Operational excellence is a vague term whose implications for the solar industry are gaining clarity. At the recent PV Asset Management and O&M event in Hamburg, Germany this concept was featured as a panel discussion populated by some of the industry’s most senior executives.
To get an insider’s perspective on what is shaping operational excellence in the solar industry, Solar O&M Insider talked with two industry leaders who spoke at the Hamburg event and participated on its “Aiming for Operational Excellence” panel. These executives represent key aspects of the sector, asset development and portfolio management.
On the developer side insights were gained from Stefan Müller, Co-Founder and Board Member, of Enerparc AG. Enerparc is a Top 10 global EPC company and number one in Germany. The company has connected 1.700 MW to the grid, operates 1.000 MW of its own PV power plants and globally has over 1.300 MW under O&M contract. Müller has been involved with solar energy for nearly three decades.
Adding the solar O&M services and software perspective is Vassilis Papaeconomou, Managing Director of Alectris and the SolarPower Europe O&M Task Force Leader. Papaeconomou started constructing solar sites in 2006. In 2012, he founded Alectris which now assists owners with solar PV operations, maintenance and asset management in several regions of the world.
These four themes emerged related to solar operational excellence:
- Seasoned Perspectives on Solar Asset Operational Excellence
- A Software “Holy Grail” to Manage Solar Assets
- Creating “Trustful Relationships” between Solar Stakeholders
- Essentials and Opportunities in Solar Predictive Maintenance
Seasoned Perspectives on Solar Asset Operational Excellence
As the complexity of their portfolios grow solar leaders, like Müller and Papaeconomou, are looking to other energy sectors for tips on operational expertise. We as an industry don’t have to reinvent the wheel, advises Papaeconomou, when it comes to managing energy assets.
“This is not only on Excel sheets or other tools, it’s also processes. And, this is what we are doing. We are talking a lot with other industries to get a different view, said Müller.
The scope or perception of operational excellence is also shifting to a more holistic approach. “Optimization and excellence are active pursuits in the industry for years now. When people talk about these concepts it has mostly related to technical matters like how to improve an inverter,” said Papaeconomou.
“I think these terms have a broader meaning, applying to both technical aspects and the overall operations. We want to achieve by excellence, and when we talk about optimizing performance, is the overall optimization. Not just a tiny bit of it, like how an inverter works better, but how we operate plants better, how we manage power plants better, so we improve the actual financial result. This is a point shows the maturation of the industry because, initially, it was very technically focused, but it’s now shifting into a much broader perspective, which includes the operations, the asset management, and everything that relates to operating assets,” explained Papaeconomou.
A Software “Holy Grail” to Manage Solar Assets
The event panel addressed an important point related to monitoring which led to a lively podcast discussion related to software. The initial panelist question was: “How to select and integrate the right intelligent monitoring systems for your PV plants to identify under performance.”
Müller addressed this point first. “It’s the right question because at moment, we are working also with ‘standardized monitoring systems,’ which are run by operation and maintenance engineers or technicians remotely. We recognize also that the outcome of this monitoring system has a different type of personality behind it. It can be the bank who wants to have the report. It can be the investor who wants to see if the asset is in line with cash flow or it can also be a technician in the field who wants to know how often a failure has been seen on a particular inverter.”
“Everyone is looking for the magic tool, for the Holy Grail, to integrate additional intelligence systems with the right interfaces, and this can be the pure cash flow asset management tool linked to the monitoring system, who is linked then to a data management system, and linked to a documentation management system. So, I think the key is now, how we can create the best interface between the different expectations,” added Müller.
“The solar market has been focusing for many years on data acquisition alone, what we call the monitoring system, but this is data. The data alone cannot optimize a plant. We need integrated management systems to convert data into information, and then convert information into knowledge, and ultimately into wisdom,” explained Papaeconomou.
“Data acquisition just gathers numbers. It doesn’t do anything by itself. You need a tool, and you need the humans working on this tool. We have recently started seeing such tools in the market, which do provide a very integrated approach on managing processes, data, and information leading to the ultimate Holy Grail, as Stefan said. This is why we created ACTIS, our solar ERP platform. We needed an integrated approach to those plants we have under contract and now we offer it to others in the market.”
Solar management software is really maturing in the industry both panelists agreed. One of the key challenges, moving from Excel based tracking to cloud based software tracking was affirmed here again.
“A challenge for us is Excel-based analysis systems,” said Müller. “There are new players coming into the market, but they need also more data, and this means automatically that we have to work on collecting more data and try to find a way to get the best analysis out of it.”
A holistic approach was championed by Papaeconomou: “We should combine what the outcome is from the plant from the data acquisition systems with all other relating information including activities and financial aspects of the plant. Having these two types of information or data together, then you can create knowledge.”
Creating “Trustful Relationships” between Solar Stakeholders
Referencing the event panel discussion, Müller discussed an interesting conversation that arose from an audience question from the audience, “What is your wish? The answer was, “A trustful relationship.”
“It’s a simple word, but at the end, it is important,” said Müller.
How do we as an industry build trust between all the stakeholders in a solar plant?
Here are some of the answers from these solar leaders:
- Strive to improve the overall financial picture of the project. “We need to look above the shoulder to improve the power plant, the whole financial situation of such an investment, instead of looking permanently into our contract,” said Müller.
- Work to standardize industry jargon. “Currently if you ask two people in the market, ‘What is asset management for solar?’ you can get three answers,” explained Papaeconomou. “Speaking the same industry language is absolutely essential to mutual understanding. This is part of the reason standardization efforts like those with SolarPower Europe are so important.”
- Create understanding related to a minimum set of operations, maintenance and asset management activities. “When we talk about standardization, people think that someone is going to prescribe what exactly to do in each solar plant, how often to do each activity that creates maintenance, but that’s not standardization. Standardization is a process of showing how things should be done and define a minimum set of activities.To give a simple example, think of the ISO 9000 standard. This is a standard that describes minimal performance and how you do it,” explained Papaeconomou.
ISO 9000 is a set of international standards on quality management and quality assurance developed to help companies effectively document the quality system elements to be implemented to maintain an efficient quality system.
Essentials and Opportunities in Solar Predictive Maintenance
Pointers these executives had for predictive maintenance included:
- Physical Inspections. “Predictive maintenance means inspection, very simple,” said Müller. “There are a lot of newer tools in the market like drones, but, at the moment, I don’t see that the drone, for example, can replace a technician who runs through the module rows to see with his own eyes if everything is under control or not. Educated people in the field are still, for me, very essential to find out what can go wrong in the future.”
- Surfacing Incident Patterns. “Predictive maintenance is from data you receive from a solar plant to predict a trend, to predict that something is going to fail before it fails. That’s very nice to do because basically you have an intervention, a much lower cost because it’s not an emergency intervention, and you have no downtime,” said Papaeconomou.
- New Technologies. “Why not to develop much smaller drones which are intelligent, sitting on the O&M container, and flying over the field by themselves?” envisioned Müller. “They could tag modules where there is a temperature difference, and then check after a few days again to determine if this is a leaf, or if this were some birds on it, or if this is a real issue or hot spot. Then the device could send a short message to the operator and say, ‘Hey, I think something can go wrong in the future.’ This is for me, the next steps, 2.0 in these O&M activities, and we are looking forward to seeing these types of innovations.”