Podcast Role of “O” in Solar O&M

April 06, 2016

Welcome to the Solar O&M Insider, the podcast series dedicated to solar operations, maintenance and asset management. This series is brought to you by Alectris, a global solar asset care innovation firm.  I’m Glenna Wiseman of Identity3 your host.

Our topic today is: The Role of “O” in Solar O&M. We are talking to Laks Sampath, Alectris Country Manager for the U.S. and Latin America.

In this podcast, Laks identifies key differences between operations, maintenance and asset management including:

  • Best practices in operations
  • The difference between operations and maintenance
  • The difference between plant operations and field operations
  • How to identify and utilize actionable analytics
  • The benefits of a strong asset management program
  • The relationship between O&M and asset management
  • The best questions to ask when evaluating an O&M or asset management provider

We want to thank Alectris for providing this valuable insight into the role of operations in solar O&M.

Alectris_solarO&M_insider_per-show_graphics_TwitterFull Transcript
Glenna: Welcome to the Solar O&M Insider, the podcast series dedicated to Solar PV operations, maintenance and asset management. This series is brought to you by Alectris, a global solar asset care innovation firm. I’m Glenna Wiseman of Identity3 and I’m going to be your host. Our focus today is on the role of “O” in Solar O&M. Today’s guest is Laks Sampath, Alectris Country Manager for the U.S. and Latin America. Welcome to the show Laks.

Laks: Thank you Glenna for having me.

Glenna: We are delighted to have you Laks. We understand that you have quite an extensive solar and solar operations and maintenance background, including work that you’ve done on the SunSpec Alliance. Can you please give us a little bit more background on that?

Solar Industry Experience
Laks: Yes. Solar was something that I kind of chanced upon way back in 2002. I originally come from the software industry, and since 2002 I’ve been in the solar industry. I’ve built anything from one kilowatt to 20 megawatt power plants. I got my start in the residential solar world, moved into commercial and then when I worked for Trina I did some utility scale projects as well. This was worldwide. I’ve commissioned plants in Sicily, Italy as well as in the U.S. In the last five years I’ve concentrated on the operations and maintenance as well as the asset management side of the business.

Glenna: And that is what led you into working on the standardizations with SunSpec?

Laks: That’s correct. For the last four years I’ve been on the standardization committee both with NREL — the Sandia Labs — as well as SunSpec. Coming up with best practices for commissioning, best practices for operations, for maintenance and field service, and for all aspects of post installation — such as taking care of power plants.

Glenna: So you’ve really gotten not only a view from your own work within the operations and maintenance and asset management world, but also what’s going on overall within the industry. Would you say that is correct?

Laks: Yes, that is correct.

Glenna: Okay, awesome. I think you are going to have a great perspective on our topic today because we really want to understand better the “O” in solar O&M, operations and maintenance. Let’s talk about the types of operations activities that you feel constitute best practices.

Best Practices in Solar Operations and Maintenance
Laks: When people talk of O&M, for the most part the industry seems to think of it as field services. Beyond field services, which is really the “M” part of it, the “O” part actually consists of two different kinds of “Os”. One is the actual plant operations which involves the overall plant management, which is monitoring the system, identifying root cause analysis and trying to figure out if the system is performing to its optimum capacity and so on and so forth. And if they were not, why not? Then the second piece of “O” kicks in which is the field operations.

The field operations is essentially sending out the actual work order, service ticket, or service request — as different people call it different things. And then that goes to the boots on the ground, the maintenance folks to go take care of the problem. The “O” part really needs to constitute both the plant operations as well as the field operations.

Glenna: Can we think about it in terms of that which happens back at the office and that which happens at the plant?

The Two Sides of Solar Operations
Laks: That’s a great question. Back in the office, there are engineers looking at data coming from monitoring systems. Monitoring systems are essentially data gathering systems. Beyond that, doing the analytics and converting the data to meaningful information is part of the plant operations activities. In order to do that you have to make sure you have the right infrastructure, software background, and software infrastructure to ensure that you know what the plant parameters are and what it’s supposed to do. If it’s not doing that, what are the potential reasons why the plant is not performing? It could be anything from a simple blown fuse to an entire plant down. If the entire plant is down, why is it down? If it is simply a grid failure, why send somebody out to do the field operations and field maintenance? The grid is out and so the system is going to be down. When the grid comes back the system is going to come back automatically.

