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…
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
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
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.
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.
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.