Podcast: Increasing Solar Plant Performance with Retrofit Technologies

April 26, 2017

Welcome to the Solar O&M Insider, the first 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 your host.

In this session, we are discussing increasing solar plant performance with retrofit technologies.

Our guests bring together perspectives from the United States and Europe to give us a global view of this topic.

Paul C. Ahrens is the President and CEO of CSD Nano, developers of anti-reflective thin films applicable to a number of industries including solar photovoltaic plants.  CSD has created MoreSun® a solar coating that can be applied in the field to operational solar panels.

Also, joining us is Maurizio Manenti, manager of new technologies for Alectris.  Maurizio and his team have been working with MoreSun® since 2015, testing and documenting performance increases in a variety of plants in several countries including Italy, Greece, and others in Europe.

This episode of the Solar O&M Insider features:

  • More Photons in Mean More Electrons Out
  • Performance Signals Indicating Need for Retrofit Technologies
  • Types of Retrofit Technologies
  • What Really Counts? Good Asset Management and PV Plant Monitoring
  • Location. Location.
  • The Future of Photon Management
  • Solutions Driven Vetting System for Retrofit Technologies
  • Italian Program for Solar PV Retrofit Technologies Delivering 250% Incentive


Welcome to the Solar O&M Insider, the first 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 your host.

In this session, we are discussing increasing solar plant performance with retrofit technologies.

Our guests bring together perspectives from the United States and Europe to give us a global view of this topic.

Paul C. Ahrens is the President and CEO of CSD Nano, developers of anti-reflective thin films applicable to a number of industries including solar photovoltaic plants.  CSD has created MoreSun® a solar coating that can be applied in the field to operational solar panels.

Also, joining us is Maurizio Manenti, manager of new technologies for Alectris.  Maurizio and his team have been working with MoreSun® since 2015, testing and documenting performance increases in a variety of plants in several countries including Italy, Greece, and others in Europe.

Welcome to the show, gentlemen.

Paul: Thanks, Glenna.

Maurizio: Thanks, Glenna, for that introduction and the opportunity of this podcast. And hi, Paul, to meet you again.

Paul: Good to see you, Maurizio.

Glenna: Excellent. Well, Paul, welcome to the Solar O&M Insider. Let’s start with a bit of an introduction. How did you get into the solar industry, and what is your mission?

Paul: It’s a kind of a long story. I’ll try to keep it short. So originally, the AR coating that was developed here at CSD Nano was our first market test, eyeglasses, of all things. Turns out that’s a not very good value proposition, and that solar is much better, you can actually measure the performance. We started out in the glass factory, but that is also a difficult business model. It’s difficult, being on the bottom of the food chain. So, we switched to coating operational arrays where there was no competition. It’s difficult technically, so we could apply our engineering skills and the value proposition is much stronger because you’re dealing directly with the owners. Our mission now is, broader, in photon management. We aim to improve the quantity and quality of photons that interact with the solar cells.

Glenna: Excellent. Let’s kind of give it a little broader vision here about how do you see the potential of retrofit technologies to enhance solar plant performance?

More Photons in Mean More Electrons Out
Paul: Obviously, there’s a lot of components in a solar array. So, there’s a lot of different things you can do. We focus on the photon side. Most people, most of the work is certainly on the electron side, the electrical side of things. So, for sunlight, the first interaction it has is with the surface of the solar array. So that’s where we focus, on applying a retrofit application of optical coatings that improve that interaction at the surface. The key one, first one being anti-reflection, which means that the less sunlight is reflected off the surface and more gets into the array, into the solar cell. The second being anti-soiling, which means less blockage of sunlight by dust, so that more photons get in. And more photons in means more electrons out. So, these are fairly straight-forward things. You can imagine going out there and applying a coating to an existing array and improving the performance. It’s like taking your car in and getting the windows tinted in the aftermarket so you get improved performance in a retrofit situation.

