Article - Greenbyte

May 12, 2020 — Industry Trends

Optimizing existing solar assets is crucial in the time of COVID-19

Digitalization has revolutionized O&M practices in the U.S. renewable energy sector, leading to the development of specialized asset management platforms capable of harnessing large volumes of complex performance monitoring data. Although renewable industries such as wind have embraced digitalization, solar has been slower to adopt more advanced asset management approaches.

Guillaume Mazade
Sales Director, North America, Greenbyte

As new technologies have rapidly evolved, so too has the wind industry, with project owners recognizing the benefits — and reaping the rewards — of sophisticated asset management platforms. Wind portfolio owners have integrated the software in multiple ways to maximize asset productivity and returns, from installing advanced hardware onsite to developing new communication protocols.

The same cannot be said for the solar sector. Though numerous data collection methods are available to the market, the industry has not yet reached a point where versatile asset management systems capable of adding real value to project owners are used as standard. Data management remains a persistent frustration for everyone from O&M crews to portfolio owners, but the solar industry still largely relies on in-house or bespoke systems that limit rather than allow opportunities for growth.

Spanish installation company Forestalia uses the Greenbyte system

ITC expiration, COVID-19 and the push for performance optimization

Supported by the Investment Tax Credit (ITC), many solar project owners’ strategies have focused on driving revenue through the development or acquisition of new solar plants, rather than by optimizing existing assets through O&M activities.

But with the ITC now steadily decreasing from 30% to zero over the next three years for the residential market and 10% for commercial, investors in the solar market are increasingly looking for operational projects that offer the highest returns. Project owners now need to increase their understanding of the factors that determine whether solar projects meet their projected outputs and expected performance parameters.

To compound this, the market slowdown caused by COVID-19 is limiting investment opportunities, with solar developers now facing difficulty constructing new solar projects in some states. The pandemic has triggered a greater need for sophisticated asset management software that can allow project owners to reduce business exposure to supply chain disruption and monitor asset performance remotely.

It’s more important than ever for solar project owners to focus on maximizing revenue by optimizing asset productivity through asset management software. Though wind and solar are not always directly comparable — and wind is by no means a perfect example of how to effectively utilize data — the solar industry should take note of the multiple benefits sophisticated asset management software has brought to wind.

The benefits of standardizing data

Harnessing accurate and complete data sets is fundamental to ensuring high-quality O&M activities, enabling crews to forecast future issues, identify marginal gains and provide transparency between project owners and O&M crews. But the multitude of original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) providing non-comparable software has left the solar industry struggling to create a singular, comprehensive data set — preventing project owners from performing more complex data analysis.

The problem has come about in part due to the abundant and varying solar industry standards on data in the market, which have actually exacerbated the problem they were designed to solve. Until the solar sector can agree on a singular industry standard on data, solar project owners will continue to fall behind wind.

Fortunately, technology-agnostic platforms that can tackle this problem are already available on the market. Capable of pulling data from any OEM or other software platform, these tools can digest data in multiple formats and convert it into a comparable data set. In this way, project owners can identify issues within individual solar assets and across large or technologically diverse portfolios.

Reducing exposure to supply chain volatility

The solar supply chain has become increasingly global over the last two decades with components such as solar modules produced overseas in countries like China. In the wake of COVID-19, however, many factories producing components vital to solar PV panels closed, increasing the risk of asset downtime and reduced internal rate of return (IRR) should mechanical issues arise on existing projects.

Greenbyte’s solar monitoring portfolio

With the coronavirus set to impact the global supply chain for the foreseeable future, U.S. solar project owners should prioritize reducing exposure to this risk at all costs in order to protect profitability and maintain investor appetite. By continuously monitoring solar PV performance using sophisticated asset management software, project owners can identify and even predict when issues will occur, avoiding more serious damage to assets.

Project owners using advanced asset management platforms can work with O&M operators to repair assets onsite when the problem is minor, reducing the need for replacement parts. By using preventative maintenance approaches in this way, project owners can optimize solar PV productivity while also reducing their reliance on global supply chains.

Remote performance monitoring

The implementation of government health and safety regulations designed to minimize the spread of the coronavirus, such as social distancing, has impacted the ability of O&M operators to make consistent onsite checks and repairs. Though deemed as “essential workers” by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, O&M operators are now in higher demand across the industry, limiting their onsite availability.

Solar project owners are often detached from the O&M process, relying on operator reporting to understand the performance of their assets. Without boots on the ground to access this information, weeks could pass between the occurrence and identification of an operational fault. COVID-19 is forcing project owners to take a reactive approach to maintenance, potentially leading to avoidable financial losses.

Project owners who have integrated sophisticated asset management platforms can mitigate these risks by monitoring assets remotely and in real time. With direct, automatic reporting systems, these platforms can minimize the time gap between issue occurrence and identification and predict when asset problems will occur.

With the ITC ending and COVID-19 causing global business interruption, the U.S. solar PV landscape is evolving once again, and project owners urgently need to evolve with it — or risk becoming uncompetitive in the market. By prioritizing solar project optimization through sophisticated asset management platforms, as the wind sector has done, solar project owners can better position themselves to deal with the new challenges facing the market, while also solving their persistent data management problems.

Article first published in Solar Power World, May 2020.

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