Proper Upkeep

Developers’ experience in the solar O&M space

The solar operations and maintenance (O&M) market is evolving rapidly, corresponding to the increasing size, scale and number of projects owned by each developer. There is now a growing focus on ensuring the quality of assets and enhancing project life through more efficient and cost-effective maintenance practices. Further, advanced automation and digital tools are increasingly being adopted by most developers to make O&M processes less complicated and to reduce the manpower requirements at project sites. Against this backdrop, leading solar power developers discussed their experience and best practices in solar O&M at a recent Renewable Watch conference. Edited excerpts…

 

Amit Batra, Head, O&M, ACME Cleantech

Amit Batra

At ACME, we currently have an operational portfolio of 2 GW and an upcoming pro­ject pipeline of 2 GW, to be added in another one year or so. This is a steep target of doubling our portfolio within a year or so, and we look forward to working to­wards this goal.On the O&M side, solar project sizes are increasing to 100 MW, 200 MW and even 500 MW. However, tariffs have been on a downward spiral, which puts downward pressure on solar O&M costs. Meanwhile, automation and digitalisation are rapidly gaining traction in this space across all key services such as module maintenan­ce, preventive maintenance, analytics and fault detection. Such advanced automation tools have a huge potential to grow in the coming years. Retrofitting is another area that is slowly growing. With technology upgradations happening at a rapid pace in the solar power space, projects also need to be retrofitted with newer and more advanced equipment so that they can continue to perform efficiently for their entire life cycle of 25 years.

The skill set required for O&M of utility-scale ground-mounted projects and that for rooftop solar projects is essentially the same. The only difference is the project size and the location of these as­sets. How­ever, the stakes, in terms of bo­th risks and revenues, are much lower in rooftop solar projects than in utility-scale projects owing to the small scale of these assets. Further, utility-scale projects operate at much higher voltages than their roof­top counterparts, which bring to light the safety considerations of the O&M team. Compliance also becomes very im­portant, as hundreds of acres are requir­ed to set up a solar power project, and these projects are mostly built at remote locations.

Two O&M activities, especially, are quite critical – module cleaning and vegetation re­moval. For a project spread across such massive dimensions, both become quite challenging, especially in terms of the resources – both manpower and ma­chi­nery – that must be deployed. Various automated solutions, especially for module cleaning, have come up in the market and are rapidly gaining traction. In addition, advanced remote monitoring syste­ms, drone inspection, thermal imaging and data analytics tools are becoming po­pular. Another major challenge facing su­ch large solar assets is that of security. So­l­ar projects require various costly pie­ces of equipment, spread across several acres, which need a large security te­am for constant vigilance. Thus, te­ch­nology advancements are very much re­quired in this space as well, to reduce dependence on costly manpower.

Solar projects, with their large array of eq­uipment, generate massive volumes of data, and another challenge is managing this data. Thus, our focus has now shifted from data collection to data management and analysis, so that the right alert is generated at the right time. The O&M market is expected to change drastically over the next five years. As with the present cost pressures on developers, integration of di­gital technology will assume critical importance. Thus, we will have less manpower deployed on solar assets in the future compared to present times.

“We will have less manpower deployed on solar assets in the future.”- Amit Batra

C. Chaudhary, Chief Operating Officer, AMP Energy India

C. Chaudhary

AMP Energy India is predominantly focus­ed on the commercial and industrial (C&I) business. But since last year, we have ex­ten­ded our focus to the utility business as well. Currently, we have a pipeline of 1.5 GW, including C&I and utility-scale pro­je­cts. By the end of this financial year, our op­­e­rational capacity will reach 400-500 MW. We have a target of achieving at least 1 GW of operational capacity by 2023 and in­creasing it to 4-5 GW by 2026. For O&M, we have in-house capability but also give it to third-party companies.

The construction and engineering of a project is more challenging than actual op­eration. If the project is designed efficiently, the O&M challenges are automatically reduced. For utility-scale projects, there are more challenges in the construction phase as substations have to be built, and right-of-way issues also emerge as transmission lines have to be constructed. In addition, the Supreme Court order on the Great Indian Bustard will add more challenges in the construction phase.

