Troy Lauterbach, O&M Business Development Director at First Solar
First Solar both manufactures its modules and develops projects. Now considered as the largest O&M provider in the world in terms of megawatts under service, PV Insider speaks with Troy Lauterbach, O&M Business Development Director at First Solar, about this new side of the business.
Q: First Solar’s own technology is thin-film-based, yet as the largest solar O&M provider, many of your O&M customers must be silicon-based. How does that work?
A: As far as the actual performance and O&M services, we are module technology agnostic. Having an energy model in place that accurately models the expected energy output, no matter what the technology is; thin-film or crystalline, where the techniques matter more so in O&M is the field conversion equipment. So the inverters in particular are the real key point of focus. We are a thin-film-based company, but we provide O&M services on non-thin-film plants as well.
So as part of our business model and corporate strategy we are developing our O&M business as a technology agnostic and brand agnostic O&M provider. So we want to be seen as First Solar O&M, best in the world, but not necessarily providing services exclusively for First Solar plants.
We are providing third-party O&M to a number of different customers. Some of these are our customers on the thin-film side who have asked us, because of the performance our power plants deliver, and their overall satisfaction with our delivery of services - to also come and provide those same level of services on their silicon-based assets.
Q: Where do you focus your monitoring?
A: Our monitoring is effectively at the combiner box level. We monitor current transducers coming from the combiner box feeding into the inverter. For utility scale projects, we think this is the most cost effective way to monitor and detect issues.
We have come up with proprietary algorithms that allow us to monitor down to the string level, utilising the inverter current transducers, but without the cost and maintenance associated with string level monitoring.
It is a proprietary methodology, but I would say that generally speaking, our algorithms track data over extended periods of time and note deviation in performance. We can detect those issues at a very granular level with our engineering toolset, such that it nullifies the need for and cost of string level monitoring.
Q: What are your priorities for O&M?
A: Our prioritisation is always safety-related items first. We then prioritise work orders in terms of highest energy loss. Those would be noted as corrective maintenance type issues.
We also perform preventive and predictive maintenance work to minimise future corrective maintenance issues.
Preventative maintenance activities are performed based on a combination of O&M specifications and our own best practices which have been developed over time and based on our experience operating a fleet of over 3 GW of power plants.
The key for first solar is to focus on maximising the energy output of the power plant because that's ultimately what customers are being paid for and what will deliver the highest level of customer satisfaction. But we have a keen recognition in the difference between utility scale operations and maintenance versus commercial and residential, which are very different business models.
We've developed our platform and our solution to focus exclusively on the utility scale segment and by and large we've been very successful.