MAY 10, 2021

O&M Strategy: Key Considerations When Selecting a Solar and Storage Partner

As our renewable energy partners are starting to bring gigawatts of solar power assets online every month, there’s a growing need for smart operations and maintenance. The old, low-tech approach of “set it and forget it” — and automatically rolling a truck whenever there’s a problem — have no place as we hit the accelerator on the clean energy transition. As the large-scale solar and energy storage industry matures, savvy developers and asset owners are realizing the value of a long-term, data-driven strategic approach to O&M that doesn’t sacrifice plant health for short-term gain.

At Borrego, delivering great O&M is more than just routine solar maintenance and keeping O&M costs low. Managing more than 1 gigawatt of assets at over 800 sites nationwide, we know what it takes to deliver smart, effective O&M services that add value and optimize ROI for developers and asset owners, and we understand what matters most to developers and asset owners looking for a solar and energy storage O&M partner. Here are some things to consider when vetting prospective providers.

There’s No Substitute for O&M Experience and Training

A firm with experience servicing a few dozen small solar plants will not have the same capabilities and knowledge as one that has operated and maintained hundreds of different systems, featuring a wide variety of components and layouts, in dozens of different states. But the size of the firm isn’t the only thing to consider. When vetting an O&M partner, look at the amount of preventive and corrective maintenance work that is performed by its own employees. What percentage of the field staff are electricians and solar technicians? Some larger companies may outsource much of their O&M work to less-qualified local contractors, resulting in uneven job performance and skill sets.

Borrego performs close to 100% of its preventive maintenance services using its own employees and completes more than 85% of all our corrective maintenance visits with internal staff. In our core regions, up to 95% of all corrective visits are performed by our company personnel. Most of our field staff are either master or journeyman electricians, and the remainder of our experienced technicians work under their direction.

With Experience Comes Insight

In the early days of solar operations, rolling trucks to job sites for every alert might have fixed a lot of minor problems. But this attitude of “switch it off, switch it back on” misses an important opportunity to get to the root cause of a problem — and correcting underlying issues. Experienced solar electricians and technicians can troubleshoot problems, help diagnose and correct underperformance issues, and alert asset owners and project teams to onsite engineering needs, aging equipment, and other repairs. 

Borrego takes a holistic approach to operating and maintaining solar & storage projects. We work closely with asset owners to prioritize long-term performance and plant ROI and — through our Special Projects team — provide custom engineering services and repair that go beyond routine maintenance.

Technology Is Not An Afterthought

O&M providers have an ever-increasing suite of technology solutions they can add to their toolkit. Monitoring and data analysis platforms have greatly improved, field management software and apps have become more commonplace, and operations centers have become more sophisticated. But just because the tools exist doesn’t mean every vendor knows how to use them effectively — or use them at all.

For example, the advent of aerial inspection services, either using drones or manned aircraft, have brought infrared thermography and optical RGB inspection technologies to the forefront. If an O&M provider is still relying on pricey and inefficient on-the-ground IV curve testing as their go-to inspection and monitoring practice, they have not taken advantage of what aerial techniques — and the machine-learning analytical tools behind them — have to offer.

Borrego collects large amounts of often-granular data from across our entire 1 GW O&M portfolio, from field-level sensors, boots-on-the-ground inspections, aerial imagery and analysis, and more. Our computerized maintenance management system (CMMS) is available via smartphone and tablet apps to our field personnel. From our perspective, the more data we have, the better we can act in a preventive and proactive manner to get ahead of potential system underperformance issues before they happen. 

Better data also enables us to be strategic about sending staff to a job site when the work to-do list warrants it, making a more cost-effective performance solution for our customers. For example, our system tracks all the pieces of equipment on all our sites for availability, reliability, and other key issues — our database includes more than 500 manufacturers of parts and supplies in all. This data is valuable enough that independent engineering companies often ask us for it to help them build out their performance modeling.

Safety: The Top Priority

Safety should not be just a priority; it should be the top priority. Lip service to safety is not only disingenuous, it can be dangerous. Only through a foundation of strong principles complimented by comprehensive training and adoption of utility-scale best practices do O&M providers meet the high bar of safety excellence. Field personnel should be certified or trained in electrical safety (NFPA 70E), OSHA 30, CPR/1st Aid, AED, qualified boom/scissor lift, competent person fall protection, and fire extinguisher use. Compliance should be tracked and certifications must be renewed on schedule. Safety is essential for its own reasons, but it is also an indicator of the quality of an organization and its staff.

Warranty Obligations Need Not Be Painful

Inverter and energy storage vendors and OEMs increasingly need their O&M partners to serve as their field staff to meet their warranty obligations. Technicians should be trained and certified by the vendors and OEMs served. Not all suppliers offer this training and partnership, and the pandemic has limited training opportunities. Borrego’s focus on the core capabilities of efficiently deploying and managing a skilled, in-house field staff with timely, high-quality reporting makes this business line a natural fit. Our O&M team completed 800 hours of training on various topics last quarter.

One Service Offering Size Does Not Fit All

When it comes to solar O&M programs, one size definitely does not fit all. Each plant has its own specific requirements, operating history, and financial model. Although they do share one thing in common: O&M budgets are usually tight. When considering an O&M provider, look at their different service options. Do they align to a broad variety of project needs, financial goals, and budget? A well-thought-out maintenance program, tailored to each owner’s particular requirements, is one of the best ways to ensure and optimize plant performance year-round.

At Borrego, we have three standard service packages: preventative, comprehensive, and performance. At a minimum, we recommend asset owners purchase a comprehensive maintenance service that includes annual preventive maintenance as well as corrective maintenance to ensure the plant is always running optimally to meet your financial goals. For more coverage, the performance package adds in vegetation management and array washing — and it’s the only package that provides an availability guarantee to ensure the highest availability of solar and energy storage assets.

What Really Matters in O&M

At the end of the day, solar and energy storage O&M boils down to fundamentals: 

  • Ensuring all the equipment is running safely and operating at maximum output.
  • Maintaining the asset’s value at the highest possible level for the entire lifecycle of the project.
  • Reporting in a timely, accurate and transparent way to the customer.

This brief summary is by no means an exhaustive hitlist of everything one should look for in a prospective O&M provider. If you want to take a deeper dive, contact Borrego’s O&M team today.

Greg Shambo

VP of Business Development, O&M

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