Centralized, smart O&M to boost PV operator profit: First Solar

Future PV Plant monitoring developments will focus on centralized monitoring and smarter systems using geo-tagging, robotics and drones, Stefan Degener, Managing Director and Head of Business Development Europe at First Solar, said.

Stefan Degener, Managing Director and Head of Business Development Europe. Image credit: First Solar GmbH

“A 1% increase in the performance of a system can translate into as much as a 10% increase in profit,” Degener said.

The global market for solar Operations and Maintenance (O&M) was valued at around 88 GW in 2014 and is expected to “almost triple by 2018,” mainly due to growth in China, the US and Japan, according to GTM Research.

Arup Barat, Vice President of Product Management and Marketing at Draker, a PV monitoring and asset management company, said the recent surge in PV performance monitoring and service activities will continue this year.

“In the industrial and utility markets, we are seeing a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of around 30-40% and more requests for active plant control,” Barat told PV Insider.

"We believe Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) implementations will be a key contributor to that growth, to match the growing need for more actively-managed PV power plants," he said.

First Solar acquired the SCADA-based PVGuard platform when it took over Skytron Energy. The software has a tool that gives plant operators a complete overview on their power plant’s performance at all times and from any location.

System Integration is key
“System integration is also crucial, as we’ve seen an increased volume of requests for our applications engineering services, which work with clients, to develop project requirements and create customized integrated solutions,” said Barat.

In the commercial market, Barat is witnessing a higher demand for portfolio-level asset management tools. The company is experiencing more demand for its Intelligent Array software platform, which was designed specifically with this in mind.

“As commercial clients have growing portfolios, there is a higher need and urgency to manage those assets efficiently. A reliance on accurate, precise, and reliable analytics becomes a necessity, at both a portfolio level and within an individual project,” he said.

There are also signs of technology partnering to garner monitoring integration. A recent example includes Solarrus Corporation, the parent company for both True South Renewables (TSR) and MaxGen Energy Services (MaxGen) in the US, and plant German monitoring company, Meteocontrol.

The companies are co-developing a new monitoring and reporting software platform that will coordinate all of Solarrus’ US field operations from a single operating center. These will include technical operations for solar, electric vehicle charging, and battery energy storage installations.

According to Bill Klein, co-founder and CEO of Solarrus, Meteocontrol’s platform will enable the US operations center to be “technology agnostic”. This will allow data for all field services provided by TSR and MaxGen to be captured and integrated with the ability to dispatch field technicians.

The operations center will allow TSR and MaxGen to take on service and maintenance contracts regardless of the type of equipment selected by our customers, according to Klein.

Market consolidation
Plant monitoring has developed from a simple add-on service to an essential revenue driver for plant owners, module makers and investors because monitoring improves power output and therefore profits for plant owners, according to Degener.

Barat said: “With tighter performance contracts and a diminishing incentive-based performance landscape, we are seeing an emphasis on maximizing kilowatt-hours by plant operators and O&M sector consolidation within the PV module manufacturing market.”

Consolidation is a necessary evolution of the industry, he said: “We’re seeing that those who are succeeding are those who placed more emphasis on reliability, durability, and sustainable sales and operational practices.”

Degener also said O&M consolidation is a natural evolution of the solar sector to create new revenue streams.

“With our acquisition of monitoring company, Skytron Energy, we are now able to provide state-of-the-art technology to third party customers. The technology allow us to scale our business and adapt to local and regional requirements,” he added.

Profit gains
Small increases in power production can result in a significant profit, according to Degener.

“With a project earning about $100 million a year, even a 1% or 2% improvement in availability can translate into $1 million extra proceeds a year,” he said.

Grid operators and energy trading companies can not only use performance monitoring to boost output, but to also plan for future plant investment.

“In regards to planning for future plant investments, monitoring provides a wealth of accumulated PV plant information. These insights can educate and improve site designs and lead to optimal plant configurations, while allowing site owners to make informed decisions for future investments,” Barat said.

There is a clear correlation between PV assets being considered as a longer-term investment and an increased focus on resources dedicated to O&M solutions, he said.

“Grid operators and PV plant owners are looking for an asset management solution that is reliable and has robust analytics. Despite margin pressures and increased competition, we see market players are willing to pay more for higher value software and hardware solutions to reduce risk from their operating assets and deliver higher lifetime value.”

By Katherine Steiner-Dicks