7 Best Practices for Utility Scale Solar Operations, Maintenance and Asset Management

Solar power systems are taking their place alongside traditional energy generation resources for utilities across America.  Building on a long-standing heritage of creating safely produced, competitively priced and dependably available electricity, utility executives are perfecting solar PV operations and maintenance (O&M) and asset management (AM).  They are getting help from the maturing O&M market in the solar industry and from organizations such as SEPA, to successfully manage the country’s large scale solar installations.

SEPA-asset-management-resource-guide intro_Page_01The Solar O&M Insider recently went behind the scenes on the 2016 SEPA guide, the “Utility Solar Asset Management and Operations and Maintenance,” to talk with co-author Dr. John R. Balfour and PG&E’s Bob Holsinger, who oversees a 152-megawatt solar portfolio for the award-winning utility.

Our goal: Review best practices now being deployed for utility-scale solar operations, maintenance and asset management.

SEPA published its resource guide to “discuss solar asset management and operations and maintenance issues for utility-scale projects, including the overall industry learning curve, contractual challenges, and common gaps in planning.”

The guide is part of a broader utility solar asset management initiative SEPA undertook in 2016 “to help utility managers address cost control, risk, and reliability by suggesting preemptive activities, such as identifying and hedging inherent project risks.”

7 Best Practices for Utility Solar Operations, Maintenance and Asset Management

Alectris_Utility-Scale_Solar_O&M_AM_in_the_US_TwitterIn this podcast segment our industry experts discussed best practices for utility solar O&M and AM.  For the full discussion listen to the podcast or reference the transcript here.

The best practices outlined here include:

  1. PAM: Pre-Emptive Analytical Maintenance
  2. Spare Parts Strategy
  3. Standards: Project Specifications and Industry Initiatives
  4. Qualified Installation Team
  5. Real-time Performance Reporting
  6. Consistent Feedback Loop
  7. Plant Health and Wellness

1. PAM: Pre-Emptive Analytical Maintenance

SEPA utility scale solar O&M“We call the model outlined in the SEPA guide, PAM, for Pre-emptive Analytical Maintenance,” explained Dr. John R. Balfour, president of High Performance PV and guide co-author with Daisy Chung of SEPA.

“Interestingly enough, it is very similar to how the utility industry has delivered small, medium and large projects and systems to generate electricity over the last 150 years.

“It begins with a process where basically everyone is brought to the table at the specification phase prior to design, and that includes O&M and whoever is going to do the commissioning.

“One of the most critical parts for the O&M team is to bring the lessons learned from their projects and industry knowledge and insert that expertise early on into the specification and design process because that’s where you save the most money. That’s where you reduce risk. That’s where you end up eliminating the vast majority of problems if you’re thorough about it,” explained Balfour.

The inclusion of O&M and AM expertise and planning into the early stages of project development is a rallying cry heard throughout the solar industry.  In the SEPA guide, this approach creates a comprehensive system model ensuring continuity of information throughout the project.

2. Spare Parts Strategy

“I encourage everyone to identify and implement a spare parts strategy early in the project development. Some parts that are available today may not be available next month, next year or in five years. As we all know, improvements in efficiencies are resulting in cost savings and always driving change,” said Bob Holsinger, who has been involved with the power generation O&M business for more than 40 years.

At PG&E, “when we built our first little 2-megawatt plant, 600-volt DC systems were the rave at the time, in 2009-2010.  A year and a half later when we built it was a 1,000-volt DC system, and now we’re at 1,500 volts,” Holsinger said.

This strategy includes:

  • Identifying replacement components, e.i., solar modules that may work for what you have in the field now. They may be from a different manufacturer, possibly a different physical size, and most definitely typically a different wattage.
  • Outlining your critical spare parts strategy early in the design phase.

3. Standards: Project Specifications and Industry Initiatives

Project Specifications

Best practices for creating project specifications include:

