Monday, August 31, 2015

What Are Your Options in the Post Warranty Stage for Solar O&M?

Solar operations and maintenance is a hot topic these days due to the number of solar PV installations in the United States that are maturing into a post-warranty stage. At this juncture, utility-scale solar asset managers are taking a look at their options.
For most multi-megawatt installations, asset managers typically have an O&M plan in place since back the project was in its engineering and design phases; however, it’s been a long road since those plans were first developed and, as we all know, plans change.
The reasons for seeking a new solution to O&M are varied. Perhaps it is because of failures in the original plan or whether business needs have changed or the company you’ve contracted with isn’t doing the best job. Whatever the case, there are several options for post-warranty stage solar O&M from which to choose.
The three options for ongoing solar operations and maintenance service that plant owners and operators are as follows:
  1. Stick with the Original Equipment Manufacturers Contract
  2. Manage O&M In-house
  3. Sign a Deal with a Third-Party Provider
Let’s explore each of these options.
OPTION 1: Stick with the Original Equipment Manufacturers Contract
Here are some of the pros and cons to consider when deciding whether to stay with the original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) for post-warranty operations and maintenance (O&M):
  • PRO: Keeping communication open about upgrades to the control systems and the solar equipment.
Knowing firsthand when a control system has been upgraded or improved upon can mean a lot to the bottom line if these upgrades affect performance. Sometimes this also means better OEM parts pricing.
  • CON: OEMs may always be trying to sell to you.
Yes, it’s true keeping communication open can help with system upgrades. However, to whose advantage is this really, the OEM or the plant owner? For the OEM, they may see the opportunity to keep the sales channel open. When a piece of equipment fails, will the OEM be more apt to sell you new, more costly part instead of repairing the existing equipment? And, will you receive dozens of sales calls and emails worked into your day-to-day maintenance updates?
  • PRO: Familiarity with Equipment.
When equipment fails, often the best solution is being able to go direct to the manufacturer for replacement or repairs. This could mean lower risks of long down times diagnosing equipment problems.
  • CON: Many Points of Contact.
Going directly to the OEM may mean that you will have numerous points of contact to keep all equipment in working order. You’ll still need in-house staff to diagnose which piece or pieces of equipment failed. This person or team would need to contact the correct OEM and have good follow-up ensuring the anomaly has been fixed. The list of potential contacts may include; the company who manufactured your inverter, the company who manufactured your panels, and then there’s the monitoring system company, the racking company, the combiner company, and the list goes on. Also, note that equipment failures could turn into a finger pointing game where you spend more time than you’d like managing the OEMs and maintenance issues. It might be easier to take the O&M in-house.
OPTION 2: Manage O&M In-house
Solar power plant owners that choose to manage their own O&M in-house must ensure their personnel:
  • Are equipped with appropriate skill-sets
  • Understand the how the complete system functions
  • Have the qualifications and experience
  • Can manage spare-part inventory
  • Have a firm grasp on quality control
  • Understands and can manage all maintenance procedures – both scheduled and emergency services.
  • Have good time management experience
Some of the pros and cons of choosing to manage your O&M in-house are as follows:
  • PRO: Lower costs.
Not having a flat monthly fee and being tied to an ongoing contract certainly is appealing. Your costs are tied directly to the employee’s time and the cost of parts and other maintenance needs. You are assured that you are only paying for services you need. This option offers the most control of your solar farm.
  • CON: More pressure on managing staff.
Optimizing photovoltaic system performance completely depends on the in-house staff. O&M will only be as effective as the people managing it behind the scenes. Hiring, firing and managing staff takes time and energy. Staff must understand how to meet performance targets and be able to effectively perform the scope of services required for preventative maintenance as well as emergency services. Should an employee be underperforming, the effect can trickle down to degrade system performance too.
  • PRO: More direct control over maintenance.
Managing solar O&M in-house you will have more control over maintenance, because you are solely responsible for it. You set the schedule, make the inspections, keep spare parts inventory in check, clean panels, and monitor the system for anomalies. If there is a failure, it’s under your control.
  • CON: Too much time and energy dedicated to maintenance.
Having direct control over your own maintenance may sound comforting; however, this is a double edge sword. While you have complete control of the maintenance when managing it in-house, you may not have the resources (both time and staff) to effectively manage it 24/7/365. Logistical and employee issues may turn into a nightmare.
  • PRO: Availability of technicians for emergency services.
