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.”

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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

PV Pointer: Why mass-customized solutions win in utility-scale solar

SunLink

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.

The early rooftop systems were engineered as a single structure where every solar module was linked together, efficiently distributing wind loads. In fact, SunLink’s name was inspired by the structural links holding the system together, which is how our Precision system still works.

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?

I often use Legos 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 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 boost load capacity without designing a new part. Cleverly designed module mounting hardware accommodates the most common PV modules with no changes. 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’s TechTrack dynamic stabilization feature is an example, which is a new tool for efficiently configuring resistance to wind loads.

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.

PV Pointers: How dynamic systems increase the value of a solar project

As an example, SunLink recently launched product packages to complement its 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 for standardized 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 API enables efficient, flexible communication between devices and services and allows developers to build applications leveraging other applications. We’re now seeing APIs used in inverters, trackers, data monitoring systems and initiatives like Orange Button for bankability data to unlock new value in the energy industry.

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, I encourage you to consider what’s led the products to be standardized, customized or mass customized.

As Director of Project Management, Patrick Keelin helps define SunLink’s next generation of products and services. His focus includes dynamic tracker design, IoT and the role technology plays in R&D, design and long-term solar project economics.

— Solar Builder magazine

SunLink is the top energy company on Deloitte list of fastest growing tech companies

SunLink

The Deloitte Technology Fast 500, a ranking of the 500 fastest growing technology, media, telecommunications, life sciences and energy tech companies in North America, listed SunLink Corp. as the fastest growing energy technology company. SunLink grew 226 percent during the period identified.

“The Deloitte 2017 North America Technology Fast 500 winners underscore the impact of technological innovation and world class customer service in driving growth, in a fiercely competitive environment,” said Sandra Shirai, vice chairman, Deloitte Consulting LLP and U.S. technology, media and telecommunications leader. “These companies are on the cutting edge and are transforming the way we do business. We extend our sincere congratulations to all the winners for achieving remarkable growth while delivering new services and experiences for their customers.”

“It’s gratifying to see the market responding to the vision we set three years ago to transform and move the renewables and energy tech sector forward,” said Michael Maulick, SunLink president and chief executive officer. “Our evolution from a respected engineering powerhouse to a full-scope solar energy solutions company now utilizes the latest in IoT, big data and hybrid cloud technology to enhance the value of our clients’ projects. We’re proud to join the other innovators on this distinguished list who are thinking bigger and bolder to make a profound impact on their respective industries.”

SunLink previously ranked fifth as the Technology Fast 500 Energy Tech award winner for 2016. Overall, 2017 Technology Fast 500 companies achieved revenue growth ranging from 135 percent to 59,093 percent from 2013 to 2016, with a median growth of 380 percent.

— Solar Builder magazine

Solar Builder Project of the Year C&I: Worcester Greenwood Landfill

Worcester Greenwood Landfill

How’s this for timing: Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt made headlines, as we were writing this, for proudly proclaiming that he would get rid of the tax credits for the solar industry. Let that marinate as we tout the virtues of our Commercial & Industrial Project of the Year Award winner.

Developer: Honeywell • Contractor: Borrego Solar Systems • Modules: LG Electronics • Inverter: SunGrow • Mounting: SunLink

Stretching across 25 acres (19 football fields), the Greenwood Street Solar Array is the largest municipally owned landfill project in New England. The city signed an energy savings performance contract with Honeywell in 2011 that targeted to bring renewable energy to 92 city-owned facilities, and this $27 million project is expected to pay for itself in six years and save the city $60 million over its expected 30-year life span. It will produce enough clean energy to power 1,340 homes per year.

Because the solar array is municipally owned, it allows Worcester to sell the electricity at net-metering rates. The city also paired this project with an initiative to replace 14,000 street lights with LED bulbs to reduce energy demands while also infusing renewable capacity.

Tough to argue against that value to the city, but then consider the land used for the project was a landfill — an unusable swath of earth; a blight on the community — that is now actively being used to power homes. In order to protect the integrity of the landfill cap, SunLink and Borrego worked closely together to ensure that loads superimposed by the array will not exceed allowable limits at any time, including heavy snow and wind events. SunLink’s GeoPro systems come with terrain adjustability designed in, allowing the array to easily adapt to existing site conditions without grading work.

“The next time you hear someone say, ‘what are we doing for the taxpayers,’ tell them to look up on the old Greenwood Street landfill,” said City Manager Edward Augustus Jr. at the ribbon cutting.

Or, as Worcester Mayor Joseph Petty summed it up: “This project makes good environmental sense and fiscal sense. It’s just one of the ways we as a city are planning for decades to come.”

Anyway, we’d be curious to know how the head of our environment’s protection would object to incentivizing more projects like Worcester Greenwood Landfill.

— Solar Builder magazine

SunLink beefs up operations team with two executive hires

SunLink

SunLink Corp. continues to expand its mounting systems, services and software to become a full-scope solar energy solutions provider. Its two new operations executive appointments keep the evolution rolling: Grumeet Grewal, VP of Supply Chain and Logistics, and Becky Sutro, VP of Strategic Sourcing and Supplier Quality.

Grewal joins SunLink most recently from SPARQ Systems where he served as vice president, Manufacturing & Supply Chain. He brings more than 24 years of operations experience with proven success leading supply chain operations teams to manage contract manufacturers in start-up as well as multi-billion dollar technology companies.

Sutro most recently held the position of director of Product Engineering Manufacturing Design for Cost at SanDisk where she led product cost forecasting, business process implementation and design for cost. Her solar industry experience includes a senior director role at Solaria in global procurement, where she was responsible for supply chain, supplier quality and global procurement. Sutro specializes in relationship management for long term strategic initiatives and sourcing to best meet the company’s quality and cost goals.

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Both hires follow the recent appointment of Chief Operating Officer Martin Lynch who upon his arrival began to immediately address scaling the company’s supply chain and logistics operations to accommodate SunLink’s growth amidst a year of unprecedented solar industry growth and adoption. According to the latest U.S. Solar Market Insight Report by GTM Research and the Solar Energy Industry Association (SEIA), the U.S. solar market continued its years-long expansion in the second quarter of 2017 as the industry installed 2,387 megawatts of solar photovoltaics, the largest total in a second quarter to date. The utility-scale segment represented 58 percent of the PV capacity installed in the quarter, marking the seventh straight quarter in which the U.S. added more than a gigawatt of utility-scale solar.

“As one of the most comprehensive providers of solar mounting systems in the industry, we’re committed to providing our customers with the highest quality and best value,” said Martin Lynch, chief operating officer of SunLink. “With EPCs and developers increasingly taking on more large-scale utility projects around the world, we believe it’s important to not only secure best pricing to maximize profitability for their projects, but also provide increased transparency on how we manage our supply chain for greater business visibility.”

— Solar Builder magazine