  • Getting input of O&M and AM experts. “When we started thinking about constructing this 150-megawatt portfolio, the operations and maintenance team was brought into the discussion early on. We participated with specifications review. We also participated on commenting on the various (revisions) of drawings and were a part of the team effort that was making comments on or suggesting changes so that was very helpful to us. It also ultimately gave us a much better project that is more easily maintained, more reliable and provides more value to the customers,” said Holsinger.
  • For bidding purposes. “Once you have a specification built, you can bid it out so that everybody is bidding on the same plant, and therefore that gives you more control over the process, especially if you’re going to be the owner or even if you’re going to be the utility that’s doing the PPA. It gives a much more stable platform for what’s going to happen during that plant’s life,” said Balfour.
  • Identifying strong vendor partners. “Do your research upfront to select vendors who appear financially, and through historical data, that they will be around for the long run. We have recently put together an action plan team to look ahead as to what this means when the inverters have reached their end of life for example, or when parts are no longer available, what do we do then? It’s better to have a plan now than when you reach this point,” contributed Holsinger.
  • Creating consistent, standardized wording. “I strongly believe that carefully worded, standard specifications are helpful in ensuring a project will reliably return value to our customers,” Holsinger explained.
  • Directing equipment choices. “A standard also serves as a tool to help carefully vet and select equipment manufacturers. When we went to the field, we had an approved list of five inverter, module and transformer manufacturers that had been vetted. This is very helpful when soliciting contracts with  EPC vendors who were to provide the equipment. Because they had a list of five venders, it gave them a list of manufacturers that we felt would provide the equipment on a competitive basis and be reliable pieces of equipment,” said Holsinger.

Industry Initiatives
Many industry standardization initiatives now underway are working globally to identify best practices and clarify every aspect of the O&M and AM sector.  These efforts range from federal-level programs at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and Sandia National Laboratories, to SunSpec and the various O&M working groups at SEIA and SEPA. Internationally, SolarPower Europe’s O&M working group just issued its first best practices guidelines.

Photovoltaic system performance – Part 3: Energy evaluation method IEC TS 61724-3:2016(E)
“A new performance standard for measuring performance and plants is called IEC 61724-3. It is very, very strong for energy performance,” said Balfour.

Get involved in standardization efforts
Both experts on this segment of the Solar O&M Insider encouraged industry members to get involved with standardization efforts.

PG&E solar portfolioBob Holsinger explained what is happening with his California utility. “PG&E has been working with three of our neighboring utilities to share best practices, and most recently we standardized our performance metrics and KPIs,” he said. “This effort started out as localized networking among the utilities, with the help of SEPA and EPRI facilitating our efforts.

“Last fall, we became more formalized. We got approval from the Electric Utility Cost Group to create a PV Solar Committee.  This organization is a member-based, international trade association comprised of professionals from utilities with PV solar assets, with the intent to provide a forum to exchange information, share best practices and lessons learned, and find solutions to industry issues.   This new committee is actively engaged in being in a position to seek out other utility solar asset members by mid-2017 to participate in this program. I believe this will be of great value to the industry as a whole,” Holsinger said.

PG&E has been a member of SEPA since 2004, and Steve Malnight, the utility’s senior VP for regulatory relations, currently chairs SEPA’s board of directors. The utility participates on the SEPA O&M working group. SEPA has also repeatedly recognized PG&E’s leadership in the integration of solar onto the grid, naming it number one of the top 10 solar utilities adding the most new megawatts per year for seven years in a row.

4. Qualified Installation Team

With your specifications in place, “it’s very important that your team, from your construction management, your EPC contractors, and any subcontractors working in this field, have a detailed knowledge of what your specifications and what your contracts say, so they know requirements and expectations,” said Holsinger.

“You want to make sure that the people in the field are properly trained and qualified to install your equipment per the manufacturer’s specifications. We had a bit of a problem with one of our sites due to a contractor who was marginally qualified to install solar racking, and it’s causing problems to this day. Making sure all contractors are properly qualified to the manufacturer’s specs is very critical. This issue can easily be addressed in your contracts and original specifications for the plant, and then by holding your contractors to your specifications.

“A critical component of any organization’s success, is knowledgeable people in the right positions. And one of the challenges we also face sometimes is the right number of knowledgeable people and the right number of people may mean more than one or two people. This may require a team of knowledgeable people to make sure you get what you have specified and what you have contractually purchased. If you don’t have that level of detail and quality assurance in the field, you’re running a very real risk of getting something less than you paid for.”

5. Real-time Performance Reporting

PG&E’s Bob Holsinger outlined the importance of moving from “month end” to real-time performance reporting.  The industry has seen a dramatic explosion of O&M and AM software applications.  While PG&E handles these functions in-house, the example Holsinger gave is a specific real-world representation of why this use of real-time reporting is so important to the industry’s contribution to reliable, competitively priced energy.

Originally, PG&E’s solar portfolio performance was tracked on a monthly capacity basis, Holsinger explained.  “This really helped from the standpoint that the performance engineers gathered data on a monthly basis and calculated the plant capacity and compared the actual capacity against what was modeled.

“The problem found was once the month’s over and if the numbers don’t look good, there’s nothing that can be done about it. So, working with the asset management team and their performance engineers we were able to come up with a real-time model with trends for tracking station capacity on a real-time basis, rather than being held accountable for your results after the fact,” Holsinger said.

