With the growing deployment of solar power projects and increasing portfolio sizes, proper operations and maintenance (O&M) of these plants is attracting greater interest from developers. While solar O&M was limited to module cleaning, plant security and vegetation removal until a few years back, it has now evolved into a stand alone business vertical. Various third-party O&M service providers are now offering a range of services to solar plant developers at competitive prices. A key emerging trend witnessed in third-party solar O&M is the increasing use of automation and digitalisation to reduce project downtime and improve plant performance.
Fault detection and rectification is a major area where automation can be effectively put to use. To this end, remote monitoring systems are being set up at centralised locations, which monitor the solar plant from a remote location in real time. This real-time monitoring helps in predicting faults, diagnosing their causes and preventing such incidents in the future. The plant downtime is reduced as appropriate action can be taken quickly in case of any untoward incident. Remote monitoring also helps identify underperforming components, operate automatic ticketing systems and detect soiling losses. For instance, Inspire Clean Energy is a Mumbai-based O&M service company that has developed a software platform called EIRA. The model of EIRA is based on the three-second and three-click concept, wherein a client is made aware about the status of solar plants in three clicks. EIRA logs into every project at certain pre-programmed intervals to check the performance parameters of every equipment. Once a flaw is detected, it automatically generates a ticket and sends it to the nearest engineer. As soon as the problem is resolved, a report is sent to the client. It takes just three seconds for an investor to get this status and three clicks for the operator to procure more information about the generated ticket.
To integrate renewable energy with the grid, various state governments have come up with strict scheduling, forecasting and deviation settlement regulations that penalise over- and under-generation of electricity from renewable energy plants. This has encouraged O&M players to invest in the automation of predictive maintenance services. Efficient and artificial intelligence (AI)-enabled monitoring platforms are already in use for predictive O&M. Advanced asset management software with AI are being deployed for optimising and analysing project data from multiple projects and improving performance. Some software companies are also developing accurate weather forecasting services to predict future generation, while others are providing machine learning software to enable projects to self-diagnose and rectify faults.
Increased automation serves the purpose of reducing O&M costs as well. Overall, module cleaning and manpower costs together constitute the bulk of solar plant O&M costs in India; these costs can be significantly reduced with automated processes such as robotic cleaning solutions and aerial drones for site inspection. With low tariffs discovered in the recent solar auctions, the costs for solar O&M have also reduced drastically. Automation is helping O&M players reduce manpower costs and maintain profitability despite their squeezed margins.
Drones are excellent for site assessment and O&M, providing greater detail than ground crews. Moreover, drones equipped with thermal imaging cameras can detect malfunctioning modules, specifically hotspots, which reduce electricity generation. They can point out faulty modules or strings with great reliability. Meanwhile, robotic module cleaning solutions are also being used widely, to decrease labour costs. These solutions are being developed for both cleaning with water and without water. Robotic solutions that do not use water for module cleaning are particularly more suited to India’s arid regions of Rajasthan and Kutch, where the majority of the solar capacity is located.
The way forward
Going forward, corrective and preventive maintenance to predictive and prescriptive maintenance analytics based on automation and digitalisation will be required to help reduce downtime and improve operation costs of solar projects. The adoption of better technology aimed at the optimisation of O&M services will help prepare service providers for the significant growth in installations expected over the next four to five years.
Based on a presentation by Dilip Kumar, Executive Director, Inspire Clean Energy at a Renewable Watch conference on “O&M for Solar Plants”