Boost solar site performance by at least 3 percent with O&M basics

SMA O&M services

Photo of SMA O&M services,

In a post-Trump Tariff world, optimizing current portfolios is crucial, not just for each project to hit its targets, but to continue to prove solar as a worthy investment and distributed resource. Luckily, this is easy to accomplish with a well-thought out operations and maintenance (O&M) plan.

With more than a decade of hardcore O&M industry experience, there is a greater reservoir of institutional knowledge both out in the field and in plant operation management. For example, MaxGen is a U.S.-centric O&M provider focused on utility and C&I sites that manages a large team of licensed, professional technicians throughout the country, hitting about 5,000 different sites a year for corrective (CM) and preventive maintenance (PM). As part of its business model, the company will take over portfolios of assets to monitor — some of which are underperforming. According to Mark McLanahan, CEO of MaxGen, assets are usually underperforming because of one or more of these reasons:

The site is not in good physical condition because of poor vegetation management or erosion or general site management. Consider this a reminder to keep O&M in mind when designing a project because it is often the largest expense over the life of the project. “Handling stuff like vegetation management and module washing can be the biggest expense by far if you’re not careful,” McLanahan says.

Poor PM records, which often means PM hasn’t been done. “That’s a problem because you have to perform PM to maintain warranties of inverters, combiners and modules,” McLanahan says. “We have seen many cases where service to date is either not verified or there’s no record.”

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This is where PowerFactors comes in handy. PowerFactors is an energy operations management software platform that MaxGen has been using since 2016 to integrate all the monitoring, alarm management, work order creation and management, dispatch and reporting for all the operations, and preventive and corrective maintenance tasks in its scope of work with its customers. Also, contract requirements can be programmed into the system. For example, Power Purchase Agreements in California often require instant notification of large drops in capacity and failure to do this will incur penalties. Auto-notifications can be routed to the right places in those events with the right rules plugged into the software. This enables fewer operators to manage more projects with greater complexity.

The site data acquisition system simply hasn’t been mapped properly, which undermines the data quality of the entire project and leads to maintenance misdirection. There’s an outage on inverter A; a dispatched technician heads to inverter B because it’s mapped as inverter A. The issue isn’t discovered, and so on. McLanahan estimates that MaxGen encounters this in 20 to 30 percent of the underperforming sites it takes over.

“It’s a data quality issue,” he says. “With solar, you have to study performance at the low level, not just the revenue meter, to make decisions on performance. You have to look at inverters or combiners or at the main circuit. If the mapping is no good, you’re wasting time.”

Once the site is remapped and the PM is up to date, annual maintenance and CM plans are put in place to build it back to baseline performance using better data. From there, more advanced decisions can be made. Data can be studied for factors such as ground coverage ratios, tracker angles, performance anomalies at the combiner level and similarity-based modeling to help identify additional opportunities. MaxGen has boosted a number of utility-scale projects 2 to 5 percent on the performance side using this systematic process.

“With consistency, you’ll see 1 to 3 percent improvement right off the bat just with low-hanging fruit,” McLanahan says. “Compare the combiners on a relative basis on performance and just look at last month. That sets the corrective maintenance for the next week. Once you have accomplished all the PM tasks, have good data access and capture the low hanging fruit, you can move up the lost energy priority list and tackle the things that are above the baseline to increase production and revenue even further.”

The true bottom line in PV system performance, from initial projections to 30 years in the future, is customer service. People need to make the correct assumptions, perform all O&M tasks correctly and use data analysis to their advantage while being as proactive as possible. As more data is gathered and algorithms are perfected, “trend events” will be the next frontier for improving performance.

“These don’t show up as a discrete one-time energy loss but as small events that happen continuously over time, and if you don’t look for them you won’t see them,” McLanahan says. So, maybe one inverter is coming on and offline in mere seconds. “If you look at the curve, you won’t see it, but if you look at the trend, there’s something wrong with that inverter, and it will likely break down at some point.”

That curve is a nice visual to end on. Just plan to stay ahead of it.