Glenna: Okay, excellent. Maurizio, let’s look at why are these retrofit technologies important to Alectris as an O&M provider.

Maurizio: Yes. Well, we think new technology as the next step for solar. But not all new solutions are applicable for our plants. A lot of innovation is not ready for the market and needs to be tested in the field. And in general, for all new technology within the bankability would be the challenge. And so the main problem is this gap between lab startups and develop new technology in the world of large PV energy assets, so we speak. I mean farms of big investors with their portfolio. For this reason, is essential, the role and experience of a leading asset management company as Alectris. In addition, Alectris has as service provider can combine several innovation options to maximize the results.

It’s important to underline that Alectris is not a simple retailer, but we work with the partner to set up not only the strategy, but also all of the actions to promote, to install, to maintain the technology, the solution, and to monitor the results with the clients. In general, Alectris operates in this sector with some goals for the next year. And in our opinion, the challenge for the next year, to build a portfolio with several mature technologies ready for the market with a solution that can cover the whole spectrum of possible losses, starting from irradiation on the panels. And so MoreSun® to the connection to the grid. As Paul has said before, the right technology that’s worked with the electron and the photon outside the system, and the other technologies that works with the electron inside. It’s really interesting for us to find solutions for all types of losses that can hinder the performance of plants.

It’s essential for us that new technology fits some sort of requirements that what investor wants and needs, in particular, clearly the expectations. But also, really important and is one of the barrier to the markets, we have found, in our experience, that the regulatory compliance, financial constraints, and so on. So, the role of Alectris is really important for our partners.

Performance Signals Indicating Need for Retrofit Technologies
Glenna: Okay, excellent. I really like this view of looking at the different aspects of the system and how there are technologies that are applicable to the different aspects of the system and how the system works. Let’s look at it a little bit from the owner’s point of view. Are there some general guidelines, Maurizio, in terms of what stage in a solar PV plant life the solar owners should be investigating retrofit technologies, or are there other performance signals that would indicate, “Okay, I’ve got a problem,” or, “I’m not getting the energy that I thought that I was going to get out of this system. Now I need to look at what else I can do”?

Maurizio: Yes. For this aspect, clearly is really important to have reliable monitoring system to understand, to start with the problems to receive the signals and evaluate them. And an example, the asset control system of Alectris, ACTIS, works to identify it as signals so that we can help our customers to understand that it is the moment to consider a new solution. But overall, maybe that is also a stage where it’s more important, maybe, an activity of revamping or some type of recommissioning of the plants to recover the initial efficiency. And then, when they solve these kind of problems, that solve a lot of underperformance of the stress of plants, we can think about new technology.

In particular, Glenna, to help our customers to find a better solution so to understand, set a time of revamping, or is the moment of a new particular technology, we have set up a sort of multiple test service where, in the same mission, usually two or three-day missions, we can test different new technology, as MoreSun® is an example, and also to check a lot of parameters on site to evaluate, an example, inverter efficiencies, strings and performance, module efficiency and so on, so that we can report to the owner a list of solutions that includes a new technology, okay? Just general information about the moment to consider some certain technology.

There is now a particular problem for our PV plants that is degradation, use degradation, that is a phenomenon that affects the PV modules after some years, after distillation and so maybe that is sort of underperforming after five, six years after distillation could be due to these problems. And so is an alarm to consider, devise itself to solve this problem.

Glenna: Paul, can you weigh in on this too? What kinds of indicators do you see from PV plants that end up with you being out in the field with your product?

Types of Retrofit Technologies
Paul: Okay. It’s important to differentiate a couple of types of retrofit technologies. A lot of the cases, as Maurizio points out, the plant is underperforming. And so, you have a possibility of two different things. You can come up with a technology that will specifically address what is causing the underperformance, in which you can essentially bring it back up to what it originally was. And that’s mostly on the electrical side, specifically, as he mentioned, PID, Photovoltaic Reduced Degradation. On the other hand, you can also, in the case of specifically, an anti-reflection coating, ensure the plant can be working absolutely perfectly, exactly as it was designed, and doing very well, but yet it didn’t have an anti-reflection coating that came from the glass factory. And so, with a coating, an anti-reflection coating, you can actually improve the performance beyond what it was originally designed.

