How does O&M add value to solar power plants? Let me count the ways.

Published in Solar Builder

Borrego rebranded this year and shifted its focus after implementing a host of organizational changes in 2020. Its three business units — development, EPC, and O&M — have already begun operating independently, drawing on each other’s strengths when needed. We asked them how they built up that O&M business unit specifically — how do you make O&M a value adder versus a problem center? Here is what Joe Thorpe, VP of O&M had to say.

In the not-so-distant early years of the solar boom in the U.S., there were many who believed solar power plants were essentially a “maintenance-free, set it and forget it” asset. Some occasional module cleaning and weeding here, some minor inverter checks there, would be all that was needed as long as the plant performance was maximized and kept performing at the contracted levels—and operating costs were minimized in a race to the bottom.

Such a laissez-faire approach took a toll on the equipment. The fruits of that negligence have created a niche business opportunity for companies like ours to refurbish those older projects and bring them back to industry standards. But it’s not the kind of work we would prefer to do. Thankfully, that approach has largely gone out of style as the solar industry has matured and most stakeholders have come to realize the value of a long-term strategic approach to operations and maintenance (O&M) that doesn’t sacrifice plant health for short-term gain.

At its core, O&M is about two things, one more obvious and the other less so.

The first role of O&M is to ensure that the equipment is operating at its highest possible potential and is running safely, all while staying within a reasonable budget. A comprehensive O&M program combines preventive, corrective and predictive best practices to minimize system downtime, maximize uptime, and optimize performance, and does so without incurring unnecessary truck rolls or increasing safety risks.

The other main purpose of O&M is not as widely appreciated — to maintain the asset’s value at the highest possible level. To accomplish that mission, a capable O&M team does the following:

  • Maintains the equipment in the condition it was designed to operate in.
  • Honors warranties in accordance with the manufacturer’s documentation.
  • Identifies and corrects the root causes of failures and other problems.
  • Analyzes production issues.
  • Makes repairs and replaces parts as needed.
  • Keeps all record-keeping thorough and up to date.

This approach applies to the owner who plans (for now) to keep the asset and wants to ensure they hit the power purchase agreement numbers as well as to the developer keen on flipping the asset within a few years of PTO.

If the time comes when the current asset owner decides to sell the plant, and it has been well-maintained, a third-party independent engineering firm auditor will evaluate the system’s health and confirm that it is in fantastic condition. If the maintenance of the plant has been neglected, that same auditor will write up a long punchlist of cracked cables, mismatched connectors, rusty combiner boxes, regularly overheating inverters with reduced lifetimes, degraded modules and other signs of O&M negligence that will push the sale value down into the bargain basement.

It’s not unlike buying a previously owned car: when the owner has diligently maintained the vehicle and kept a comprehensive record of all servicing and repairs, he or she will get a better selling price than someone who has done little more than change the oil once in a while, kept spotty records, and generally run the car into the ground.

It’s all well and good to claim to have a solid O&M program, but if you don’t have properly trained personnel, the customer will not be satisfied. I’m surprised that some of our competitors still roll trucks to jobsites for every alert or minor problem, with an underlying attitude of “if it’s switched off, then switch it back on,” rather than getting to the root cause and correcting the underlying issue.

A smart O&M team should need only one site visit, getting it right the first time and bringing the asset back online in a timely manner.

By creating what we call a “pending work order” document, work items that are not significant enough to require a truck roll in and of themselves are grouped together for the next time a truck roll is planned. For example, a blinking communication alert may be annoying, but it’s not enough to have someone roll out to the site for several hundred dollars a pop. Better to add that to the pending work. The next time the team arrives, they can work from a list of things that need to be corrected that have already been identified and can be combined into a single visit.

We are also automating our certificates of calibration and other processes to eliminate manual reporting. Pre-built checklists that include all the assets to be touched, what to do and where, and any relevant notes are programmed into a smartphone app that allows our technicians to easily auto-generate a report to the customer. Our customers also have access to a live view of their system via our network operations center. O&M is becoming even more digitalized with predictive capabilities based on modeling and simulation and an ever-growing trove of field performance data.

At the end of the day, O&M still comes down to keeping the customer satisfied. I’ve found that most customer frustrations with their provider stem from one or more of the following things:

  • Did you identify the problem right away?
  • Did you deploy your team correctly and minimize truck rolls?
  • Did you correct the problem the first time or let the customer know that it’s a bigger problem to fix?
  • Did you report properly?

While the best O&M providers tick all those boxes most of the time, we still have room for improvement.

Joe Thorpe has been with Borrego for four years and was recently promoted to senior VP of O&M for Borrego. He has more than 24 years of experience managing and directing distributed generation and utility-scale solar and wind operations, maintenance and services.