MaxGen Energy Services tops list of solar O&M providers in the U.S.

Maxgen energy services

MaxGen Energy Services, an independent solar operations and maintenance (O&M) company, now ranks as the No.1 independent O&M service provider in North America / U.S., and the No. 2 O&M service provider globally, according to the newly released GTM Research and SOLICHAMBA report, “Global Solar PV O&M 2017-2022; Markets, Services and Competitors.”

“With 3.2 GW of photovoltaics in operation at the end of Q3 2017, MaxGen Energy Services is the top independent PV O&M service provider, both in the U.S. and globally. MaxGen shot up in the vendor rankings by almost doubling its fleet in the first three quarters of 2017, increasing its managed capacity at a pace of 2 GW per year. This is the fastest growth recorded by any provider among the 128 O&M firms analyzed in my latest report,” said Cedric Brehaut from SOLICHAMBA, the industry’s preeminent analyst and author of the newly released GTM Research report.

Read about how to revive lagging PV performance with O&M plans right here.

“MaxGen is focused on ensuring that solar becomes a mainstream and enduring component of the global energy landscape,” noted MaxGen Energy Services CEO Mark McLanahan. “We’re working to ensure a mature, stable service infrastructure that optimizes system performance and profitability; our customers and partners recognize and appreciate our expertise.”

MaxGen is extending its offerings to become the leading services provider for a wide array of clean energy assets (e.g., solar, wind, EV infrastructure) already operating and coming online across North America. The company has experienced tremendous growth, as it transforms the future of solar and distributed energy industry – though superior services delivered by a seasoned team with extensive experience in solar, wind and EV charging infrastructure.

— Solar Builder magazine

MaxGen Energy Services tops list of solar O&M providers in the U.S.

Maxgen energy services

MaxGen Energy Services, an independent solar operations and maintenance (O&M) company, now ranks as the No.1 independent O&M service provider in North America / U.S., and the No. 2 O&M service provider globally, according to the newly released GTM Research and SOLICHAMBA report, “Global Solar PV O&M 2017-2022; Markets, Services and Competitors.”

“With 3.2 GW of photovoltaics in operation at the end of Q3 2017, MaxGen Energy Services is the top independent PV O&M service provider, both in the U.S. and globally. MaxGen shot up in the vendor rankings by almost doubling its fleet in the first three quarters of 2017, increasing its managed capacity at a pace of 2 GW per year. This is the fastest growth recorded by any provider among the 128 O&M firms analyzed in my latest report,” said Cedric Brehaut from SOLICHAMBA, the industry’s preeminent analyst and author of the newly released GTM Research report.

Read about how to revive lagging PV performance with O&M plans right here.

“MaxGen is focused on ensuring that solar becomes a mainstream and enduring component of the global energy landscape,” noted MaxGen Energy Services CEO Mark McLanahan. “We’re working to ensure a mature, stable service infrastructure that optimizes system performance and profitability; our customers and partners recognize and appreciate our expertise.”

MaxGen is extending its offerings to become the leading services provider for a wide array of clean energy assets (e.g., solar, wind, EV infrastructure) already operating and coming online across North America. The company has experienced tremendous growth, as it transforms the future of solar and distributed energy industry – though superior services delivered by a seasoned team with extensive experience in solar, wind and EV charging infrastructure.

— Solar Builder magazine

Close the Gap: How to revive lagging large-scale PV project performance

Alencon’s SPOT X2 DC-to-DC optimizer

Alencon’s SPOT X2 DC-to-DC optimizer can boost utility-scale PV plant performance.

A completed PV project is like a splashy free agent sports signing. Everyone is all pumped up at the ribbon cutting or press conference, but if it underperforms and misses expectations, that goodwill is gone. Live up to that contract or get booed.

In a world where new utility-scale projects might slow down (a possible understatement if tariffs are placed on module and cell imports), 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.

Closing Performance Gaps

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.”
    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.
  3. 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.”

Solar for All: How to incentivize community solar projects to benefit low-, middle-income customers

Retrofitting or Repowering?

Traditionally, the two options for a lagging PV site to hit its expected performance target are: 1) boosting its actuals, or 2) lowering the expected numbers.

“Once a project has been reviewed to ensure all the basics are correct, we can focus on boosting output to outperform proforma expectations. Part of this process sometimes includes resetting the baseline based on correcting performance assumptions made before the plant was built,” McLanahan says.

Obviously no one wants the latter, but overestimates happen frequently during the high-stakes, quick turn-time bidding process via incorrect assumptions regarding soiling, degradation, line losses, etc.