What Really Counts? Good Asset Management and PV Plant Monitoring
On the other hand, if the low performance is something that cannot be completely addressed, then adding something like an anti-reflection coating can boost the performance without specifically addressing whatever the actual underlying cause was. You can just improve the performance. From our perspective, we see what really, really counts is having a really good asset management and monitoring system. Because we can say, “Look, we can improve the performance by 3%,” and they say, “Well, that sounds great.” Then we go in and take a look at the plant, and they wouldn’t know a 3% improvement if it happened the next day, because they don’t have a really good, decent monitoring system, and they don’t have really good operations in maintenance who can track and are on top of what the performance is.

So this is why we work with people like Alectris is because we know that they can actually tell if there is an improvement. You’d be surprised just how noisy the data is coming from solar plants, and there are people that really don’t know. They have kind of a gut feeling if, “Okay, I think it’s doing better now than it did before or last year,” but they just don’t have the monitoring data to be able to actually measure it.

Glenna: Okay, so I just want to pause here for a minute and really note that we’ve uncovered a couple of really key points here. One is that you can have an underperforming plant that can be addressed from a number of different points of view in terms of increasing plant performance, including retrofit technologies like MoreSun®. But you can also have a plant that is performing just fine but did not come with an anti-reflective coating. If you want to enhance the performance of your plant, you need to know if it came with that from the factory, and if not, then you can apply the MoreSun®. Is that correct?

Paul: That’s correct, yes.

Paul: You said that much better than I could.

Glenna: Okay, cool. Perfect. And then, for owner/operators…and, you know, this is, of course, a big issue in the industry, is the just sheer volume of data that’s coming off of these plants and being able to assimilate and decode that data to the point that, as you said, Paul, you would know if you had a 3% increase or not.

Paul: Yes.  We’ve seen that where the data is so limited or so noisy that the owner just sort of feels, “Yeah, I think…yeah, it is doing better.” But they don’t have any real understanding.

Glenna: That would be as dangerous as me having a gut feeling if my car was doing better or not. But that’s a whole different issue. Okay. Maurizio, you had a recent case study that you did in which you actually got better performance than you had thought. Is that not correct? And could you tell us a little bit about that?

Maurizio: Yes, we have a really good case study in Italy now with MoreSun®. In particular, we started testing MoreSun® since May 2015. And our testing is verified up to a 4% more power. And so, it’s better than the 3% we are speaking about. In particular, now in Italy, we have a plant in the south of Italy of eight megawatts we are coating. We have completed the first 2 megawatts, and the results, after 8 to 10 months, are really good. And in particular, in this plant, we have measured the reflection, and so the results of the effect of MoreSun® after six months, after the coating, we found measures of activity better than just after the other coating. And so in my opinion, we have discussed with Paul about this MoreSun® reached the performance]. And the most important information for us is that this coating is really good. And so we are satisfied with the works we are doing together in Italy.

Now, we have another adventure with Paul, because we will start with other tests outside of Italy. And so I’m optimistic.

Glenna: Excellent. Well, that’s a perfect lead-in to ask Paul about the areas of the world. Let’s just drill down a little bit on your specific product, Paul. What areas of the world is MoreSun® most applicable, and why? And what countries is Alectris installing product for you?

Location. Location. Location.
Paul: Okay. So it’s all like everything else, particularly with solar arrays. It’s location, location, location. Every array is different, even if they’re nearby each other. Specifically, I don’t want to get too deep into the physics here, but on the actual performance of an anti-reflective coating, specifically the type that ours is, it actually performs better, the increase is higher, in the evening when the sun is coming in at an angle. So that also translates on cloudy days when there’s diffused light. There’s lots of light coming in at…it’s not all just directly coming from the sun, it’s coming at the array from multiple angles. So this is how we get greater than a very higher performance is in places where it’s cloudy or if the atmosphere is such that it diffuses light. And I think the Calabrian plant is very close to the sea, to the Mediterranean Sea, so the spectral quality of the air is not like Phoenix, where you have dry, direct sun all the time. And we like to say we actually…we perform better in Hamburg than Phoenix because of the way the physics works.