Providing your own in-house O&M team means you dispatch the technicians for emergency services. There’s no waiting for a call back from the O&M company, your staff can respond as quickly as you schedule them. Again, you’re in complete control.
  • CON: Cost of shift-differential or overtime for emergencies.
A total system failure may happen on a holiday weekend. Is your in-house O&M staff required to respond and fix it within a certain time frame, no matter what? Depending on how you’ve hired your employees, any monitoring, outage repairs, or emergency services may be part of their daily duties or you may end up paying a shift-diff for nights, weekends, and holidays. For most solar farms, 24-hour monitoring and fast emergency services assures maximum ROI, but this comes at a cost that can weigh heavily on an already taxed plant operator who needs to balance employees, vacation coverage, sick days, employee issues, budgets, and ROI.
OPTION 3: Sign a Deal with a Third Party Provider
There are many reasons solar power plant operators and owners decide to use a third party O&M provider.
You may have contracted services from the EPC company that constructed your array for O&M after the system was commissioned. Now you’ve discovered that just because a company built your solar array it doesn’t mean they are the best people to maintain it for years, or even decades down the road. They may have already failed as an operator since the system went live, or other issues have cropped up. Or, you may have been managing your solar O&M in-house and the headaches of doing it all yourself are just too overwhelming. Whatever your obstacles have been, signing a deal with a third party provider may be right for you.
Here are some of the pros and cons in contracting with a third party solar O&M provider:
  • PRO: Third Party Providers are Focused on O&M Only
Few companies are positioned to only offer solar O&M services. A company that takes on the challenge of offering O&M services as a stand-alone service will be highly motivated to operate and manage your solar power plant to the highest standards. It is their core business, so you can expect excellent customer service and the highest quality workmanship.
  • CON: There may be a learning curve.
The lack of familiarity with the ins-and-ours of your particular system may take some time for the technician to get acquainted with its nuances. If you have decided to go with a third party solar O&M provider, you’ll want to be confident that the company will conduct a complete system review as soon as possible. This will ensure they are up to speed with what has happened during the development and construction phases and will know as much as possible about the system to proactively schedule maintenance. That way, in an emergency situation, you can be rest assured that long troubleshooting times won’t be needed to cypher out system-specific design or operational issues.
  • PRO: Capable solar service technicians are a phone call away.
Third party solar O&M providers will be capable of dispatching capable solar service technicians, sometimes in different states at the same time. In your O&M agreement, specific times will be detailed for emergency services, preventative maintenance visits and any other O&M service related response that could be needed. You’ll have in writing what kind of service you can expect to receive.
  • CON: Turnover rate and lacking equipment.
Unless you find an experienced O&M company with deep energy experience and equipment that they own to provide contractual services, you take the chance of getting in with a company that may have high turnover rates with their contractors or one that lacks the proper equipment to get the job done. Both of these instances will result in longer down times. If the technician is not familiar with your site, or doesn’t have the correct equipment or tools to perform the required repairs, the time they waste getting up to speed or waiting on equipment is time you can’t recoup. Time loss is energy loss, so be sure to find a reliable third party partner.
  • PRO: More cost effective.
Outsourcing your solar O&M can be more cost effective because you will not be adding permanent positions to your existing work force.
  • CON: Creates an added reporting structure.
Although one call, will do it all with a third party contractor, it still removes the service outside of your organization and under the control of another company. When you are turning your installation over to another company you’ll want to ensure they have a solid, presentable plan to minimize plant downtime, reduce risk of power production losses, produce expected or greater than expected investment returns, and maximize overall solar output. The O&M provider should have a proactive approach to solar O&M and be able to show detailed record keeping procedures and checklists for preventative maintenance. The bottom line on outsourcing your O&M to a third party service company is, do you trust them?
Miller Bros. Solar (MBS) is a chosen leader in operations and maintenance (O&M) solutions due to the company’s project expertise, full construction capabilities, and 160+ pieces of heavy equipment. MBS is one of the few electrical contractors that can simultaneously self-perform multiple utility scale solar projects while exceeding client expectations, controlling costs and adhering to timelines and customer schedules.
Miller Bros. Solar provides O&M services for solar projects in the following states: Connecticut, Delaware, Ohio, Georgia, Indiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Vermont, Virginia, and West Virginia.
For more information, visit or call 610-832-1000.

No comments: