-level managers on-demand reporting and dashboard. They can call up reports based on real-time status whenever they choose. That lets them communicate better with the project owner, boosting transparency and customer satisfaction.

Automated document generation’s value is most obvious at project closeout. That’s when a project manager must collect and organize documents, maps, renderings, and images from various sources (legal, financial, regulatory, and installation-related, among others) and present them cohesively. Solar deployment operations management solutions vastly simplify the process by pulling together a closeout package in a few clicks. That’s possible thanks to collecting that consistent, structured data in a single system.

Better forecasting

There are other solar deployment operations management features that directly or indirectly target soft costs. Commercial and utility-scale solar projects depend heavily on subcontractors. These systems’ subcontractor portals bring subcontractors’ activities directly into the project’s digital flow, including status updates, RFIs, invoices, and other submittals.

Also, a continually updated, centralized data pool serves as an ever-expanding source for better analytics and forecasting. These forecasting functions, increasingly AI-augmented, are based on automated workflows that span planning, permitting, and installation. They can help managers make better decisions and field teams work smarter in different ways.

One example is risk dashboards that color-code project steps that look to be lagging. Another is estimating the pace of permitting in different jurisdictions and the responsiveness of utilities in interconnecting commercial solar, both being key to project planning. You can also project the performance of certain vendors, subcontractors, and even project managers. That can mean less rework, faster project completion times, and faster time to revenue.

Soft costs will always be a part of solar projects. (One of the soft costs NREL mentions is profit, which solar businesses would prefer to maximize.) But the technology exists today to squeeze out the inefficiencies that have historically bloated those soft costs. With exploding demand for solar, that’s only going to become more critical in the years ahead.

Fadi Abourjeily is Sitetracker’s Energy Solutions Product Manager.

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