Solar plants are built to last ideally for 20-25 years. On completion of the engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) period, developers need to ensure seamless operations and maintenance (O&M) activities for sustained energy generation over the project lifetime.
Traditionally, these services were not given the importance they deserved, with the primary focus being on module cleaning and grass-cutting. Over the years, however, O&M services have evolved much beyond site maintenance and the scope of activities is growing continuously. It includes a services such as monitoring and supervision of the plant, maintenance, energy forecasting and outage scheduling, and ancillary services.
The cost of O&M services has also declined over the past few years and this trend is expected to continue. The continuous reduction in cost is due to the sector’s shift towards digitalisation and advanced techniques, and away from traditional manual practices as manpower is expensive. While manpower still constitutes a major portion of the overall cost, its share has been declining gradually. The increase in plant size and availability of better tools is also leading to efficiency gains, which further reduce the costs associated with O&M services. Machine-based cutting and jack-based tilting are replacing manual grass-cutting and tilting. Cloud-based monitoring and module temperature reduction techniques are also contributing to the technological advancements in O&M.
The solar O&M model is also evolving. Globally, there has been a rise of third-party solar O&M service providers. These specialised service providers are able to deliver more value to solar investors and owners as they use a more structured approach, and customised technologies and solutions to provide better O&M. These third-party O&M companies are either stand-alone service providers or a carveout of the existing EPC players.
Despite advancements in technologies and the emergence of new business models, solar plant O&M is not free from challenges. The most common issues faced at the sites are related to product and weather. Cable burnouts, rusting of structural elements, waterlogging, theft, etc. are a few other challenges. Going forward, the time intervals for forecasting and scheduling will become shorter for all grid-connected solar projects, which will make O&M requirements even more stringent.
O&M costs roughly constitute 1 per cent of the aggregate capital cost. There is a downward trend in O&M cost globally and it is expected to further decrease in the coming years. Currently, the cost stands at Rs 320,000 per MWp, which is expected to fall to about 25 per cent of the current cost in the next 10 years. By 2028, the O&Mcost is estimated to stand at Rs 80,000 per MWp.
At present, expenditure on manpower, including technical, security and, cleaning, tilting and grass-cutting costs, constitutes 70 per cent of the overall O&M cost. The remaining 30 per cent costs are accounted for by tools, HV maintenance, consumables and spares and, transport and housing.
Salaries paid to technical and non-technical staff account for almost 37 per cent of the total O&M costs. The cost of cleaning, tilting and landscaping is another major head under the total cost. As the O&M segment becomes more technology driven, the composition of the total cost is likely to shift away from personnel to digital in the years to come. As per estimates, the share of personnel in the total cost will come down to 17 per cent and the expenditure on digital equipment will comprise more than 50 per cent of the total cost by 2028.
The reduction in aggregate cost is expected on account of improvement in the efficiency of personnel overtime. The per megawatt technical manpower requirement has come down to 5 MW per person and should reach 10 MW per person by 2019. This increase in efficiency is a result of the increasing size of projects. Along with this, personnel are better trained and equipped with better tools. Better techniques are being utilised for cleaning and landscaping. Tractor/ Tanker-based cleaning is moving towards robot-based cleaning. Manual grass-cutting and tilting are also being replaced with machine-based cutting and jack-based tilting respectively.
Challenges and the way forward
One of the key challenges facing the segment is the inadequate attention to O&M. If the plant is not maintained properly, a developer can lose up to 15 per cent of the returns. In addition to poor water availability, there are several geographical and environmental challenges such as heavy rains and sandstorms, which lead to equipment malfunctioning. For better operational efficiency, identifying module defect and degradation, undertaking soil management, cleaning bird droppings, studying the behaviour of different module technologies, and improving grid availability and vendor support are important.
There have been various technical advancements to combat some of the aforementioned challenges. Dust abatement system like wind fence can be used to reduce the dust over the module surface, which would lead to greater generation and a lower cleaning cost. Scary balloons and faces can be used to control bird dropping.
Going forward, further enhancement in technology will bring about major changes in the O&M sector. Cloud-based monitoring and an automated module cleaning system will drastically reduce the dependence on manpower and hence the associated costs. New business models create further opportunities in O&M. With profit sharing models, independent power producers can transfer more risk to the O&M operator.
In sum, it is important that photovoltaic plants are maintained properly so as to maximise energy yields and prolong their life. Optimal operation services must strike a balance between maximising generation and minimising cost.
Based on presentations by Puneet Jaggi, Director, Solarig Gensol, and Rajesh Gajjar, Head-O&M, L&T Solar