The first step in understanding the role and importance of a solar operations and maintenance (O&M) agreement is to define what it really means. For many, solar O&M has become a generic term that expands and contracts depending on whether you are the one paying for it or the one providing it.
The most widely agreed-upon definition is that solar operations and maintenance is a set of technical activities that allow a solar installation to perform at its best, maximizing the system’s power production and enabling it to function smoothly. This can include everything from routine maintenance such as snow removal to addressing technical issues as they arise.
According to GreenTech Media, the five major goals of solar O&M are:
- Optimization of solar production for increased asset revenue
- Reduction of risks for asset owners
- Protection of asset value and longevity
- Compliance with applicable regulations (e.g., those set forth by the grid operator or environmental governance bodies)
- Transparency on production, performance, issues, risks and O&M activities
What Does Solar O&M Cover?
For most solar installations these goals translate into three broad areas of focus that cover everything from the individual components to the physical environment where the system is located.
- Performance monitoring for standard ongoing operation
- Data collection and analysis
- Maximizing safe operation of the system
This is the primary focus of most solar operations and maintenance agreements—making sure that the basic system is working as designed and establishing processes to monitor performance.
Predictive and Preventative Maintenance
- Data analysis to identify undetected or potential issues
- Standard component inspection and maintenance
- Site/environmental maintenance
- Weather-related maintenance
This is the area that is easiest to overlook and neglect, but offers the greatest potential reward by preventing costly repairs.
- Service/repair components to restore production
- Repair/restore environmental damage
This is the most expensive area of solar O&M, because worn parts can cause damage to other parts, leading to a need for additional repairs, and may even lead to the system be shut down for maintenance (which results in a costly loss of production).
For small- to medium-sized commercial installations, it can be challenging to fit the time and expense of a comprehensive O&M agreement into the project budget. Creating a systematic, efficient and effective approach can make this a more manageable and viable process.
Creating an Solar Operations and Maintenance Agreement
The first step is to create processes and documentation for the system as a whole and the key components within the system. A solid O&M agreement must address a few key areas:
- Routine scheduled preventative maintenance
- Annual general site inspection
- Manufacturer-specific component inspection
- Diagnostic and troubleshooting procedures for addressing issues with individual components
- Diagnostic and troubleshooting procedures for addressing reduced power production
- Process for repairing or replacing critical components that may fail
The second step is to develop a way to monitor and manage the system. It simply is not realistic, in most instances, to have ongoing and frequent site inspections. The alternative is to install a remote monitoring and data collection system.
Having a built-in remote monitoring and data collection process is crucial. By monitoring and recording system data you can establish baseline performance and see any immediate issues associated with a malfunction, weather issue or similar “events.“ The data will also allow you to monitor performance over time and highlight any long-term, systemic issues that may be causing reduced power production.
Finally, it is important to remember to design a project with maintenance in mind. The easiest maintenance is the work that you don’t have to do. But recognizing that some maintenance is inevitable make it easier to plan for ways to access and work on the equipment. This includes things beyond solar-specific maintenance— you never know what kind of maintenance will be necessary on the site. It might not be raining now, but what happens during a flood? Or, for example, an HVAC system might need to be accessed on the roof amidst all those solar panels. As they say, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”