Asset performance management in the solar PV industry is relatively new, driven mainly by the influx of outside investors seeking to maximize profits in an industry with diminishing marginal returns. As solar facility growth has soared, from hundreds of megawatts to more than 25GW of installed photovoltaic capacity nationwide, streamlining power plant operations and maintenance (O&M) costs continues to remain a key tenet of profitability. Moreover, data capture, integration, visualization and analytics falling under the asset performance management (APM) umbrella has grown to become equally critical for facility owners and investors seeking to optimize plant reliability, uptime and ROI.
A comprehensive APM platform not only keeps track of back office necessities like contracts and scheduling, but also pays close attention to the system as a whole and seeks to optimize performance through continuous system monitoring to drive towards maximum energy production. Simply put, APM’s fundamental goal is to collect and analyze performance information and integrate this data into system production to enhance the long-term reliability and availability of renewable facilities.
And here is where APM differs from O&M. O&M-centric companies often define asset management as performance in terms of kilowatt-hours. O&M providers are called to repair on-site issues - a reactive task - to minimize downtime. APM moves beyond the dollars and kilowatts by focusing on maximizing efficiencies at all levels throughout the facility’s lifecycle. This is done by capturing production data, utilizing predictive analytics, power modeling, and incorporating maintenance and other on-site services against long-term energy production. Advanced software and information visualization reveal subtle data deviations that can help uncover performance issues and pinpoint potential problems that might be hidden from physical inspections.
Fine tuning the asset
APM is a balancing act: what actions can tweak system performance, making it more reliable (i.e., longer uptime) or more efficient (i.e., less deterioration) even though it may not be operating at peak performance? Each and every aspect of the asset must be known and tracked and, there must be someone with the expertise and experience that knows how to look at the information and understand where fine-tuning is needed.
A focus on quality
What many have overlooked is the importance of facility design, equipment selection, and lifecycle dynamics during the initial and early phases of a renewable project. Until recently, the mantra of solar project developers and investors has been “low cost, low cost, low cost.” But developers, EPCs and plant owners need to look at every facility with 20-year glasses. With declining panel costs, solar PV facilities can certainly be built as cheaply as possible, but quality of equipment and attention to facility design will ultimately dictate the ability of a plant to meet its predicted numbers year after year.
In other words, critical work must be performed upfront to ensure the plant design is not only sound, but also reflects the expected production and lifespan of the plant. Take a single issue such as vegetation abatement, which should and must be considered during the design phase. Netting or a similar material can be installed on a site to inhibit vegetation, which can directly affect performance and profitability over the life of the system. Whether or not the cost of putting netting or special grass down will sufficiently offset the cost of maintaining the vegetation otherwise is something that must be part of the initial plan. Examples like this underscore the critical importance of understanding the multitude of costs that might be incurred throughout the operational life of the solar power plant, as well as their trade-offs.
Best-in-class APM providers understand the 10-, 20-, 25-year implications of specific equipment, changes in site design, and even certain construction techniques, and the impact of adherence to - and verification of - minimum technical standards. Most importantly, an APM focused organization, when involved at the earliest stages, can keep the owner apprised of the financial impacts substantive changes or cost-cutting moves can have on profitability.
In an era of declining profit margins and intensifying competition in the solar sector, APM has become an increasingly important approach to optimizing return on investments and profitability over the lifecycles of the installed base of PV systems.
Written by Dennis W. Odden, President of Bay4 Energy Services