— Solar Builder magazine

Expand the growth of community solar with factory-direct systems

community solar

Hands Show Light Bulb Ideas Together Partnership

As of Q1 in 2018, there have been 1,023 MW of community solar projects installed across 26 of the 50 U.S. states, with another 3 GW of expansion projected over the coming years. One of the ways this gets easier is by helping Community Solar projects get off the ground faster, with simple installs and the best rate on factory-direct, BoS systems.

Supporting over 8 GW of utility-scale solar, OMCO is a leading, factory-direct mounting systems manufacturer across the U.S. Being a one-source, cost-effective OEM partner, OMCO Solar is changing the speed and cost of construction for community solar, empowering projects from 500 kW to 2,000 kW or more, with its Field-Fast system. Here’s how.

Simple assembly with fewer components

Most solar mounting structures arrive on-site with hundreds of parts to assemble, sometimes more, depending upon the size of the project. But OMCO Solar has taken this paradigm and solved the problem of time-intensive delivery, staging and set up by pre-assembling all the components for their Field-Fast racking system at the factory. What arrives on site is seven pre-assembled components per rack. No other BoS manufacturer can claim that.

It then takes a team of only two installers to assemble seven Field-Fast racks per hour – that’s nearly one completed mounting system assembled every nine minutes. What’s better is that there is no need for any heavy-lifting equipment and there is zero overhead lifting for the installation team. All assembly happens from the ground-level, including panel installation. The required tools have been consolidated too, so there is minimal gear required to aid construction.

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Every Field-Fast rack comes with set-up training from OMCO Solar engineering and construction leads at one of their national manufacturing facilities. Can’t make it to the factory? That’s OK. OMCO Solar staff will talk you through via video chat to answer any questions and make sure your team understands everything they need to know to execute a surefire, correct install that will pass inspection. OMCO Solar customer service support is also available to customers during the entire lifetime of the system.

Factory-direct costs community solar projects less

Factory-direct, Field-Fast mounting systems reduce in every area that typically inflates racking costs. From reducing on-site labor size, cutting build-time and radically simplifying ease of installation, OMCO Solar costs community solar projects markedly less at every stage of construction. Plus, the Field-Fast mounting system is ISO-certified as a quality product. Fabricated from high-quality U.S. steel, Field-Fast is always at the ready for builds of any size, distributed straight to the project from OMCO’s closest factory for optimized logistics.

OMCO solar community project

Field-Fast is also fully NEC-compliant, UL 2701 ed. 1 certified, wind-tunnel tested and able to withstand a snow load of up to 90 PSF and winds of 180 mph. Plus, Field-Fast is compatible with any framed solar module, including First Solar Series 6 panels.

What about undulating terrain?

Field-Fast has the adjustability an in-field team will need, right out-of-the-box. Complete with pre-stamped slots allowing connections to adjust to changes in grade, without any extra parts or cutting of the rack, Field-Fast is fully adjustable for construction requiring elevation changes.

In summation

• 35% faster builds than average
• Lowest labor cost per watt in the industry
• Featuring OEM-direct material buys and total turnkey installation packages
• OMCO in-house design & engineering team to assist communitysolar projects

The solar engineering and fabrication experts at OMCO have leveraged over 8 GW of utility-scale experience and 60 years of custom roll-form manufacturing skills to develop Field-Fast. With a proven capacity to deliver for projects of any size, OMCO’s dedicated team knows each project front-to-back and provides technical knowledge that can’t be matched throughout construction, beginning on day one.

Get a higher-quality mounting system for less money for your next community solar project, no matter the program structure via on-bill crediting, utility-sponsored, special purpose entity (SPE) model, or the non-profit, buy a brick model.

Join OMCO Solar at Community Solar Power Summit 2018 in Minneapolis, July 18-19 at the Radisson Blu Downtown. Can’t attend the show? Visit OMCOsolar.com to schedule a call with an OMCO Community Solar Specialist today to learn more.

Jen Degtjarewsky is a guest editor for OMCO Solar.

— Solar Builder magazine

Why mass customized solutions win in utility-scale solar

SunLink Tracker

SunLink started designing solar mounting systems in 2004 when the concept of commercial rooftop solar was novel. The first systems were custom designed for the particular application, because everything was new. Needless to say, these first arrays were inordinately expensive by today’s standards, but the success of those installations helped pave the way for a booming distributed energy economy.

