It’s no secret that new technologies are up-ending many industries and solar energy is no exception. Cost reductions have enabled the rapid deployment of solar energy across the US and the globe resulting in a large and ever-growing installed base of solar energy systems. With this critical mass of installed systems, we look to a new area for cost efficiencies: solar operations and maintenance (O&M).
Whether you are a dedicated solar developer or a property owner with a new system, you want to ensure that your investment is operating optimally and achieving projected returns. The good news is that technology is making owning and operating a solar energy system easier than ever. Like any other capital investment, you want to make sure that your new asset is:
- Operating at full capacity and peak efficiency;
- That any problems are fixed quickly and easily without disrupting operations; and
- You want to know how the asset’s performance is affecting your bottom line.
Solar energy service providers are deploying a range of new technologies that are making all three of these priorities much easier to manage, further increasing the value of your asset. Solar energy O&M services are now becoming a specialized service provided by firms who not only have deep operational experience but by those who have also invested in the latest technologies that provide a range of benefits to both the owner and the service provider. Let’s take a closer look at some of these new approaches and technologies and the benefits they can provide.
New data acquisition systems (DAS) make it possible to remotely and constantly monitor your solar energy system to make sure it is performing at peak capacity. These systems can tell your service provider if your system is working at maximum efficiency and alert them immediately if your system is experiencing a loss in production. The best DASs include a user-friendly monitoring dashboard which allows the system owners to check production directly, and provides the opportunity to educate tenants and customers about the building's green performance. Many data acquisition software tools that are used to monitor solar energy systems can also be used to track a building’s overall energy use. Applying these tools to whole building systems give property managers and owners the information needed to implement additional energy reduction measures.
Remote monitoring for preventing and quickly fixing problems
New data acquisition and remote monitoring systems can more quickly identify when your system may be experiencing a problem. This is important for rooftop solar installations which are usually out of sight, out of mind. Once a problem has been identified, service providers are using a range of tools such as field dispatch systems, and drones equipped with thermal monitoring technology to quickly and accurately identify the exact problem, and send technicians to address issues immediately.
Internet-enabled field dispatch systems provide a seamless integration for the customer and service provider. When a service agreement is first established, the service provider will capture information like point of contact, roof access points and other building or operational issues that need to be taken into account. Having this information enables the service provider to quickly access the system with minimal hassle for the system owner or array host. This approach is also great for proactive maintenance programs which allow your service provider access to your system with nominal disruption for customers and staff.
For some problems, service providers have found a new solution that can save hours of diagnostic testing -- drones. Drones equipped with infrared cameras can quickly identify specific panels or other pieces of equipment that are not performing properly. This saves the service provider from having to laboriously test each panel to see if it is operating correctly. Aerial monitoring is an efficient way to identify problems for larger arrays which could require many hours of diagnostic testing to locate the problem.
Thermal image of a solar array with identified string as non-operational.
Understanding financial impact
New software platforms can also make it easier for asset owners to understand how their systems are performing, and whether or not the systems are meeting projected results. User-friendly interfaces can show how much energy the system has produced and track SREC/REC (or other incentive) payments. This makes it easier to understand how your system is contributing to the bottom line, making fiscal planning easier. It will also give you a better understanding of how much energy you are producing versus how much you are buying from the utility. An added bonus is that if there is ever a mistake on your utility bill, these systems will be able to provide the data necessary to identify the discrepancy.
In addition to the technologies explained above, there are a number of more technical procedures that experienced O&M providers may perform in order to thoroughly test, diagnose and remedy issues with your solar system.
Remote reclosure reset
A variety of grid-related issues can cause a recloser to trip on a solar energy system. Automated systems can now remotely detect when a recloser has been tripped in the field. This system allows O&M service providers to quickly reset the fault and get the system up and running faster, saving the time and expense of travelling to the site. In addition, these systems can capture the data related to the causes for the system faults. In turn, this enables the service provider to work with the utility to identify and remedy underlying and/or chronic grid-related issues.
I-V curve testing
The I-V Curve Tracer is an electrical test for verifying photovoltaic array performance. For each string, the I-V Tracer measures current and power as a function of voltage. Measured results are compared to the expected results, and can immediately identify a problem. The system can identify an issue with precision and even locate exactly which length of wire, connector, or module in the string is causing the problem. Knowing exactly where to go to fix a faulty wire can save a technician hours of diagnostic testing. Additionally, since a problem can be isolated so precisely, fixes can often be simpler, saving time and materials.
A megger test is used to check the insulation factor of wires or devices that could be compromised within your solar system and are required by NEC (110.7). This is to make sure that when the working voltage is applied, a short circuit to ground will not occur due to a problem with the insulation of the device or wire. Megger testing is done at the time of commissioning to make sure the system is operating safely and efficiently, but it is also a helpful diagnostic tool to identify degradation or damage to wiring insulation.
Like so many other parts of our lives, technology is making owning a solar energy asset easier and more affordable than ever. As the number of solar installations has increased, so too have the myriad of new technologies that make operating them easier, safer and more profitable.
Written by Steve Bianchi, Senior Vice President of customer services and a partner at Solect Energy