This is also an opportunity to bring in the other aspect of our coating, which is kind of a bonus feature at this point, is the anti-soiling. Dust just doesn’t stick to our coating. And if you are in a place where you don’t typically wash the plants or to clean the plants very often because it’s not that…you’re just going to see less…the soiling’s going to be a little less, and you’re going to get some better performance. Very difficult to quantify that. We’re working with NREL here in the U.S. to help to quantify the anti-soiling properties.

So where are things going? What’s the future? In terms of locations now you’re bringing in the Middle East, India, Chile, Southwest U.S., where soiling is a huge problem. They’re more interested in anti-soiling properties than they are the anti-reflection properties. But the key economic driver is what is the value of the electrons. What is the FIT? That’s what really drives the economics of any kind of retrofit technology. And that’s where Italy, Germany are the places where we are and Alectris are focusing. We also work with them in U.K., and we’re looking at India, as I say, the Middle East. So that’s going well.

The Future of Photon Management
In terms of the big picture of the photon management side of things, we are also looking at doing some work on improving not just the quantity of photons, improving the quantity that gets to the solar cells, but also the quality. People say, “How do you improve the quality?” Well, the solar spectrum ranges from, as we know now, from UV to visible to IR. And the solar cells, they only like the visible. That’s the only thing they care about. So the IR, the UV are kind of wasted. Well, there’s some interesting things you can do, some up-shifting and down-shifting. You can convert UV photons into visible photons with downshifting. And you can convert IR photons into visible photons with up-shifting. These are the future of the photon management side of retrofit technologies. Obviously, Maurizio knows a lot more about the electrical side of all the things that you can do to improve the performance of solar arrays on the electron side.

Glenna: Okay, so the regionality really has to do more with the conditions within those countries and whether or not we’re trying to keep dust off the panels or whether we’re trying to gather a wider spectrum of timeframe, like at the oceans or “cloudy” areas of the world. So that sounds to me like you’ve got sort of from the beach to the desert covered pretty well.

Paul: Yeah, yeah. And then in places in California where you get the time-of-day pricing where the value of the electricity is higher in the evening than it is in the midday. And now you add another economic factor where these kinds of anti-reflective coatings can have a greater impact.

Glenna: Right, and so then the other consideration from the owner/operator side is the economics of the power generation and the places in the United States where we’re going to time-of-use kinds of things where you want to be able to produce power longer. You want to be able to capture and produce power longer because you want to have, you know, an increasingly lower bill that’s highly simplified, of course. And then the economics of the more mature…you’re talking about Italy and Germany, those are more mature markets where the economics behind the solar are a little different than the rest of the world.

Paul: Absolutely. There’s nothing quite like it in terms of the value and the volume. Italy and Germany were by far the leaders in early PV development. And now it’s a sweet spot, or the perfect storm, if you will, where you have older arrays that can really use some improvement in performance. The FITs are high so that the value of it is greater. Also, on the asset management side, as I’m sure you’re aware, the solar arrays are being bought and sold all over the place. They’re a cash flow asset. It’s similar to an apartment building in real estate, in terms of the way that they look at these. Anything that you can do, if you can say…if you’re on the buy side and you look at a plant and say, “Oh, that’s underperforming. I know that I could buy this, give it a coat of paint, and increase the rent.” It’s the same from an asset management, financial asset management. It’s the exact same thing. It’s, “Oh, this is a solar array. I can buy this, apply a coating, and increase the cash flow.”