Solar, however, is relentlessly cost competitive. Smaller installations can’t absorb the soft cost of custom engineering. At the same time, no two solar projects are the same, which on the surface mandates custom engineering. Mass customization can make customization at scale cost-effective.

What is mass customization?

Legos are a great way to describe mass customization. The Legos are standard, but you can configure the blocks to build whatever you want. Here are a few examples of this approach in working in utility solar:

Take a single-axis tracker. The tracker needs to be engineered for a wide range of environmental conditions and any row length (since string length varies by project and space constraints require partial rows). This could lead to countless combinations of torque tube lengths and thicknesses. In a mass customized solution, a half dozen or so standard torque tubes are configured to meet the unique needs of the project. Limiting the number of parts greatly increases supply chain and engineering efficiency.

Similarly, the number of foundations can be increased to increase load capacity without designing a new part. Cleverly designed module mounting hardware accommodates the most common PV modules with no changes. With TechTrack’s dynamic stabilization feature, SunLink brings an important new tool for efficiently configuring resistance to wind loads. The unique nature of solar sites is designed into products so that manufacturers can respond to opportunities quickly, cost-effectively, and with a fully-vetted solution.

SunLink

Innovative manufacturers are moving beyond traditional racking and into software and services. In doing so the focus shifts from catering to the unique needs of the project to the unique needs of the customer, yet the benefits of mass customization remain.

As an example, SunLink recently launched product packages to complement the mounting systems. What differentiates the product packages is that they integrate hardware, software and services to serve a customer’s specific needs. The TechTrack Standard Package, Cold Weather Package, and Pro Package allow us to standardize solutions for common needs while giving the customer choice in what to pay for.

The product packages are analogous to the options available when buying a car. Paint color, drivetrain, and interior options cater to different customers, but all are built from the base model car.

Mass customization also guides the development of software. Different modules are implemented depending on whether the user is an O&M provider, an EPC or a developer. The best systems are highly flexible with provisions to connect to a wide variety of data monitoring systems, device types, SCADA implementations, etc., because inverters, trackers, storage systems and other intelligent hardware are constantly changing, as are the requirements of the utility and the ISO.

Modern communication protocols are critical to strong yet flexible systems. Modbus, developed in the late ’70s and early ’80s, is still the most common protocol for energy devices and SCADA systems. It should be no surprise, however, that a 30-year-old protocol isn’t up to the task of two-way communication between thousands of modern intelligent devices and numerous software services. Worse still, many software packages have limited ability to communicate with other applications. If you want to look at the performance of a solar portfolio but have several data monitoring systems, you may be forced to print reports from each system and manually input the data into a spreadsheet. This is a failure of technology.

In tech, RESTful APIs enable efficient, flexible communication between devices and services, allowing developers to build applications that leverage other applications. At SunLink, we’ve incorporated this approach by developing VERTEX for remote tracker performance monitoring and O&M benefits to provide bankable data that will unlock new value in the energy industry. An additional value in using a RESTful API enables Vertex as a standalone application, as well as simple integration with other products and services (thereby reducing software product bloat).

Mass customized solutions win in utility solar because they drive down cost while accommodating the needs of the project and customer. The next time you are looking at the design of a solar plant, or anything else for that matter, consider what’s led the products to be standardized, customized or mass-customized.

— Solar Builder magazine

The role of system design, labor in reducing utility-scale solar costs in 2018

According to the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL)’s U.S. Solar Photovoltaic System Cost Benchmark Q1 2017 report, the installed cost of solar fell to record lows last year due to the continuing decline in PV module and inverter prices, higher module efficiency, and lower labor costs. Utility-scale solar system cost alone grabbed headlines as costs fell nearly 30 percent last year. Thanks to the Trump Administration, however, we may see the first cost increase after a nearly seven-year decline in the installed cost of solar due to the new import tariffs placed on solar (30%) and steel (25%) earlier this year.