But, what if there was a way to still overachieve from the original estimates? This is the proposition presented by large-scale, DC-to-DC optimizers just now coming onto the market as part of a retrofitting strategy. The Alencon SPOT X2 is one such optimizer that has been recast in a manner to make it easier to minimize the soft costs — such as labor and ancillary installation materials — associated with PV retrofits. Minimizing installation costs is key to achieving the highest rate of return on PV retrofits, and retrofitting a PV plant with Alencon’s SPOT can significantly increase PV yield by introducing more granular MPPT while at the same time improving safety and decreasing on-going O&M costs.

“With a number of PV assets now changing hands as PV plants get older and PV fleets get consolidated, we are seeing a great deal of interest in retrofitting PV plants to improve energy yield. The SPOT X2 makes performing larger commercial and industrial or utility scale PV retrofits much easier than ever before,” says Hanan Fishman, president of Alencon Systems.

Now, retrofitting a large-scale PV system with new equipment is a tough sell because the profit margins are thinner and ROI is tighter than new construction (plus the downtime that must be factored in), but going this route with an experienced team could prove valuable. Energy and electrical systems specialty firm ProtoGen, for example, has executed a number of retrofit projects and incorporated Alencon’s SPOT DC optimizer at the string level to minimize those retrofit costs because it’s as close to a plug-and-play PV retrofit solution as possible.

“The key to pulling off a PV retrofit in a cost and time effective manner is to think in terms of 80 percent planning and 20 percent execution,” Fishman says. “In our experience, if you can maintain that proportionality, you should be able to set a similar target for your percentage of hard costs to soft costs.

Here’s a checklist Alencon suggests using if you are considering a retrofit for a large-scale PV project:

  1. How much is the equipment going to cost?
  2. Have I considered all the elements of ROI that go into the project including production incentives and potential tax credits like accelerated depreciation?
  3. What sort of engineering analysis will I need for the project? Structural? Electrical? Anything else?
  4. Will the work require a permit? If so, who is the AHJ? What do they need to approve the project (i.e. stamped and sealed drawings or just a statement of work)?
  5. What sort of certifications will be needed for the equipment being installed (i.e. UL or NEC)?

Bottom Line

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.


 

Speaking of data…

Chris Crowell and Kate Trono, VP of Products for SunLink

Craving some more nerdy solar data talk? You’ll want to check out our new podcast — Solar Builder Buzz — in which we grab a beer with people smarter than us to discuss the solar industry. In Episode 2, we sit down with Kate Trono, VP of Products for SunLink, and pick her brain on the value of data in the solar industry and just where the industry is going (and should be going) from here. We maybe also discuss Sci-Fi.

Listen to the pocast here.


 

Take a quick peek

Measure launched new turnkey solutions for solar facility owners

Measure launched new turnkey solutions for solar facility owners, asset managers and O&M contractors that include drone-based site overview and maintenance, site shading and terrain analysis, thermal inverter scans, tracker misalignment detection and vegetation management. On a site generating 21 MW, for example, Measure can complete an inspection in seven hours instead of weeks, freeing employees and contractors for higher-value activities while also lowering inspection costs. The lower cost also makes it possible to perform more frequent inspections that can detect problems in a timely manner.

Maximum revenue capture for larger plants may not be inspected in a single visit and potentially leave some issues or faults unidentified. Measure’s launch customer was able to avoid a potential revenue loss through an inspection that discovered over 200 malfunctioning panels on a new solar farm.

— Solar Builder magazine

Keep Watch: How the PV monitoring landscape is evolving

Cloud Computing

Monitoring systems have become an integral and ubiquitous component to any well-functioning PV project for years now. As the industry has matured, monitoring ecosystems have evolved from OEM-provided, HMI-style interfaces reminiscent of traditional Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) systems to modern web apps slinging the latest tech buzzwords.

However, much of the innovation in PV monitoring has been on the software side, with the data collection skeleton remaining largely unchanged. While many of the monitoring software platforms offered to the market have had numerous facelifts and new feature bundles released, the industry as a whole has not successfully utilized many of the new data collection (e.g. low-cost wireless sensors) and analysis techniques (e.g. machine learning) that have gained significant traction in other industries. This lack of true innovation has contributed to a negative perception of monitoring companies throughout the industry.

Equipment-direct

Solutions for monitoring PV systems sit on a spectrum. At one end, corresponding to low-cost and low-touch, is equipment-direct monitoring. Most inverter manufacturers and an increasing number of combiner box and meter manufacturers offer integrated monitoring platforms that consist of a web portal where equipment data is displayed. This is usually provided free of (additional) charge by the OEM, and may have basic features such as alarming, visualization and reporting.

The downside here is monitoring is not the primary goal of the manufacturer. Given the choice between spending a development budget on a better inverter or a top-tier inverter monitoring platform, the inverter manufacturer will usually work on their core technology. The burden to the end user when using these equipment-direct monitoring platforms can be significant. For example, it’s not unheard of to have multiple makes of inverters or combiner boxes at a single site, and it’s nearly impossible to find an operator who is responsible for a fleet of assets that use a single manufacturer. Having to log in to multiple platforms can quickly become unwieldy and does not scale well.