6. Consistent Feedback Loop

Both O&M executives interviewed expressed the importance of creating a consistent feedback loop for each project. While they acknowledged this is not a new or groundbreaking best practice, it was referenced as key to continuous improvement.

“The industry is running into the frustration that they may be very good at O&M, but there’s no consistent feedback loop to integrate lessons learned and adjust accordingly, and in their other technologies they’ve done it quite successfully. We’re talking about the application, in many instances, of technologies and of processes and procedures that have been used elsewhere and that need to be applied to the PV industry, so that we can get down the road to maturity a little bit earlier,” said Balfour.

“We found early on the value of such a communication process when we built our first utility-scale solar station,” explained Holsinger. “At the end of the project construction, we would sit down together with everyone involved around the table to have a lesson learned meeting.

“That was really eye-opening as we went around the table and said, ‘What did you learn, and what should we do better?’ We made quite an extensive list from year one projects. We applied those to the year two specs, went back to the field to build the year two projects with what we learned and at the end of year two, we did the same thing. So, year three was better than year two and two was better than one, just because we’re in a learning mode and applied a structure to leverage the lesson learned feedback,” Holsinger said.

7. Plant Health and Wellness

Photo: PG&E’s utility-owned photovoltaic generation program includes the Stroud project, a 20-MW plant designed and built by Cupertino Electric in Helm, California.

Photo: PG&E’s utility-owned photovoltaic generation program includes the Stroud project, a 20-MW plant designed and built by Cupertino Electric in Helm, California.

Creating a consistently applied process to generate “health and wellness” reports on the plant’s physical status and integrate findings from in-field and in-office staff was also encouraged by our experts.

“We have a dichotomy in the industry where we have people that do performance and people who deal with the equipment. They’re so siloed, it is almost as if you’re looking at a virtual plant that has no equipment, it just produces numbers,” said Balfour.

“I think the next big step is going to be, and this is one that Bob and I and others have been working on, is to bring to the forefront this whole concept that PV plants are physical. That you must understand what’s going on with plant health and condition, and that even though your performance numbers may look absolutely marvelous today, you may have a degrading or a deteriorating plant that at year six, seven or eight may not be able to make those numbers because there was not enough emphasis on the O&M portion of the project from the beginning.

“What we’re starting to see is O&M issues are not just O&M issues. They are manufacturing issues. They are design issues. They are policy issues.” Balfour said.

Holsinger gave a specific example of how this applies to a build strategy the industry has long employed. “We all recognize typically the DC field of a solar station is overbuilt to account for the projected degradation of the solar modules over the life of the plant. Consequently, you can be running along making your AC output capacity numbers and think everything is great, not realizing that you have problems developing in the DC field.

“If you’re not aware of those problems, and you don’t take the initiative to go see if you’re healthy in the DC side of the business, sooner or later it will come to a point where all at once you cannot make your AC commitment because you don’t have the DC capacity or ‘fuel,’ if you will, to supply the energy you’re looking for.

“Recently, I’ve began looking at data over the last couple of years and making inquiries.  Of course, there are those who want to sell you some pretty complicated pieces of equipment to diagnose DC capacity issues with strings and individual modules.  What we found was the use of this gear was very time-consuming and we didn’t have the labor resources to use it effectively.

“We started looking at alternatives, including investigating the use of infrared aerial platforms to look for solar module problems. This opened up our eyes enormously when we saw problems throughout the field that we had no idea were there. This discovery allowed us to use our warranty and vendor to remedy the deficiencies under warranty.

“If we had not found these deficiencies in the health of our plants and the warranty had expired, it would have been a problem for the utility to remedy,  and it would have been responsible for lost revenue till the problem was identified and remedied,” Holsinger concluded.

More Solar O&M, AM Best Practices at this Year’s SolarAMP event

AMP_Shareable_1200x630_1-768x403The second Solar Power Asset Management and Performance Event, co-produced by SEPA and SEIA, is taking place in San Diego, CA, January 19-20, 2017.  Here you can get more information about best practices in an innovative “60 Minutes of Best Practices” sessions and others throughout the conference.

“Last year, we had the first one, and it was really good. And one of the reasons that I think that it was such a good conference was it was not a huge conference,” said Balfour. “You have the opportunity to get to meet the people that are speaking. You get the opportunity to ask people questions. People are a lot friendlier because they’re not as much in a hurry to go from one place to another. And this year, there’s going to be some very interesting things coming up. I know that we’re going to be doing a panel that will be rather eye-opening for people. People will walk away with some real knowledge, not just a taste of it. Getting their teeth into some of these issues and actually getting some answers.”