Digitizing deployment: Enhancing solar development

digitizing deployment solar development

By Emily Obenauer | Sitetracker

Thomas Edison’s pioneering generation facility — the granddaddy of all central station power — would today be considered a distributed energy resource. After all, it served just a single New York City neighborhood when it fired up back in 1882.

Today, DERs and advanced energy systems proliferate, with distributed solar representing about half of the projected capital spending on these systems over the next few years. That doesn’t count utility-scale solar, which Morgan Stanley analysts expect will expand by about 42 GW annually by the end of this decade. 

Edison was a brilliant inventor, but even he would have shuddered at the prospect of efficiently managing the overlapping design, development, construction, and operations and maintenance of multiple modern commercial and industrial solar facilities — or for that matter, at the complexity of creating even a single utility-scale solar plant. It would take more than a century for the digital technologies capable of doing so to catch up. Finally, they have.

The cloud has been the key enabler. It provides access to centralized data stores in real-time, from anywhere. Building on that foundation is an engine of digital transformation known as deployment operations management systems. They help digitize the full spectrum of solar development, from permitting to interconnection to managing contractors and finances — and, finally, the reporting to bring it all together. The ultimate aim of digital transformation is to apply technology to improve customer service, operational efficiency, and competitiveness while lowering costs. Perhaps its most vital feature in solar development is its ability to improve communication and collaboration among the many parties involved in many projects over many months.

In solar development, communication is about ensuring that those with useful, reliable information can, as part of their natural workflows whether in the field or at a desk, convey it to those who need it, when they need it, anywhere on a project, whatever the project phase. That’s what deployment operations management systems do. They enhance coordination, streamline decision-making, sidestep pitfalls, optimize processes across project teams, and speed up projects. Let’s consider the example of interconnection.

Addressing interconnection hurdles

No technology can solve all the current issues facing solar interconnection. But deployment operations management systems can capture pre-application work, grid-impact assessments, and proposed resource allocations to provide developers, independent power producers, and utilities what they need to move the process forward. They streamline planning and scheduling through templated but flexible project plans that help stakeholders allocate resources and anticipate potential hurdles along the way. They automate compliance tracking and make sure documents are maintained accurately and submitted promptly.

With the project underway, deployment operations management systems track milestones, identify bottlenecks and establish accountability for clearing them, forecast resource needs, and generate comprehensive progress reports, empowering managers to address delays and ensure a smoother interconnection process.

These systems have other important features that also lean on their cloud-based data architectures. They enable detailed budgeting and financial modeling that update as the projects evolve. They automate closeouts based on previously stored data, documents, mapping, and imagery, saving project managers hours of compilation effort.

There’s only so much a solar developer can control when it comes to interconnection. But access to accurate, detailed, and actionable information helps streamline the process, ensure regulatory compliance, and keep the greater interconnection effort on track.

From contracts to concrete tasks

The realm of contract management highlights the challenges of communication and collaboration over the course of a solar project. The person who wrote the contract may never meet the electrical contractor installing the inverters or the asset manager responsible for system performance. Digitization via deployment operations management systems takes performance and reporting requirements laid out in contracts and creates scheduled tasks with appropriate reminders over the life of a project. That fosters effective, long-term collaboration without repetitive, manual effort.

Finally, digital transformation fosters vastly improved work tracking and management among employees and — just as importantly — among the many contractors involved in solar projects. Deployment operations management systems bring contractors into the fold through portals that let them review their scheduled work, update their progress, and check in on the status of those whose work precedes and follows theirs, from design and development through O&M.

“There’s a better way to do it — find it,” Edison once said. The goal of solar-development digital transformation is to get projects done more quickly and profitably. Deployment operations management systems are proving to be a better way to do it.

Emily Obenauer is director of product marketing for energy and utilities at Sitetracker.

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