SCADA

On the opposite end of the spectrum from equipment-direct monitoring is a fully custom-built SCADA system. These systems are tailored to a particular plant (a single SCADA system is rarely used to monitor and control multiple plants), and the implementation for a given system is not repeatable for another system.

The combination of equipment required for a SCADA system is unique to a given plant, and the configuration and software to interface with the equipment is custom developed for each implementation. This often results in high costs due to the non-repeatability of the solution. Support for these systems can be limited as the business model is based on one-time integration and setup fees. But many SCADA integrators have years of proven success, and, while not unheard of, it’s rare that significant bugs exist in the delivered solution. The commissioning of a SCADA system is usually robust and thorough, which will catch any configuration errors in the process.

Depending on the size and locality of the PV project, SCADA may be required to allow a third-party (the local utility or reigning RTO, for instance) control over the equipment on site. There may be regulatory requirements to allow these third parties to send commands to the site, ordering inverters to lower their output, increase reactive power, or turn off should the grid require additional stability.

How to optimize performance and profit through O&M monitoring

Cloud-based Remote Monitoring

The space between a low-cost, low-touch, manufacturer-based monitoring system and a high-cost, high-touch SCADA system is inhabited by third-party remote monitoring systems. These are generally software-as-a-service products usually hosted in the cloud. Cloud-based remote monitoring has quite a few advantages over equipment-direct monitoring.

For one, it allows a single operator to monitor and respond to many projects concurrently. Another advantage is that providing monitoring solutions is the primary objective of these companies. If a monitoring company provides a subpar product, there’s little chance for success or repeat business.

There are advantages over traditional SCADA systems as well. Since the cost of development is spread across many customers, they are usually lower cost than SCADA, and many modern systems are now able to offer the same level of control that a SCADA system would.

Cloud-remote monitoring systems are also more flexible, updated more often, and are scalable across fleets of projects. There are concerns about security, however, which in many applications is of paramount importance. Few offtakers are comfortable with cloud-based control systems due to the perceived vulnerability from hackers. Many utilities have a mindset that is distrustful of unproven innovation, and are less likely to accept a solution that has not been proven for years or even decades.

Traditional Monitoring Challenges

In addition to the challenges each technology faces, there is a physical consideration as well. The majority of traditional solutions require hardwired connections to collect and transport data to either the point of consumption or a data backhaul. This adds additional cost to purchase the wires over which the data will be transmitted and adds in an additional possible breakpoint. The main barrier to adopting wireless communication networks has been reliability and security.

Another weakness of these traditional monitoring and management systems is the methods by which data is transferred. Most traditional monitoring systems use communications protocols that were intended for humans to communicate to one another via devices. Extraneous metadata is often included in these

data transfers, which inflates the size of the messages and thus the bandwidth requirements per datapoint sent. By moving to a machine-to-machine protocol, better efficiency can be achieved in data transfer, which helps to reduce operational costs of data collection. It can also assist in reducing latency of data and commands, which leads to a more responsive and safer site.

Modern Monitoring

All of those concerns have been major drivers of the adoption of Internet of Things (IoT) technologies across other industries. These lessons can be translated to the PV industry. Optimizing data transfer for PV plants is not a simple task though. Bandwidth requirements vary from project to project. If string data is being captured at a particular site, the amount of data being transferred can be orders of magnitude larger than a site where only inverters and meters are being monitored; if panel-level data is available (from microinverters, DC optimizers or other MLPEs), the amount of data can be orders of magnitude larger yet. To ameliorate these issues, many IoT platform providers utilize modern machine-to-machine communications protocols like MQTT that help to reduce the size of data packets allowing for more data to be sent over the same bandwidth.

Further complicating data transfer is both the location and the topology of the project. Many large-scale PV projects are located in remote areas, which may not have readily accessible ISP coverage or cell service. Local communications interference can also be a problem, whether this interference stems from electrical sources, such as the feedback coming from the inverters, or physical sources, such as being blocked by panels.

These concerns can be alleviated by using a combination of technologies within a single plant’s network topology. Such technologies can include WiFi, cellular 2G/3G/4G, Zigbee mesh networks, and even low power WAN technology such as LoRa. However, this concept contrasts with traditional monitoring providers, who generally only use a single communications technology across all of their customers regardless of plant topology and location; since these solutions are nontrivial to implement, it’s often only cost effective for these providers to choose the most applicable communications technique and stick to it.

