The operations and maintenance of all sizes of solar projects is constantly evolving. Solar panels and inverters grow more powerful every day with new parameters that change how systems are serviced. Robotic technology innovations could transform labor requirements. O&M providers follow these trends and adapt their services to an industry that reinvents itself every day.
Solar Power World talked about the state of the O&M industry with Troy Lauterbach, CEO of NovaSource, likely the world’s largest solar services company. NovaSource formed in 2020 as a merger of some of the largest O&M portfolios, including from SunPower, First Solar and SunSystem Technology. Today, the company provides O&M solutions for both solar and storage in the residential, commercial and utility-scale markets in nine countries. Lauterbach explains how NovaSource views solar construction and maintenance as the industry launches into a new era. This interview has been edited for clarity.
Solar Power World: How has the industry evolved in the last decade and how does that affect O&M?
Lauterbach: Each segment has its own unique identity in this evolution. In the residential market, the technology has seen major evolutions, including the form factor and energy output of the modules as well as the move from a central inverter for the entire system to a microinverter mounted on the back of each module. System sizes are getting larger in the C&I market and pushing the limits of onsite infrastructure. Ten years ago, a large-scale C&I system would be 1 MW in scale; now we see systems that are over 7 MW in size. At the utility-scale, there’s been a shift on PV having a minimal impact on the grid to being a market-maker in many regions, with PV installations being some of the largest energy infrastructure projects in the nation. This has led to an appropriate increased scrutiny on the security and reliability of operations, and O&M providers have had a strong focus on regulatory and market compliance.
As we have seen this period of unprecedented growth, we have also seen an increased awareness that the performance of these assets cannot be assumed. Recent cross-industry reports have shown that PV systems perform on average 6 to 8% below financial projections. Some of this can be attributed to over-optimistic performance assumptions at financing, but it has also become apparent that investment is required into system reliability and operations to achieve expected financial returns. An important function of O&M is emerging as a partner and advisor, to ensure that a system is built in a way that will enable long-term performance and has an operational plan that is appropriate for the asset.
The last decade’s view of PV as a “zero-maintenance” asset is being replaced with an awareness that thoughtful investments into operations are required to ensure long-term performance, while still having the benefit of being the lowest operating cost technology in the market.
What O&M issues are you seeing more today than in the past?
Inverter technology has become less reliable with much longer repair times. This is a combination of cost reduction pressures on the OEMs leading to lower-reliability components being used and cost-cutting measures within the OEMs’ service strategy to service their warranty. NovaSource actually views the OEM warranties as having negative value for owners and the industry, and we see an uptime in overall system availability after the OEM warranty has been exhausted. Supply constraints further compound the overall system reliability.
What trends in product and project development are you seeing today that may affect O&M later?
Residential: The need for battery integration is growing at a rapid pace. This will change the landscape of O&M from strictly grid-tied performance issues to power-flow diagnostics. Understanding when power should be stored and when it should be pushed back onto the grid is critical to market growth. Diagnosing issues with power loss will be critical for the future of O&M.
C&I: String inverters getting larger (nearing 200 kW) is impacting projects negatively due to weight distribution on the rooftops and positively due to minimizing the number of inverters needed to achieve the energy goals.
Utility-scale: As a result of the dissatisfaction with OEM warranty execution, we are starting to see inverter OEMs and battery energy storage system (BESS) integrators evolving their approaches to supporting these technologies. We see a direct correlation in system performance and OEM support during the warranty period. The willingness of developers and owners to pay for a higher-quality product seems to have been lost, likely because the added upfront cost to the project is not perceived to have a positive ROI. This is a falsehood based on our operational experience. We have noted that roughly half of lost availability on a site during the major equipment warranty period is attributed to waiting on an OEM to address an issue that the O&M provider is restricted from fixing (per warranty terms). This arrangement is being replicated on the BESS side by BESS integrators who restrict the O&M provider from certain tasks, resulting in lengthy tri-party coordination for corrective actions to account for overlapping and inefficient service contracts.
Our approach has been to request training and access for the most common failures on such equipment to empower the O&M provider to fix issues immediately and reduce the number of cooks in the kitchen (and carveouts in guarantees).
Is having spare/replacement part inventory more important today, especially as products quickly advance?
Having spare parts is critical to improving the first-time fix rate, a key metric for residential. Being able to diagnose and repair problems with a single site visit will increase customer satisfaction and quickly return system performance to the levels that were anticipated at contract execution. Acquiring products that have been sunsetted by OEMs is difficult and being able to re-engineer failed systems is becoming increasingly important.
As alluded before, since OEMs are struggling to honor warranties reaching the 10- or 15-year guarantees, it is highly important to have spares/inventory on hand. There is a contradiction of voiding the OEM warranty for self-servicing internal parts of a warrantied product, however OEMs are no longer offering certification training to avoid this risk.
The importance of planning for and carrying safety stock has increased at the utility-scale, too. Because of product advancement, global supply constraints have increased lead-times – in combination with the fact that systems are aging and require more maintenance over time, which means more parts. The primary reason for low availability is parts lead times. This is compounded by the conflict of interest the OEMs face in leveraging that same part to build new products or service existing products in the field.
When it comes to panel cleaning or vegetation maintenance, how do you get comfortable with using robots and more unmanned systems?
Robotic systems for panel cleaning tend to be semi-autonomous and still require labor/movement. Our economics have concluded that in most regions, manual cleaning is still more cost-effective than robotics.
We are excited about the prospects of robotic vegetation maintenance, but unfortunately that industry is still maturing. Robotic systems are theoretically the most cost-effective solution, but we haven’t seen the real-world performance to match yet. As the systems get more reliable, we anticipate most solar projects will utilize robotic mowing for bulk vegetation management. Look for golf courses to be the leading indicator of when this technology has hit the tipping point.
We’re constantly seeking improvements in O&M services to help our owners reduce costs. NovaSource uses our internal expertise in manufacturing, R&D, data analysis and actively maintaining sites to identify potential emerging technologies. We validate these findings against real world field tests to ensure our recommendations are correct.
What other O&M trends are you looking at?
Over the next few years, the work will be hard, but the story is simple: Everything will be defined by scale. As we look to operational optimization, digitization, robotics, artificial intelligence and other emerging trends, everything will be viewed through a lens of enabling scale. There will be two major constraints to work against — decreasing sponsor project margins and decreasing labor availability. Both mean that we need to find ways to leverage growth and technology thoughtfully to allow us to meet the required exponential growth we will see in the sector.
It is also important to note that as the industry matures and sponsor margins decrease, operational shortfalls will be much more impactful to project returns. So, the answer is not to decrease O&M activities; it is to ensure that all O&M activities are tied to project value and risk mitigation. We are well past the point where a 6% shortfall in production (as seen in recent cross-industry reports) can be seen as acceptable, and optimized modern O&M is the best tool to control this risk.
Finally, over the next few years we anticipate a higher focus on social license to operate for PV systems. As we see rapid growth of PV, its deployment will be more broadly visible and elicit more potential community backlash. As the public face of an operating plant, O&M will be critical to ensuring positive community relations. More focus on a triple-bottom-line view of project investments, accounting for performance optimization, cost savings and community engagement will lead to an expansion of solutions like “agrivoltaics” into the sector.