If you’re on the sell side, you know, everybody says, “All right, you want to fix up your place before you sell it so that you can get a better price.” Say, “Look, I know where I’m underperforming here. I apply a coating, get a little bit of performance, and I can get a little more money for my asset that I’m trying to sell.” There’s this whole other side of not just the owners, and so they’re people who are the asset managers who are buying and selling arrays.

Glenna: That’s a perfect analogy, because we can all understand…those non-scientific ones of us in the audience can understand that analogy quite well. And that leads it nicely into Maurizio, what other kinds of parameters…because you’re sitting there in, you know, the market that has some of the oldest PV plants in the world. What other kinds of parameters make MoreSun® a good prospect for your clients?

Maurizio: Yes, what Paul talked about, economic issues and FiT is surely now that the most important factor, in fact, in Italy, we have clients with large pipelines of plants. And so one of the first things we do, speaking about MoreSun®, is to start it at the plants. Because in Italy, we have several kinds of Feed in Tariffs. And so we selected the ones with the IR type, because the payback and the return investment is faster. But clearly, we are also a technical partner for Paul and CSD Nano. And so we have also, as Paul said before, the presence or not of an anti-reflecting coating on the modules of our clients. And so we also in field test with a sensor so that we can exclude the plants that that’s already a solution for the anti-reflecting coating.

Then we study also the installation, the structure, so that we can choose the ones with the most suitable for our applicators, because I would ask Paul to say something about the important technology of the applicator so we can reduce the cost of application for our clients. And all of those are services that we do for our clients, to select the best plants, but also the best part of the plants we can consider for the MoreSun®.

Glenna: Paul, you want to jump in there and talk about your applicator?

Paul: Oh, I guess so. That was a nice lead in. So just like you can use the analogy, just like cleaning arrays, if labor is cheap or if nothing else is available, you have guys with a cleaner on the end of a pole, a brush and water, and you can clean panels that way. Or you can look in the market, there are a dozen different robotic-type cleaning devices, which work to various degrees of capability. The applicator that we have now in the field that Alectris has been using, testing, is a semi-automatic in the sense it’s all under a very tight control, but it takes a person to guide it from panel to panel to panel.

We have a prototype robotic applicator device which will improve not only the cost of labor, but also the, shall we say, the variability of human performance. I think if everyone in the world that we work with, coating was as qualified and as diligent as Domenico, we would not have this problem. But it’s not that case, so it’s important to have a robotic applicator that removes the human element from the application process and will make things a little better for everyone.

Glenna: You were just referencing someone on Maurizio’s team.

Paul: Yes, yes. And he will appreciate that, Domenico.

Glenna: Okay, very good. All right. So I want to swing back over to Maurizio for a minute. And just touch on…because Alectris has a very systematic approach to new technology, is my understanding. And it isn’t just…I think you used the term retailer versus really kind of a market partner, earlier. So, Maurizio, maybe you could tell us a little bit about your approach to studying and how you deal with this. You know, you don’t just decide, “Oh, we’re going to put this in the field.” You’ve got a whole process in front of that, is my understanding.

Solutions Driven Vetting System for Retrofit Technologies
Maurizio: Yes. As you said, we are overall, solution providers for our plants, and so our goal is to find the best solution we can propose to the clients. And so we have internal procedures to evaluate solutions and technologies that starts from evaluate the general technical information to understand if the solution we have found could be as treatable for our clients. And then we studied deeply the technical aspects of the technologies. This is the first phase in which we overall study papers and the data sheets and the aspect of technologies. If we are satisfied, from my technical teams, then we pass to the second phase when we set up tests on large plants. So usually, we prefer Italy plants were ACTIS, the monitoring system of Alectris is installed to measure the output of results.