We are currently, for example, working on a 2.2 megawatt project. And it has 36 inverters. They are all 60-kilowatt inverters. Now think about it, if one inverter goes down that is only three percent of the plant. That three percent loss of the plant, is it because an inverter went down or is it because of soiling losses? To be able to know that, that’s what happens in the analytic side of the plant operations. And then to be able to provide the field operations people a service ticket that clearly identifies what the root cause is, so that that portion of it can be taken care of in a very expedient manner. This will also reduce the cost of the actual field maintenance activity itself.

Glenna: When we did a webinar last year with Solar Power World, we looked at the four big areas in terms of challenges related to data for solar O&M. We heard about a lot of customers around the world who are still using spreadsheets. How does actionable analytics, as you’re talking about here, come out of spreadsheets?

Actionable Solar PV Analytics
Laks: The data is in the spreadsheets. The actionable items really come out of people’s actual experience that they are able to detect certain things. That is okay if you are managing a small number of plants that are not very big. Once the plant starts to get bigger and bigger, you need a software backbone in order to do the analytics side of it. For example, the Alectris ACTIS platform doesn’t just have threshold based alerts, but actually does root cause analysis before it sends out an alert. For that portion of it, human intelligence is slowly being translated into machine intelligence, so we can detect these problems much faster and there are fewer false positives. Then we can know exactly what the issue is and it can be addressed.

Glenna: Is some of the standardization work that you are doing and that the industry is doing helping to build that bridge between human intelligence and machine intelligence? So that the analysis of what could be the root cause can happen faster?

Laks: Unfortunately, we are not at that stage yet. It is left to us who have been in the industry long enough to be able to recognize patterns and decide whether something is actionable or not. We in the industry have to help the software industry code these things so we know exactly what the issue is.

Glenna: I think you are pointing to the issue of why the whole solar asset management software space is growing so quickly.

Laks: You are absolutely right. This has been a long term dream of mine and it is all coming together now.

Glenna: And that would be one of the reasons you joined Alectris?

Importance of Asset Management Software for Solar Operations
Laks: I’ve been looking for an asset management platform that would do the kinds of things that I thought the industry would need. And in looking around, I would say the Alectris ACTIS platform was probably the best platform I had come across that came close to my vision of what the back end needs to deliver on promises made to the financial entities of the solar projects.

Glenna: That’s a good lead-in to maybe give us an example or help us to understand how the ACTIS software platform empowers the Alectris approach to operations.

Laks: When you have information and you have data, you need to collate that data over a period of time. Let’s take the example of shading. So throughout the season there might be some form of shading or the other. If you strictly go by monitored data compared to what you expected to produce, you could send all kinds of false positive alarms that say the system’s not performing up to par. But the nice thing in Alectris ACTIS is that there are areas you can specify, saying that between the months of — we’ll pick the winter months when the sun is lowest on the horizon and probably casts a bigger shadow. You can say between 9 o’clock in the morning and 11 o’clock in the morning, do not bother alarming me because I know a certain portion of the system is going to be shaded. You might have a pyranometer on one end of the field that is telling you there is lots of sunshine, but production is lower. When you know there is a shadow being cast on a portion of the system, there is no need for an alarm. The ACTIS platform, for example, will take that into account and not send out any alarms.

Glenna: So that then saves time and money on the other “O”, the other side of the operations, which is in the field.

Laks: Yes. It does two things. It doesn’t clutter your email box with a number of alerts, which after a while, we tend to ignore when the number is constantly high. This would cause us to not see critical alarms. So fewer alarms means we are more aware of critical alarms. Also, we only dispatch field service personnel when there are actionable items to be addressed.

Glenna: This is employed in plants in the U.S. now, correct?

Laks: The ACTIS platform is worldwide so we are employing those techniques worldwide in plants that we manage.