Price-squeezing is nothing new in the solar industry, but the tariffs are putting additional pressure not only on module pricing but structural costs as well. And with field labor costs also on the rise, especially in states with union labor mandates, there is little to no room for margin growth.

To meet customers’ ongoing efforts to reduce solar project costs, SunLink, a utility-scale solar mounting system and tracker company, is applying innovative engineering design and technology to shift the industry mindset from lowest cost, commodity components to value-add, smart tracker designs that deliver more intelligent energy.

Lessons from tech industry: Engineering efficiency

SunLink President & CEO Michael Maulick saw this opportunity when he took over the helm four years ago. As a long-time technology executive, Maulick was surprised to find the solar industry so fixated on “pounds of steel” as opposed to looking at design innovation as a means to create a better product.

“When we set out to enter the tracker market three years ago, we knew we had to create a more effective product that would not only generate optimal energy production but also be cost-efficient,” said Maulick. “By rethinking a traditional damper and innovating to create the dynamic stabilizer design, we managed to reduce steel in the system by 17 percent, which with today’s steel tariffs, are a huge cost savings to our customers.”

SunLink

Every component in SunLink’s single-axis tracker TechTrack is designed to eliminate inefficiencies and optimize energy production. And when you’re operating in a tariff heavy business environment, shaving time off of hardware and soft costs like installation can contribute towards reducing your overall project costs. In less than two years, SunLink has installed more than 300 MW of trackers with customers responding positively to the company’s dynamic design approach for increased responsiveness in various environmental conditions, improving durability and reliability in the field. That approach has increased SunLink’s project range, from projects with higher wind conditions to projects with higher snow loads without increasing the steel requirement.

SunLink’s latest tracker enhancements are aimed at reducing field labor and installation costs.

“We improved our pivot design to provide enough room in the stabilizer stroke so that the system no longer needs to be rotated to complete installation. Instead, the stabilizer mount position can be set from a measurement, saving substantial installation time,” said Kate Trono, senior vice president of product. “The pivot and bearing arrive onsite pre-assembled, enabling immediate installation, saving valuable time in avoiding additional assembly of multiple parts in the field.”

An additional design benefit of the improved pivot is the drop-in torque tubes feature, which eliminates the requirement for specialized jack equipment or a larger crew to hold the tubes in place. According to Trono, with improved durability of the pivot and bearing, the tracker components can also better withstand the rigors of construction crew handling on a project site.

Another key reduction in installation time came from revisiting the slew arm design. A more streamlined design has eliminated the need for multiple or expensive custom tools and install kits that can sometimes add another $10,000 to a project. The redesigned slew arm can be installed with standard tools, reducing the number of components, labor time and additional expenses.

Feature enhancements like these may seem like small improvements, but the payoff is big when you consider the reduction in labor, installation time and overall solar project costs.

— Solar Builder magazine

Pre-assembled mounting structures speed site installation by 35 percent

OMCO Solar site installation

By choosing a mounting structure with a nationwide manufacturing footprint, fuel costs and shipping are greatly reduced when product originates from the most strategic geographic location.

Delivery is everything in solar development. Delivery on-time or even ahead of schedule signals reliability to investors and paves the way for more builds, especially those needed at an accelerated pace due to impending, seasonal weather conditions or site takeovers when the original racking partner could not deliver the job. The sooner the plant comes online, the quicker investors recoup capital and the power of solar proves positive revenue.

The proof is in the numbers as a recent time study shows construction using pre-assembled components, such as factory-direct Field-Fast by OMCO Solar, saves both time and money while still leveraging a bankable, high-quality racking system.

How to reduce every area of typical racking costs

Manufacturing: In the current age of high-velocity, precision manufacturing, selecting a mounting structure that’s OEM-direct saves significantly, but don’t just look for a brand with a manufacturing line, look for one with deep experience, solar know-how and proven bankability.

OMCO Solar is part of OMCO Roll-Form, a 60-year industry leader with coast to coast locations. Also, OMCO Solar is now the largest manufacturer of utility-scale solar mounting structures in the United States. With in-house design and engineering teams, OMCO can quickly solve any site-based requirements right on the factory floor to provide build customization whenever needed. Plus, a partner that runs their own factories significantly reduces lead-time for projects that need to get off the ground fast.

