By Zoltan Milaskey, president, Mana Monitoring
Whether it is preventative maintenance or the routine inspection and servicing of equipment, proper O&M is essential for ensuring solar PV systems remain at peak performance to avoid unnecessary breakdowns or production losses. O&M is particularly important in the commercial and industrial (C&I) space, as it faces unique challenges rarely experienced in the residential and utility sectors. Though it accounts for nearly 32% of the total U.S. solar market, a number undoubtedly on the rise as more businesses use clean energy to achieve corporate sustainability goals, the C&I sector is a highly underserved market when it comes to O&M and asset management.
What makes commercial solar so complex?
In the C&I space, projects are much less homogeneous than residential or utility-scale projects and are multifaceted builds that include a broader range of equipment. Many times, a company will work with an installer to build the first phase of a project with one type of equipment, such as microinverters, and then for one reason or another need to install the remaining sites with string inverters, or a combination of many brands. With multiple types of equipment, and after reaching a certain threshold of sites, managing O&M becomes increasingly complex. And while some equipment suppliers have their own monitoring, asset managers still need to control multiple accounts, often from multiple sites.
C&I projects also require a great deal of custom work, which many installers do not always realize at first. On the surface, monitoring 2 GW of solar can seem more complicated than monitoring 10 MW, but in reality that 2 GW can be quite simple if it uses all the same equipment and is only spread across a small number of sites. However, pulling production insights from just 10 MW can be significantly more laborious if it consists of 100 sites with 10 different suppliers. Also constrained by tighter budgets, many commercial projects are financed by multiple investors. Now, not only is there a broader scope of equipment, its competitive financial landscape results in installers building on a system for the interests of multiple stakeholders.
Despite these challenges, being equipped to effectively manage commercial projects is imperative, and the ideal way to simplify is by centralizing asset monitoring and management through a singular source.
But how? O&M-specific companies rarely handle asset management, and while asset managers are responsible for tracking equipment warranties, site leases and return merchandise authorizations (RMAs), installers are typically the ones to directly handle the equipment. Given this crossover, operators are looking to integrate aggregated O&M into their services from the start with a monitoring company that uses built-out connections, APIs and data acquisition protocols to pull all sources into one centralized platform.
Though some installers and operators might already be set up with data companies, they often still need a solution that can bring together these pieces in a more seamless way, without paying a premium upcharge. As this becomes more prioritized to better serve C&I projects moving forward, implementing a customized monitoring system can be done quickly when working with the right monitoring provider. Hardware-agnostic monitoring solutions, more specifically, also makes it much easier to accommodate sites with more than one equipment type, and in an industry where regulations, hardware and software are ever evolving, inclusive monitoring is essential.
Integrated O&M providers prioritize monitoring
Places with high penetrations of solar, like Hawaii, are known for being the blueprint for larger industry trends across the country. Hawaii has also given proof to the need for greater asset maintenance and management within the C&I sector, as seen by the many companies now incorporating professional O&M services into their operations.
By integrating the data from each site’s equipment, O&M contractors, system owners and offtakers can coordinate efforts to maximize both the output and longevity of their systems. So as commercial solar installers look to scale their business, data aggregation and centralized monitoring will be critical for establishing long-term success.
Hawaii Pacific Solar, for example, evolved from a traditional solar installer into a statewide O&M provider by proactively consolidating all of its sites into a centralized monitoring platform.
“We recognized that having a monitoring platform that is flexible, easy to implement and leverages a field-oriented monitoring, reporting and notification system greatly optimized the performance of Hawaii Pacific Solar’s PV projects because it allowed us to focus on maintaining sites, proactively addressing issues, and providing consistent reporting to stakeholders,” explained Bob Johnston, president of Hawaii Pacific Solar.
Reliable data improve asset management
For asset managers, like Rockwell Energy Group, consolidated monitoring made site management significantly more efficient with streamlined monitoring and invoicing. Allen Wilson, project finance manager at Rockwell Energy, noted, “We benefited enormously by having a well-designed, yet flexible monitoring system. The updated validation and reconciliation features have further improved our ability to reliably consolidate production data from various sites, ensuring timely and accurate billing.”
Monitoring solutions that integrate one-click portfolio billing are the most beneficial for asset managers in particular because it can coordinate ticketing with both the financier and O&M company. This can include tracking PPA rates, generating bills as well as offtaker reconciliation at the end of the year. Sophisticated monitoring platforms that use servers with built-in redundancies can also reconcile any lost data should the internet go down and are especially helpful at commercial sites, where internet connections are not always available or reliable, to ensure bills sent to tenants match the source data.
Centralized monitoring platforms also enhance offtaker load monitoring abilities at sites where future expansion or battery deployment is expected. Managing batteries in the same platform as solar production is extremely valuable for consolidating metrics and analytics that allow for a more efficient asset management process.
Proactive, centralized energy monitoring
The potential for commercial solar to grow is tremendous, since existing projects only make up 10% of the total addressable C&I market. As commercial solar projects scale in both size and portfolio, installers, O&M providers and asset managers will all need to adopt strategies that prioritize system performance. The lessons learned in Hawaii show promise in better serving the C&I market, but only scratch the surface, and integrating a centralized data aggregation solution from the start will be the key to creating an O&M-focused approach to energy management.