Solar tariffs have fallen drastically in the past decade with the decline in construction and module costs. O&M costs have also fallen. Now, the focus has shifted to grea­ter operating expenditure in this spa­ce, including the use of digitalisation and robotic cleaning, in a bid to increase the value of the asset. This has become even more important for projects in arid regions such as Rajasthan, where the government does not allow the construction of bore­wells for pumping water, requiring dry ro­bo­tic cleaning in the region. Furthermore, a new Israel-based unmann­ed security technology shows great potential. Going forward, the use of data analytics will also play a crucial role in the O&M of solar projects in a bid to increase generation.

I also believe that companies will move towards self-O&M, given the lower cost, which leads to lower tariffs. Repowering of solar projects with higher capacity modules will play a key role, going forward.

“Repowering of solar projects with higher capacity modules will play a key role going forward.” – C. Chaudhary

Rohit Jaswal, Regional Manager
O&M (India), Cleantech Solar

Rohit Jaswal

CleanTech Solar has a portfolio of over 600 MW. The organisation is active in eight co­un­tries, with India accounting for the lar­ge­st share of the portfolio. In terms of trends, solar O&M technology has become more advanced. Remote monitoring systems are now available. On the ground, there are au­tomatic alarms that notify engineers in ca­se of faults. Then there are robotic devices and drones, which can be used for thermal scanning of a larger PV farm in a matter of days. Thus, the solar O&M market is slowly evolving.

There are numerous models, involving in-house contracts, third-party contracts and a mix of both. There is a great opportunity for specialised O&M players to provide O&M services in the solar space. As O&M pricing has come down from Rs 1-1.2 million per MW to Rs 200,000-300,000 per MW since we started in 2013, there is a chan­ce for developers to explore the viability of the in-house model. In the future, there will be greater demand for a mix of self-O&M and third-party O&M. Self-O&M poses its own set of issues, such as the requirement for developers to take on gr­eater responsibility and manage their co­mpliance as well as their travels, among other things. When you have your own employees operating on the ground, you take on a lot of responsibility. Third-party O&M, on the other hand, provides you with the benefit of not having these responsibilities. The resources are managed by the contractor, and he must then get the work done. However, for projects larger than 50 MW or 200 MW, it makes more sense for de­velopers to have their own O&M, so that both the costs and the projects can be mo­re effectively managed.

“There will be a greater demand for a mix of self O&M and third- party O&M.” – Rohit Jaswal

We have both rooftop solar projects and ground-mounted assets, and each has its own challenges. There is a significant risk in the case of rooftop projects, as our O&M teams work there at heights of 30-40 feet. Thus, it is important to ensure that he­alth, safety, security and environment best practices are incorporated and the ri­ght training is given. In addition, all O&M activities are carried out in third-party premises, which is often a complicated process.

In the case of open access projects, project sizes increase and so does the risk. Further, often, forecasting and scheduling norms in various states create additional problems. We have a portfolio of projects across Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu. The Maharashtra State Load Despatch Centre (SLDC) uses a deviation settlement me­cha­nism (DSM), which is fairly challenging to control. As a result, qualified coordinating agencies work with the SLDC to forecast and schedule power generation. How­­­ever, unscheduled breakdowns can re­sult in higher DSM penalties.

The other concern is the quality of the available manpower. While moving to a completely unmanned O&M model may not work, we certainly can integrate more advanced technologies into our O&M practices for higher efficiencies. Further, in many regions of our country, even adequ­ate drinking water is not available. Thus, cleaning large volumes of modules with water may not be possible in the future. We should start moving to dry cleaning so­lutions for cleaning modules sooner ra­ther than later.

Dhananjay Nandedkar, Head, Asset Management, Cleanmax

Dhananjay Nandedkar

Cleanmax has been working actively ac­ross the rooftop segment as well as farm projects. More recently, the company has also expanded its operations to the wind energy segment. Our portfolio consists of 300 MW of rooftop solar projects across India and Southeast Asia. Roughly 300-350 MW of solar farm projects and wind-solar hybrid projects have been developed. For the rooftop solar segment, O&M challenges are manifold. Inverters are a major component of rooftop solar pro­jects, and they play an important role during times of power outage and breakdown. This is where many challenges lie.

Services from the O&M sector are often delayed in terms of visits and replace­me­nts. This is further exacerbated by spa­ce co­nstraints. For rooftop projects that are un­manned, communication systems and re­­mote monitoring of equipment is ess­ential. We also face several challenges in the ser­vice providers’ network. Telecom servi­c­es and data transmission is slow. The local area network is not a reliable connection. Thus, real-time monitoring of data and sm­ooth tra­nsmission deli­very must be ensured. Fur­ther, data security is a big concern. O&M contractors don’t exist at the national le­vel. While local regional players have th­­eir own benefits, they also have certain li­mi­ta­tions. In expanding the volume and qu­ality of workmanship and creating better sa­­fety measures, na­tional-level players may perform better than small-scale local players.

