Operations separating from Maintenance
GTM Research’s latest O&M report found that the O is starting to separate from the M. This may be because many of the larger asset owners self-perform maintenance or operations and outsource the other. Research finds that this is most obvious among inverter companies in the O&M market, as they usually provide more maintenance than operations.
Katherine Janik, principal at Garnet 3 Consulting, said she’s seeing an increase in requests to consider separating the two services.
“Separating the O from the M would result in a loss of efficiencies—such as project knowledge and history—but this could be mitigated through proper documentation and automated systems documenting maintenance and issue resolution,” she said. “This would require investment in an automated system and tablets for guys in the field. The efficiencies of separating the O from the M seem to only make sense for utility-scale projects.”
Residential O&M becoming more important
The U.S. market for distributed PV asset management and O&M is expected to reach $803 million by 2020, according to GTM Research and SoliChamba Consulting. While non-residential O&M is currently the dominant segment in the United States, it’s forecasted that the residential segment will make up 70% of the total market value by 2020.
Rick Berube, executive vice president of operations at Vigilant Energy Management, said this is not necessarily because residential systems suddenly need more maintenance.
“When you’re a residential customer, you’re getting a standard industry-wide 10-year workmanship warranty. There’s really no need for you as an owner, if you’re paying cash, to have an O&M contract,” he said. “I think you’re seeing a large uptick in residential solar O&M for the third-party owners, such as Sunrun, SolarCity, Vivint, etc. Those are the people that own literally millions of assets. It behooves them to employ small local solar installers as their O&M providers to quickly react to things that go wrong to make sure they’re getting their money back from their investment.”
Increased string inverter use transforming O&M
SoliChamba suggests that string inverters could disrupt commercial-scale O&M practices, as more are used as alternatives to central inverters. String inverters are easy to maintain, in the sense that if one fails, often it’s easiest to just replace it with readily on-hand backup units. And when they do fail, they usually have a lower impact on production targets, so ASAP maintenance isn’t necessary, said Rick Berube, executive vice president of operations at Vigilant Energy Management.
“It’s more labor intensive at commissioning—you’re commissioning 30 to 40 string inverters versus one or two central inverters—but after the fact, it pays huge dividends down the road for O&M,” he said. “When one of those go down, you only have a small fraction of your system [affected] versus half of it when one of the central inverters goes down. A lot of the owners are going that way, and we recommend it that way.”
But when more string inverters are on a project, failures are more frequent, and more truck rolls are needed when maintenance is paramount. So O&M contracts have to be adjusted accordingly when more string inverters are included on a project.