DNV GL's asset management buyout turns solar plant data into new build gains

DNV GL's acquisition of GreenPowerMonitor (GPM) will generate new data-analytics synergies, interlinking project development and asset management activities to maximize solar plant performance, company executives told PV Insider.

DNV GL and GPM will use big data to improve project planning and operations and maintenance (O&M) services. (Image credit: Paolo Cipriani)

DNV GL's recent acquisition of GreenPowerMonitor (GPM) saw the global independent consulting, project advisory, testing and certification firm acquire a solar asset management systems company with a global portfolio of some 5 GW.

In highly competitive solar markets such as the U.S., plant operators are increasing upfront operations and maintenance (O&M) spending in the development phase in order to improve plant reliability and optimize predictive maintenance strategies.

Asset data from GPM systems will allow DNV GL to build more precise pre-operations strategies, improving the modelling of energy production and operations costs, Raymond Hudson, DNV GL’s Global Solar Director, told PV Insider in an interview.

"Based on the equipment type and manufacture, specific commissioning tests can be identified as critical for a specific project topology. Specific alert and notification logic can also be identified by the pre-operations insight," Hudson said.

New findings will drive asset management innovations, Tor Blackstad, CEO of GreenPowerMonitor USA, said.

“Whether that comes in the form of better modules within our software or different design within the way that we implement projects and receive data and the types of data that we are most interested in, there’s definitely a lot of synergies in that sense,” he said.

Greater detail

Rapid expansion of solar capacity has led to sharp drops in system costs and increased competition in the O&M market.

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) has predicted the cost of U.S. utility scale solar will fall below $50/MWh by 2020 under an aggressive cost reduction scenario, forecasting balance of system innovations, optimized O&M strategies, as well as lower installation and module manufacturing costs.

Global weighted average utility-scale PV system costs 2009-2025

Source: IRENA analysis and Photon Consulting, 2016

Advances in balance of system (BoS) technology are increasing the volume, frequency and granularity of data feeds from plants, providing new opportunities for actionable insights to improve performance, Blackstad said.

"One specific example is getting real time sub-one second data at the string and inverter level to more accurately pinpoint a specific event or production degradation so operators know exactly what the issue is and what needs to be done to correct the issue instead of wasting time in the field diagnosing the issue," he said.

Large PV fleet operators are seeking more comprehensive performance metrics in Engineering Procurement Construction (EPC) and O&M contracts and this is requiring more sophisticated and more flexible asset management systems, Blackstad said.

"One specific example is to supplement and move beyond some of the historic measures such as Performance Ratio [PR]," he said.

Quantitative Key Performance Indicators (KPIs), such as the commonly used PR which measures the ratio between actual and theoretical output, are often insufficient to fully assess performance.

Actual plant conditions may be different from the reference conditions and this could affect performance comparisons for a single plant or between different plants, DNV GL noted in a recent White Paper on O&M practices.

"Temperature and irradiance corrections to the reference PR through trend analysis of historical data, for example, are ways through which data is effectively transformed into more meaningful metrics," it said.

SolarPower Europe recently recommended the introduction of more qualitative KPIs to more accurately assess the performance of O&M providers. In a report published in June, the industry group also proposed a basis for standardized PV performance indicators across the industry.

Weather risks

One area in which DNV GL and GPM are working together to drive O&M innovations is in soiling calculations and strategies.

Soiling can be a major driver of energy losses and while soiling estimations have improved significantly in recent years, Hudson and Blackstad see major opportunities going forward.

"The use of generalized historic performance data can be used by DNV GL to improve modelling of soiling losses on a regional basis to improve the accuracy of energy estimates," Hudson said.

To take one example, increased integration of monitoring and project planning could help improve performance in areas exposed to smoke from wildfires, he said.

Hot and dry conditions in California and the U.S. south west have increased the frequency of large-scale forest and bush fires and hampered the performance of PV plants, Vaisala, an environment consultancy, said September 12.

New solar irradiation maps published by Vaisala show below-normal solar resource in regions across California and the southwest this summer directly correlated with major wildfires in the region.

"One of the largest such areas surrounds the site of the Cedar Fire in Kern County, Southern California; a sizeable wildfire covering close to 30,000 acres. Kern County boasts an installed capacity of [4.9 GW] of solar power - and saw average irradiance fall by between 1 and 4% in different parts of the county in the month of June," Vaisala said.

A 1% drop in production in Kern County translates to $940,000 in lost solar revenues based on a $150/MWh power purchase price, the consultancy said.

Portfolio push

The recent consolidation of U.S. utility-scale solar portfolios has been a key source of work for DNV GL and GPM as operators seek advisers on M&A transactions and more centralized systems to optimize O&M spending.

According to Blackstad, asset management software can be expanded across fleets without removing hardware to allow operators to "grow and scale the portfolio without having to scale human resources."

Portfolio consolidation will continue in the U.S. and merger activity is also increasing in parts of Europe and Asia, providing further opportunities for such "software only takeovers," he said.

Going forward, increasing competition in maturing solar O&M markets will prompt further innovations in big data services and we will see more firms, like DNV GL, seek synergies between the different stages of a plant's lifespan.

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