“Data security is a concern for rooftop solar projects.” – Dhananjay Nandedkar

Furthermore, training of manpower must be an ongoing process, and stability and consistency of the on-field team must be maintained by minimising the shuffling of operational methods.

Moreover, seasonal conditions and wea­ther scenarios are changing drastically now­­adays. The generation of power is de­pendent on these changes, which greatly impacts revenue. Due to the ever-changing and unstable nature of weather scenarios, there now exists a lot of uncertainty in the planning phase of projects.

There are a few best practices that Clean­max has adopted in order to overcome the many challenges in the O&M of solar roof­tops. The standard operating proce­dures (SOPs) have been laid out carefully and are followed diligently. SOPs are essential to control and coordinate what is being im­­plemented at the ground level. We have in­culcated the use of SOPs in two forms – visual and written. As we operate across India, uniformity and standardisation of activities to be carried out across the co­untry is crucial. Training is constantly on­go­ing, and includes technical training, tool­box talks and vertigo tests to avoid ac­cidents in projects at higher heights. Fur­ther, we mark skylights with a red colour or co­ver them for identification and protection. Since damage may occur where the landing platform is present, all sites have landing platforms and a walking pathway alongside to prevent damage to the customer’s roof. Greater developments can be expected in the rooftop arena with te­ch­nological advancements such as robotic cleaning, which now allows greater flexibility in the management of our assets.

Paras Savsani, Head, Performance Management, Fourth Partner Energy

Paras Savsani

Fourth Partner has been involved in the distributed solar space since the beginning. It entered the open access space a few ye­a­rs back. The company currently has about 300 MW of operational capacity in the distributed segment and about 250 MW in the open access segment. The renewable en­er­gy sector is growing at a fast pace, and we aim to grow with it. Internationally, Four­th Partner Energy also has a presence in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Vietnam and Indo­ne­sia. The company has a mix of strategies for O&M activities ac­ross projects, as only one method would not work everywhere. Th­ere are two major strategies that the com­pany follows. The first is in-house service activities, wh­ere we have our own service engineer team distributed across geographies, and the second is tying up with service partners for O&M contracts.

With the gradually declining project cost, there is a limited budget for O&M. At the same time, we take into account the life cycle of components, so one-time costs are difficult to consider. There needs to be a strategy for deploying enough funds for O&M activities. Although it is a competitive market, there should be an industry-wide collaborative approach to make fin­ancing of O&M activities sustainable. So­on, technological advancements are also expected to help reduce manpower cost, and provide faster troubleshooting and fewer actual problems.

“There needs to be a strategy for deploying enough funds for O&M activity.” – Paras Savsani

There are different challenges in the rooftop and open access segments. In the rooftop segment the main challenge is managing the activities on the premises of the end-customer. There are different obstacles for different customers, and st­an­dardisation is difficult. Quality building starts with execution. When taking over a plant from the execution team, it serves as a real checkpoint for identifying gaps and filling them. Further, safety should be en­su­red on all sides. In the case of utility-sc­a­le O&M, the losses will be higher but the capacity is also proportionately larger. Further, challenges can arise in terms of coordinating with the local workforce. Thus, it is important to make it a win-win situation for all parties.

In practice, there are remote monitoring systems and supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems in place for the plants. Moreover, uptime of remote monitoring and SCADA can help ensure that all problems are getting solved on the field. While these are useful practices, going forward, we should have real-time solutions derived from analytics.

Post-Covid, the major change has been the increased dependence on remote mo­nitoring system with minimum visits. Earlier, the normal O&M practices requir­ed site visits at least once a month. Follo­wing the pa­ndemic, we have been able to identify the un­necessary visits to the sites. Thus, we can optimise site visits using re­mo­te and central monitoring systems. Tech­nolo­gy and skill development is expected to im­prove in the post-Covid era. At the same time, considering the revenue model, there are many small O&M players that have suffered losses due to a break in operations and revenue streams. Overall, there are still going to be many opportunities in the futu­re following from past learnings about how to manage activities better.

 

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