IoT-based Solutions

Applying IoT concepts to PV monitoring can help alleviate some of the challenges that stem from traditional monitoring applications. Most IoT platforms give users the ability to deploy logic to edge devices — the inverters, meters and other equipment located on site. Granted, this isn’t a new development as many monitoring and SCADA providers are already deploying intelligence to the devices in the field, but in an IoT environment, rather than utilizing expensive dataloggers or industrial computers, edge intelligence can be provided via an inexpensive Raspberry Pi, Arduino, or similar small computing device.

Moving diagnostics to the edge provides additional benefits when used in conjunction with an IoT-based monitoring application. For instance, there are a subset of faults that will always require a site to be disconnected from the grid. By moving to an IoT-based solution using lower-cost edge computer hardware, the latency between fault occurrence and shutdown can be reduced relative to that achieved with a high-cost SCADA system. When edge computing is coupled with machine-learning and cloud-based analytics, PV monitoring systems can become more autonomous, allowing not only automated investigation to the root cause and failure area of fault events, but actions such as technician dispatch or site-level disconnect.

The trend of monitoring system evolution over the past 10 years has been to bring prices down, resulting in a commoditized solution that favors innovations in flashy software features rather than a rethinking of the framework around which a monitoring system is built. By looking to emerging technologies, monitoring providers can challenge these assumptions yielding a lower-cost yet higher-functioning monitoring solution. Such an evolutionary step is now coming to the market in the form of IoT-based solutions, which will enable better efficiencies and lower operational costs in monitoring and managing a PV project.

Beau Blumberg is solution director swiftPV, infiswift.

— Solar Builder magazine

Infiswift wants to update solar performance management with swiftPV IoT solution

 

At Solar Power International, infiswift, an enterprise Internet of Things (IoT) platform leader, is launching swiftPV, which leverages IoT technology to change how the solar industry uses data to optimize the performance of PV systems. The suite of products and services allows PV power plant owners and operators to connect diverse PV assets and distill insights from the data, ultimately increasing solar plant performance.

infiswift pv

“Solar owners and operators currently rely on third party monitoring and SCADA systems to provide data on the operation and performance of plants, but these systems are very costly, inflexible and limit data access,” said Arup Barat, Co-CEO and Chief Commercial Officer at infiswift. “With over 85 years of team experience in the industry, we understand these pain points and the need to modernize PV management solutions with storage, frequency regulation, edge analytics and more in mind. In swiftPV, we have built a cutting-edge, customizable and cost-effective data solution for the future of PV.”

Infiswift will be demonstrating swiftPV and the underlying IoT technology at booth 6610 at Solar Power International in Las Vegas on September 10-13. 

The swiftPV suite of products and services includes ‘blocks’ that can be used to build a solution – each customer selects what’s right for them.

The current swiftPV blocks include:

– Data ingest: This core block is built on the infiswift IoT platform, which connects and manages all field devices and cloud feeds regardless of vendor. This highly scalable platform ensures your data is properly routed from origination to destination in near real-time.
– Apps: SwiftPV apps use custom mobile and web visual interfaces for each stakeholder on the team.
– Cloud Historian: This is a private database with open data access and flexible setup to cover all data needs.
– Reports: SwiftPV produces reports with tailored recommendations and data that can be updated and customized for delivery when needed.
– PV Performance Services (PVPS): Professional engineering support is available to monitor, analyze and interpret complex data.

infiswift pv

“Connecting several different inverter brands, a weather forecast feed and grid pricing in one place and presenting it in an accessible, usable way is a challenge that hasn’t been properly solved until now,” said Sarva Thulasingam, Co-CEO and CTO at infiswift. “Our hybrid IoT architecture makes this approach to performance solutions unique and ensures we’re delivering a truly interoperable infrastructure that will serve OEMs, operators and other stakeholders into the future. SwiftPV can connect any device from any manufacturer, bring in third party data feeds and perform analyses before ever reaching the cloud, allowing customers to centralize data for a full PV portfolio.”

Infiswift is currently working with several customers to roll out full scale implementations. One way swiftPV will be implemented is with an owner-operator of a portfolio of utility-scale PV systems who may want to bring data from each site together with data from a Financial Asset Management suite and WOMS system. SCADA systems can’t support this very cost-effectively, so there’s generally a more fragmented approach to gathering data for each plant. By using the data ingest, apps, reports and historian blocks from swiftPV, the owner-operator can visualize and access data in a central location from multiple inverter vendors, streamline analysis and make significant operational improvements.

For another plant, the swiftPV team was engaged for a PVPS project to validate and analyze inverter and other plant data for a multi-MW site. Without any site visits, the team identified misaligned sensors and underperforming strings. With more accurate data, the customer was able to improve system performance without hiring several additional analysts.

Transparent utility data key factor in grid modernization, says new SEIA paper

— Solar Builder magazine