Hello everyone and welcome to Solar Tea Time!
I’m Craig Noxon, VP of Enterprise Sales at REC Solar and we have our REC Solar Director of Operations, Billy Heidt, as our guest expert this month. Welcome Billy!
Before we get started, a little housekeeping. I wanted you to all be aware that your line is muted but you can type questions inside of the webcast under the questions tab. We will try to answer questions at the end of the webcast or we will get back to you via email. OK, that’s it for the logistics. Let’s get to the topic of the day, Solar maintenance pitfalls to avoid.
Billy, in your years in the solar industry, I’m guessing you have seen a lot and have all sorts of advice to share with our fine listeners. So, let’s start sharing that knowledge!
Here is the first question for you. Why do people do operations and maintenance?
In its simplest form, operations and maintenance is performed to ensure systems are continually running and are cared for so they will last 20-30 years.
What operations and maintenance should be performed on a system?
The maintenance that should be performed is highly dependent on the system and the local environment. At a minimum, I recommend making sure the system has a good data acquisition system setup with properly configured alarms. Secondly, make sure someone is dedicated to receiving those alarms and knows what they mean and what to do about them.
In terms of preventative maintenance, all of the maintenance requirements of the installed equipment such as inverters and trackers must be completed with proper records kept for all of the work.
This is especially important with any field deployed electronics, such as inverters and anything with moving parts such as trackers which incorporate actuators and drive motors.
Is the monitoring system something that is built into my solar installation?
Almost every solar integrator should be including a monitoring system. What is normally not included in the build is someone utilizing the monitoring system in real time to watch for any performance issues that may arise.
How should businesses weigh whether to maintain the system themselves or enter into a service contract with an O&M provider?
You should know what needs to be done and understand if your company or facility has the expertise and bandwidth to cover it. For instance, many farmers will wash arrays themselves. Facilities with dedicated facility maintenance staff can apply these resources to the system. These can be very effective cost savings approaches. What does not work well is ignoring the system after it is built.
What are the risks and potential issues with an O&M agreement? What isn’t covered?
One thing to understand and separate in O&M agreements is what is being offered and where risk inherently lies.
A basic O&M agreement usually covers system monitoring, basic equipment maintenance, and additional services like washing and vegetation control.
Additional value adds such as IV curve tracing, which can catch accelerated module degradation, and Infrared scanning, which can catch critical components before they fail are often added.
Then you look at risk items. The biggest risk item is inverter failure, and a subsequent delayed or inadequate response from the manufacturers.
These items are not usually covered under agreements, although they are sometimes offered. When these things are offered, it is important to understand how they are accounting for it, how reliable these guarantees are, and what their relationships are with their manufacturers.
What are the most critical factors for maximizing system success over time?
Maximizing the most effective system over time actually begins during the development stage, long before a project is built. In the development stage, you want to make sure that the true operational budget is accounting for the life of the project.
For example, a system deployed in a place with sparse rainfall such as Central California and agricultural areas near where walnuts are grown will need to ensure system washing is planned for after trees are “shaken” to remove the copious amounts of debris that get on the panels.
Conversely, if a ground mount or tracker system is being deployed in central Florida, lack of rainfall is much less of a problem. In that environment annual system washings are likely not needed but you must make sure the vegetation plan is accounted for in both the project build and operation phase.
It would also be prudent to assume, over the life of a 20 to 30 year system there will need to be an inverter upgrade within the lifespan of the system. Most inverter manufacturers provide 5 or 10-year warranties. I would be skeptical of manufacturers who claim they offer longer than 10-year warranties.
To summarize, I would recommend 3 things as a rule of thumb. First, make sure the system is watched continually so any unforeseen issues should they come up, so these can be quickly addressed and resolved. Second, make sure all of the basic planned maintenance is lined up and scheduled within the first 3 months of operation. Third, make sure there is both a budget and a plan in place for expected activities such as washing, vegetation control, and periodic equipment refurbishments.
Thank you, Billy, for sharing your years of advice and really being honest about what people need to focus on for O&M. Now, if you can just help me with all the deferred maintenance on my house! We are out of time for this month’s Solar Tea Time. If anyone would like to talk to Billy, feel free to email firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also email us if you have questions that you would like answered in future Solar Tea Times.
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