Maturing European solar market puts greater emphasis on O&M provision

Europe leads the world in solar operations and maintenance experience. So what should you look out for to get the best deal from a provider?

Luis Aragón, of the PV O&M provider Ingeteam Service, says customers should...

Europe’s slowing PV market growth may have an upside: as the sector matures, more emphasis is now being placed on operations and maintenance (O&M). And like PV itself, on this front Europe appears to be showing other markets the way.

“Bearing in mind that it was the European market that first developed solar PV energy, it is fair to say that Europe’s O&M service providers are equally or more competitive than service providers in the US or Asia,” states Ana Ferrero, head of consultancy at Solarpack in Spain.

This contradicts claims in 2010 by the US Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) that European O&M costs were between 50% and 100% more expensive than those in the US.

But it should be remembered that Europe’s solar industry has been much harder hit by recession in recent years. “Europe was the first to bet on solar PV and that has meant that the industrial fabric of the sector has developed in a very effective way,” says Ferrero.

“Due to the economic recession creating a clear reduction in investments for the sector, there has been a natural selection among providers.”

The upshot is European PV plant owners can now be assured of O&M service offerings that are not just competitive, but also highly experienced.

Upfront costs

Against this backdrop it can make a lot of sense to outsource O&M to a third-party provider, particularly in terms of reducing upfront costs and risk, since you do not have to recruit specialised personnel. But how do you go about choosing the very best provider?

“The keys to choosing a European solar plant O&M service provider are basically centred on the track record of the provider,” says Ferrero. “We are talking about a young technology in which years of experience are of fundamental importance.

“The strength and longevity of the provider is very important. Similarly, it is worth highlighting that to maximise the O&M service you can significantly improve the service through technical advice.”

Luis Selva, operations director for Ingeteam Service, says customers should look for ways in which their service suppliers can help maximise performance, guarantee optimisation, produce profits without risk and adapt realistically to changing requirements.

“These days it is fundamentally important for maintenance providers to show they are capable of adapting, given the continuous legal changes we are seeing in the sector across Europe,” he says.

“A full-service provider will offer a range of service modules to cover client requirements, such as installation operations, preventive and corrective maintenance, spare parts, and a production guarantee based on an availability assurance that reduces the risk of investment.”

O&M experience

It also helps if the service provider has experience in the development of technologies used in PV plants, says Selva. Ingeteam, for example, not only has 15 years of O&M experience but is also an inverter manufacturer.

An understanding of inverter mechanics is a big selling point because inverters can account for up to half of PV plant lifecycle maintenance costs, according to SunPower.

“Being able to provide specialist support for this vital component means we can correct any deviation before it becomes a major, costly fault, and thus optimise the productive lifespan of the plant,” Selva comments.

Ferrero confirms this point. “The offer from a good provider will take into account the amount of experience it has with each of the technologies involved, such as modules, inverters or trackers.

“It is also important that the plant operator should have construction experience, since that will give them a global view of the elements that make up a solar PV installation and could help in providing a view of how it was initially designed and what changes could improve its efficiency.”

How much should such services cost? Pricing will depend on the time the provider has been operating in the market and the volume of plants it is able to service.

Geographical coverage

Bear in mind that a provider with good geographical coverage will be able to attend to faults more quickly than one that only handles a few projects in the region.

Also, Ferrero says: “Regarding price, you need to consider the extent of the services being offered. There can be significant differences depending on whether or not you include corrective maintenance, reporting or manufacturer claims.

“As for risk reduction, the provider must provide a performance guarantee that will at least allow the plant to meet its original forecast return on investment.”

In any case, the aim should not necessarily be to cut O&M costs to the core, but rather to seek a service that will help maximise plant output through higher availability and longer equipment lifespan.

Says Selva: “You can save by choosing a good maintenance company, which need not be the most economical, that guarantees production income and minimises losses from the first day.”