Glenna: If you hang around the solar O&M industry long enough the whole spare parts part of this scenario is something that concerns many folks. How does the ACTIS platform help with spare parts management?

Laks: That is a perfect question. The ACTIS platform has a database of all equipment that is installed. We also have information on the spare parts available and their location. Sometimes parts are available right at the plant, because the plant is large enough that we need quick access to parts. Parts could also be in a warehouse close by. If we take a spare part out of inventory, that part is then set to be reordered when specified quantity levels are reached. If there are 100 particular parts in inventory and we set a threshold of 50 parts to reorder, a flag is set to reorder the required amount. In that way we never run out of parts. Additionally, with modules, models and capacities changing, the system incorporates a lead time for the order so decisions can be made about swapping out models and capacities.

Glenna: The spare parts management and implementation and tracking in terms of cost is an example of bridging the two “Os,” as in office and operations in the field.

Laks: You are exactly right.

What to Ask Potential Solar Operations & Maintenance Providers
Glenna: I know you have gone through due diligence questions, you’ve been on the solar plant owner side and you’ve worked with investors and large manufacturers. What are some good questions that a solar plant owner or an investor should ask while investigating a solar O&M provider, keeping in mind the two distinctions around the operations?

Laks: When a company says they are a solar O&M provider, the first question that comes to mind is, “What do you do with monitored data?” Invariably the answer will come back as, “We will look at the data, come back to you and ask if you want us to fix something.” Lots of time they are managing so many plants by way of field operations that the monitored data is held by the owners themselves or the EPC, and based on what they think needs to happen they might dispatch the O&M company. So you must ask the company, “What part of the ‘O’ do you do?” They all do field operations very well. This industry has some of the best maintenance field operations people. The actual plant operations is a very different beast.

Glenna: Okay. You touched on how is the monitoring handled. What other kinds of questions should a plant owner look to be asking when they do the due diligence on the O&M service provider?

Laks: Response times and guarantees. The minute you bring a guarantee to the table, the O&M company is going say, “Who’s doing the dispatch? Who’s telling me to go fix it? What if that person doesn’t dispatch me in time?” That’s where I come back again to plant operations. “Who’s doing the plant operations?” If you want guarantees, the company that is doing your maintenance work should also be doing plant operations. Guarantees are something you always want to ask an O&M company about. “What kind guarantees can you give me? What kind of availability guarantees? What kind of performance ratio guarantees?” These are important criteria for a plant to be working optimally.

Glenna: Do most solar O&M companies also do asset management? What sort of questions should the plant manager or investor be looking at in terms of asset management?

Differences Between O&M and Asset Management
Laks: The asset management portion is a whole different kettle of fish. I use a very simple analogy. What if you go to buy a car and I have a car for sale and someone else has a car for sale? I do all of my maintenance through one service provider. When you ask for service history, I have my one service provider print it out for you. If you ask the other person with a car for sale for the same information, they may reply, “I have a file folder that probably has all the receipts.” You are left to look through all those receipts to see if the car has been maintained well. Which person would you rather buy a car from?

Asset management becomes a critical aspect when you go to sell the asset. A brand new plant may not look like it needs a whole asset management system, but when you go to sell the plant 5 years from now, the buyer will want to see all the service tickets. The buyer will want to know that the plant was well maintained at the proper time and to the manufacturer’s suggestion. In ACTIS, all of the service management information is stored for easy access. Service, assets, inventory, serial numbers, etc. Generally O&M companies don’t have the infrastructure to do that.

Glenna: From the investor’s point of view the secondary market in the U.S. is very active, so asset management, documenting all of the assets and service in one place, is very handy

Laks: You are exactly right.

Glenna: Awesome! Did we miss anything about the O in O&M?

Laks: I’d like to reiterate that plant operations is very different from plant maintenance. It’s very important to start asking, “Who does the plant operations? How is it done? What are the guarantees you can give me?”

Glenna: Laks Sampath from Alectris, we really appreciate you joining us today. I’m Glenna Wiseman your host and we look forward to talking with you the next time.

Laks: Thanks Glenna for having me.

The Solar O&M Insider podcast series is brought to you by Alectris at Alectris.com.