Scatec Solar deploys 'hybrid' service model in global growth surge

Emerging markets specialist Scatec Solar is using centralized control services and automation to optimize data-driven field work and boost revenue growth, Pal Strom, Senior VP, Head of O&M at Scatec, said.

Sharp falls in PV capital costs have raised the share of operational expenditure in project budgets.

In emerging markets, developers are faced with specific operations and maintenance (O&M) challenges associated with remote locations and local labor supply.

Scatec Solar, a fast-growing emerging markets developer, has implemented a global “hybrid” operations and maintenance model which prioritizes strong health and safety requirements, output maximisation, and cost reduction, Strom told the PV Operations Europe 2019 conference on February 27.

Scatec currently has 1.7 GW of global solar capacity in operation or under construction and aims to double this capacity by 2021. Key markets include South Africa, Egypt, Malaysia and Brazil.

Scatec is using a combination of centralized plant monitoring and analysis, workflow automation and data driven performance optimisation, to boost efficiency and maximize income, Strom said.

"By the end of 2019, we will be doing O&M across 11 countries on five continents...So we need to find a good way to establish a common work culture with common goals and standards across this diverse portfolio of plants and people," he said.

Global standard

Scatec has shifted from local plant monitoring stations to a central control room in Cape Town, South Africa.

The control room operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week, performing advanced plant monitoring and coordinating incident response services. The control room communicates with field service workers on preventative and corrective maintenance, as well as planned work.

The control room also communicates with a “centralized services” team of expert engineers and scientists, who perform troubleshooting and performance optimisation analysis, and oversee procedure governance.

While the centralized services and control room services are always delivered in-house, Scatec aims to outsource field service work unless the company has a "critical scale" in the market or there is a lack of quality local providers, Strom said.

                             Scatec Solar projects

Source: Scatec Solar

Specific challenges in emerging markets include the implementation of strict health, safety and environmental (HSE) standards and efficient training and deployment of local workers.

To minimize risks, Scatec has developed and implemented global internal HSE standards and processes.

For all of its plants, Scatec deploys an extensive six level certification program for all plant technicians and requires them to retrain at regular intervals to retain their certification, Strom said.

"We have chosen to select the internal HSE standards at the highest level and have implemented the strictest regulatory requirements across our portfolio as a minimum standard for all plants," he said.

Hiring challenge

Local job creation is often a firm requirement of local authorities and remote sites present extra challenges in sourcing the relevant experience and skills.

In one example, Scatec is building three solar power plants in the Northern Cape, South Africa for a total capacity of 258 MW, under Round 4 of the national Renewable Energy Independent Power Producer Program (REIPPPP).

The three projects will require 4.8 billion rand ($339 million) of investments and Scatec Solar will build, own and operate the assets with a 42% shareholding.

The power purchase agreement (PPA) agreed with South Africa in 2018 requires Scatec to employ more than 100 staff across the three sites, Strom said.

"Most of these people are unskilled labor that need to be trained and need to comply with our HSE standards. This is a massive challenge and even though South Africa is our most extreme example, we have similar challenges in other markets," he said.

Labor savings

Labor costs form a large part of solar O&M costs. Operators are using technology advancements and improved deployment strategies to increase efficiency and reduce man-hours.

                               US solar O&M costs by category (2018)

Source: U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL).

In emerging markets, the reduction of labor costs can be challenging due to a lack of local scale and requirements for local job creation, Strom said.

Manual field processes incur significant labor hours and operators need to "move towards more automation and predictive maintenance methods to enable further cost reductions through reduction of field-based manpower," he said.

Workflow processes must be automated as much as possible to increase efficiency. Scatec deploys mobile handsets to reduce paperwork, reduce inspection times and improve accuracy.

The company has also implemented the use of drones to lower inspection costs, improve inspection quality, and minimize health and safety risks.

Scatec is currently testing the use of “in-house field engineers with a regional scope” to perform specialist field tasks such as drone scanning and EL [Electroluminescence] testing, Strom said.

Some operators are now partnering with technology companies to develop drones with artificial intelligence to provide faster, more-detailed plant inspections and earlier preventative actions.

Combined with advanced monitoring and predictive analytics, these new technologies will accelerate the trend towards a more automated workflow process.

"In order to both reduce costs and maximize production, it is critical that this process is as automated and as efficient as possible," Strom said.

New Energy Update