The solar industry is constantly evolving and, as it has matured, operations and maintenance (O&M) as a service offering has evolved along with it. O&M has grown from a simple service offered by engineering, procurement, and construction (EPC) companies for systems they built, to a dedicated market segment comprised of independent service providers and robust branches of solar contracting companies. The maturation of the solar industry has also led to increased O&M specialization to address more complex demands of both the market and the grid.A solar contracting company evaluating where O&M fits in relation to its services has a number of factors to consider, particularly regarding whether to offer O&M in-house or outsource it. Regardless of whether solar contractors engage directly in O&M, it has emerged as an important solar market segment to understand–particularly given the long lifespan of a solar system and the ongoing need ensure it captures as much power as possible.
In this article, we explore what solar O&M involves, considerations for solar contractors regarding offering O&M services or working with other companies specializing in this space, and some criteria to for evaluating potential solar O&M partners.
What Is Solar O&M?
Broadly speaking, O&M is a set of activities that allow a solar PV power plant to optimally produce energy. It includes three basic functions: rapid problem identification and resolution, minimization of downtime due to faults, and comprehensive reporting and transparency.
There are several different approaches to solar O&M. One is preventative maintenance or the routine inspection and servicing of equipment to avoid breakdowns and needless production losses. Another is corrective maintenance which focuses on repairs after a breakdown occurs to minimize unplanned downtime. Still another is condition-based maintenance, the use of real-time data to predict breakdowns and prioritize activities and resources, something offered by an increasing number of third party integrators and turnkey providers.
Each of these approaches employs some or all of a number of services like performance monitoring and diagnostics, energy forecasting, warranty administration, and preventative maintenance including module cleaning and vegetation control. It can also involve integration with a third party for system commissioning, Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) upgrades, parts replacement, and re-roofing support.
Maintenance includes both scheduled and unscheduled elements. While scheduled services are outlined by equipment manufacturers’ product manuals, unscheduled maintenance involves fixing problems once they occur. Consistent scheduled maintenance lowers the frequency and cost of unscheduled work, ideally achieving a system that operates properly at “99.9% availability” due to constant monitoring and clear recovery systems.
Risk management, another aspect of O&M services offered by some industry players, is the ability to identify what can go wrong and predict probability and consequences. It enables PV owners or asset managers to effectively plan for unscheduled maintenance and mitigate issues. Risk management is emerging as a distinct field, with a number of companies offering software and services to "insure" solar production.
Considerations for Including Solar O&M In-House
There are a number of factors to keep in mind when assessing the feasibility of adding solar O&M services to your contracting business or expanding your current offerings.
Some benefits for solar companies that offer O&M services in-house include the ability to be your customer’s key point of contract from initial design and construction to maintenance over the long-term. This may mean lower costs for asset owners and greater value from each customer (increased customer lifetime value) due to the ability to maintain a relationship with customers for the 25+ year lifespan of their systems. This allows for more payments over time, as well as more opportunities for referrals or subsequent jobs.
There are also some important challenges to consider, however. Chief among these is whether your company has the necessary expertise and workforce, and whether you can support these additional services without compromising your current design and installation commitments.
To effectively provide solar O&M services, a company needs to be able to address three areas of functionality: core systems, supporting systems, and management, according to Laks Sampath, country manager of U.S. & Latin America for global solar O&M firm Alectris. Core systems include data monitoring systems and the data analysis capabilities to interpret results and identify problems. Appropriately skilled field personnel and strong engineering capabilities are also key.
Supporting systems include protocols for efficiently running O&M operations, such as Quality Assurance systems, development of a comprehensive knowledge-base to assist with diagnosis of similar issues, and field tracking and measurement. Management entails having proper technical knowledge as well as the ability to oversee maintenance activities, in-house and subcontractor personnel, and inventory.
Your company also needs to be able to provide a comprehensive, precise assessment of the potential profitability of a system and the O&M risks and costs. This allows you to price and schedule your services in a way that is both accurate and in line with the asset owner’s risk tolerance. However, this process can be complex and may require robust software as well as a sophisticated approach to plant operational health, particularly if your company has a large number of smaller systems or larger commercial solar plants.
Considerations for Outsourcing Solar O&M
Working with an external company specialized in solar O&M to manage O&M needs for the PV systems your company installs can have some particular advantages. For one, it can allow your solar installation company to maintain focus on its core services.
Offering O&M in-house may require you to dedicate resources to activities that are not the core of your company’s focus. This may mean focusing on “attempting to fulfill commitments made by a sales team years earlier.” Outsourcing to a contractor specializing in O&M means PV system owners have a company that is completely focused on those services and that can provide guarantees regarding system availability and response times.
The types of solar projects your company works on are another consideration, as O&M needs differ between smaller residential and commercial systems and large-scale commercial and industrial plants. Large-scale solar plants have particular needs that are sometimes most effectively managed by a dedicated O&M contractor. The paperwork can be extensive, complicated and varied and every site requires adequate staffing. An O&M specialist can be better equipped to manage multiple long-term contracts with layers of guarantees.
Additionally, making accurate predictions to plan for future O&M requirements can be challenging. This requires strategic evaluation of complex systems to know how to predict performance issues and budget for expected costs. A dedicated operations company may be better equipped in this respect.
The Contractor Relationship with an O&M Company
For contracting companies interested in working with outside O&M partners, there are a variety of ways these relationships may be structured. An O&M provider can be a subcontractor to a solar contracting company, receive referrals from the contractor, or in some cases a third party can facilitate the relationship.
The relationship between a contractor and an O&M company is sometimes administered by an asset management company. For residential systems, the contractor can have a channel partnership with the asset management company who monitors the system. The asset management company brings in a third party subcontractor to fix issues the contractor cannot handle. For commercial projects, the asset management company partners with the O&M contractor to execute services and, on a per project basis, creates O&M contracts or works with the EPC or warranty provider to structure O&M services.
What to Look for in an O&M Partner
If you’re considering developing a relationship with an O&M partner, there are a variety of factors to evaluate in potential partners. Solar Power World writes, “outsourcing solar O&M is not just about technology and techniques, it’s about partnering with someone having an international perspective of the best practices in plant inspection procedures, quality assessment plans and checklists for maintenance.” An effective O&M company does not simply provide preventive maintenance services. They must be able to fully monitor and analyze the performance of a system and work to ensure it is performing optimally.
The company should be able to follow plant inspection procedures and execute quality assurance plans. They should provide real-time monitoring, data analysis, and reporting for expedited fault handling and optimal use of resources. This should include periodic and preventive maintenance checks with IV curve analysis and thermographic imaging.
Certifications of company staff can also be a helpful indicator of competence. The North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners (NABCEP) now offers an O&M certification, as does Solar Energy International. The team should also be fully-bonded and have clean safety records.
Given the financial challenges inherent in solar PV O&M, such as budgeting for project performance and service needs far in advance, it is important to look for an approach to O&M that suits particular needs and abilities of your company, including what makes the most sense financially.
For all systems, one of the most crucial factors in ensuring the successful operation of the PV system over the long term is a solar contractor's ability to deliver excellence in solar design and installation. Beyond that, whether you choose to manage O&M in-house, work with a contractor, or refer your customers to an O&M specialist, consider what will best allow you to ensure optimal solar production and a good experience for your customers.