One of the biggest priorities of the US solar industry has been to increase the power production of systems and reduce the cost of modules, inverters, components, and manufacturing processes. However, as the industry matures and the volume and age of installed systems increases, it has become clear that solar operations and maintenance (O&M) is an integral part of the equation for the long-term viability of any system.
According to Solar Power World Magazine, “The sheer size of the solar industry is driving O&M…the number of systems online and aging, along with third-party ownership, means owners are motivated to take care of these systems…Such growth is both a problem and opportunity, creating business prospects for independent service providers.”
It's clear that system uptime is the key to maximizing the overall return on investment and power production of an installation. This, in turn, has brought attention to the critical role of operations and maintenance. The reliability and successful operation of the system needs to be considered and planned for, from initial design through years of operation, to ensure that the system is continually running smoothly, without interruption of production.
Strong preventative and predictive solar operations and maintenance agreements for all installations should be the natural evolution of the industry. In the long-view, stable and predictable power production provides the best path to strong ROI and profitability, and this can only happen if there is a real O&M strategy in place. The challenge is bringing a beneficial strategy like this to smaller projects, and having system owners see the real benefit is investing in these programs.
While most people associate the O&M process strictly with large commercial systems, these practices are increasingly being brought down to the small commercial and residential market. Smaller projects may have a hard time absorbing the cost of a preventative maintenance program, but as systems and processes get more standardized, it becomes easier to take some of the best practices and products from the larger projects and scale them down to match the reality of these smaller installations.
Through years of experience, the commercial market has developed history and data to pinpoint the cost-effective solutions that really make a difference. It may take a little more time to design and build systems with maintenance in mind, but these solutions exist and are readily available. In many instances, the added upfront cost is small and can be easily incorporated into a standard system. These include such things as designing for easy access to components, sourcing components that have proven reliability, enabling remote monitoring capabilities, developing processes and protocols for assessing performance issues and, finally, offering the customer an operations and maintenance agreement for your company to perform specified tasks moving forward.
Incorporating O&M into a system purchase is much like buying insurance—it often seems like a waste of money until you actually need to use it. All it takes is one event where the system stops producing power or needs to be repaired for you and your customer to wish you had spent the time and money to develop an O&M agreement.
The alternative is to wait until something happens and then respond. By definition, this is reactive and crisis-driven. A weather event or component failure occurs and then you rush out and try to assess and resolve the problem. The customer is upset that the system is not producing power and wants it fixed ASAP. You see significant costs—pulling staff from other projects and having to spend time and money that may never be recouped, or having to explain to your customer why they need to pay for this service. Solid O&M practices should be in practice ahead of time, not developed after the fact.
Having established the value of a solar operations and maintenance agreement with your customer, the next challenge is to find an efficient and effective way to monitor and assess system performance. In most instances, it is not realistic to have ongoing and frequent site inspections: they tend to be time intensive, and unless your field staff is well-trained and systematic in their inspection process, there is a good chance that they will not recognize and be able to alleviate potential issues. For this reason, many installers have been including remote monitoring and data acquisition capabilities in their overall solar design for a simple, cost-effective, and comprehensive way of overseeing system performance.
When it is presented in the context of long-range production and protecting the value of the investment, a solar operations and maintenance agreement benefits everyone. For the customer it’s a small additional cost to gain peace of mind that the system is going to work for years to come. For the dealer, it’s a way to generate ongoing revenue and develop a long-term relationship with your customer. Any way you look at it, it's a worthy investment.