Materials: The current state of the industry has largely been negatively impacted by the tariffs, making solar projects cost more. That’s why it’s vital to select an OEM mounting partner with stable materials-sourcing relationships, ideally using steel that’s sourced nationally.

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OMCO Solar has been exclusively using U.S. steel for over 60 years and has priority supply relationships in place. With the highest materials handling and stocking standards in the industry, OMCO is a partner who can be relied upon for mounting structures for any size project large or small, no matter what the tariffs bring.

Mounting structure flexibility: There is nothing that slows the rate of install more than having to make cuts to adjust racking in the field. When racking doesn’t have the ability to account for undulating terrain, get ready for a long and laborious build schedule.

OMCO Solar has built all the adjustability an in-field team will ever need, right into their Field-Fast mounting structure. With pre-stamped slots allowing for connections at any grade, without any extra parts or cutting of the rack, sites can be erected at a rate of seven structures per hour (10 panels and 300 Watts between two posts), by a team of two installers.

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Logistics and freight: Freight costs add up quickly. By choosing a mounting structure with a nationwide manufacturing footprint, fuel costs and shipping are greatly reduced when product originates from the most strategic geographic location.

OMCO Solar has manufacturing facilities from coast to coast, each with the latest equipment and full capabilities to output as many Field-Fast mounting structures as required. Plus, all locations can customize if needed, with high-velocity, precision manufacturing techniques guided by on-site solar design and engineering expertise.

Unloading and staging: Site unloading and staging time can tie-up manpower and eat valuable time from the construction schedule when parts go missing or racking components need to be assembled in the field for staging.

OMCO Solar

By choosing a mounting structure consisting of pre-assembled components, there is no need to waste excessive manpower on part staging. Each Field-Fast mounting structure is comprised of only seven bill of materials items, with zero pre-assembly required in the field. No other BoS product can claim that. Plus, all hardware comes to the site marked, presorted and associated with each racking setup. Also, most of the hardware is pre-threaded for simple tool consolidation and ease of construction.

Labor and safety: Team size and safety during construction factor large in final project cost. That’s why mounting systems that allow smaller in-field teams without overhead lifting or the use of heavy-lifting equipment give solar developers a cost-saving edge.

OMCO Solar racking assembly

The Field-Fast mounting system can be constructed 100% from ground-level for increased site safety. Construction requires no overhead-lifting or heavy equipment and only two installers are required for complete assembly. Time studies in 2018 rank Field-Fast with a labor efficiency of 85 percent.

Modules: Module changes happen. Sometimes they even happen late in construction. Many mounting structures have panel-specific requirements, making module changes a potentially risky and costly endeavor.

OMCO’s Field-Fast mounting system is compatible with any framed module. Plus, as an official First Solar Ecosystem partner, the Field-Fast mounting system is compatible with Series 6 modules. With Field-Fast, module compatibility presents zero financial risks for solar investors. Best of all, when it comes to pure module installation, two installers can ready 300,000 watts per hour via 100 panels.

Pre-assembly: The time pre-assembly saves on build schedules is exponential and echoes throughout the cost of an entire project. Pre-assembly saves money on transport and logistics, staging and, of course, final in-field construction. It even aids permitting as pre-assembly ensures proper racking builds.

OMCO Solar’s ISO-certified, Field-Fast mounting structure is entirely built from seven, pre-assembled components, expertly fitted and packaged in an OMCO factory and ready for projects nationwide from 500 kW builds to multi-MW projects.

Get ready to build

OMCO Solar continues to help developers attack the tariffs through their high bankability, with the factory-direct Field-Fast mounting system and years of worldwide solar construction expertise. To date, OMCO Solar has leveraged over 8 GW of utility-scale experience and 60 years of custom roll-form manufacturing skills to develop the best solar racking structure on the market.

Learn more about OMCO Solar and their factory-direct Field-Fast mounting system here.

Jen Degtjarewsky is a guest editor for OMCO Solar.

— Solar Builder magazine