It’s important to underline that we started to work with CSD and with Paul, three years ago. And so we have done all this process together, and the fact that for us, MoreSun® is ready for the market is the results of the several steps we have done together. And, in fact, once the results are confirmed, the tests are good, and we have several months of track records, we go to the markets, and we are ready to propose a solution for our clients. At this moment in our portfolio, we have several solutions. In addition to the MoreSun®, we have tested and we are now proposing also some smart devices, some optimizers that can solve several problems, typical problems of plants that we have spoken about, PID problems, also are typical problems of mismatched data where in Italy work with a lot of old plants is a common case of underperformance. And so with these devices that we can install, we can recover something like 7%, 10% of efficiency that is a lot.

We think, in general, about retrofit technology, and we think that the amount of gigawatts we have in the world, if we can recover, in every job, 5%, 7% of efficiency, we can have a huge amount of gigawatts of power and green energy without building new plants, with a little installation of existing plants. And so there is a real interesting future for retrofit’s technologies.

Glenna: Well, that’s an incredible vision, to increase the performance of the world’s existing portfolio, much less as we continue to grow more. So maybe we can kind of close out a little bit by taking a look and making sure that we’ve covered, from the owner/operator’s point of view, any insights that you would like to pass on. Paul, maybe you could start us off here by, you know, things that you would love to tell owner/operators that they should be paying attention to.

Paul: Well, it’s really easy, as I mentioned before. You have an excellent monitoring system and a really top-quality owner and provider. That’s really the key to…you have to have those before you can really look at retrofit technologies. If you don’t know how well your plant is performing, how are you going to tell if you’re increasing the performance? So that’s really crucial, and that’s why we work with Alectris, because we know that they are bringing us plants that are well-managed and well-monitored so that the owner can see the increase in performance and be happy with it.

Glenna: Excellent. Okay. And tell us where folks can get some more information about your firm, Paul.

Paul: Well, the website is always the best place. That’s www.csdnano.com. Also, we have a more, just a general corporate website. We also have a more marketing oriented website. That’s MoreSun.us. That’s in English. And Maurizio at Alectris has also some information on their website. I don’t know how much stuff he’s put in Italian yet, but we are also looking at translating a lot of the information into German. We have a German partner also. So that’s the best place, is either our website or Alectris’ website.

Glenna: Okay, Maurizio. And tell us a little bit about the kinds of materials that listeners can find out at alectris.com.

Italian Program for Solar PV Retrofit Technologies Delivering 250% Incentive
Maurizio: Just before, this just a little advice I would like to add to the ones of Paul for potential owners, because in Italy, owner/operator is in this moment, we have important attractive incentives for new technologies, specifically for new technologies, and in particular for technologies that increase the efficiency. And it is an amortization that allow us to recover from taxes, 250% of the investment. This allows a much faster return on investment. And so just a general advice for Italian owners of PV plants.

Come back to the site in our website, it’s possible to find general information of the technology, not only MoreSun®, but overall MoreSun®, because it is the more mature technology we propose to our clients. We have also the typical frequently asked questions about how the technology works, results and track records, how it’s installed or supplied at MoreSun®, and warranties. And clearly, there is also the contacts of my contacts so that they can supply other information, the presentations, and every information requested

Glenna: Excellent. Well, thank you, Maurizio, for bringing up that really important point about a 250% return in Italy for new technologies. Did I understand that correctly?

Maurizio: Yes, the name is Iper-Ammortamento.  That is an Italian name of the incentives that mean amortization. And so it is about taxes that can be reduced with an investment in technology.

Glenna: Excellent. Okay. Well, thank you for bringing that to our attention. And thank both of you for joining us for this session of the Solar O&M Insider.

Paul: Thanks, Glenna.

Maurizio: Thanks, Glenna. And thanks, Paul. See you soon, Paul.

Paul: Yes, I’ll see you in U.K., Maurizio.

Maurizio: Yes, yes.

Glenna: Okay. And thank you, listeners, for joining us for this session, discussing the impact of retrofit technologies on solar plant performance. You can email us at [email protected] to send us your ideas for topics and guests for this series. We’d love to hear from you.

I’m Glenna Wiseman. The Solar O&M Insider podcast series is brought to you by Alectris at alectris.com.