Solar fleet operators drive advances in O&M performance metrics

Larger PV operators and service providers are leading an industry shift towards more accountable operations and maintenance (O&M) performance amid increasing competition on full life-cycle costs, industry executives told PV insider.

Site-specific factors such as location can make it challenging to apply O&M performance benchmarks. (Image credit: Schmidt-Z)

Industry leaders estimate that almost half of Europe’s utility-scale PV market participants have already adopted O&M best practice guidelines published by SolarPower Europe in June. Service providers must continue to seek efficiencies to remain competitive, they said.

“Adaptation is certainly necessary in order to succeed in the market, and a consolidation process will surely take place,” Kenneth Heidecke, senior manager of International O&M at Conergy Services, told PV Insider.

The rapid fall in solar PV module and installed costs in recent years has raised the importance of O&M efficiency.

O&M costs in developed PV markets such as Germany and the United Kingdom reportedly now account for 20-25% of the levelized cost of energy (LCOE), the International Renewable Energy Association (IRENA) said in a report published in June.

In order to optimize costs, large PV operators with more than 500 megawatts (MW) of solar installed capacity in their portfolio are advancing performance metrics, prompting innovations in O&M services, Heidecke said.

“In general, new service packages are needed to attract new investors and customers in order to fit their needs,” he said.

Some mid-sized operators are also implementing more comprehensive metrics in O&M contracts.

Primrose Solar, an asset owner-operator of 251 MW in the UK and contributor to SolarPower Europe's guidelines, is planning to include new metrics in its contracts, CEO Giles Clark told PV Insider.

“We are negotiating some new O&M agreements which will have more metrics: response times and more details,” he said.

New metrics

While Europe's largest PV firms are adopting best practice guidelines, differences remain on the best way to standardize measurements of O&M performance.

Quantitative Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) to measure plant performance, such as availability and performance ratio, are typically included in O&M contracts, but these can be highly dependent on the construction and engineering phase of the plant, Ioannis-Thomas Theologitis, SolarPower Europe’s senior technology advisor and O&M Task Force coordinator, said.

“So that means that throughout the life of some of the projects the service provider bears the responsibility to an indicator that [it] cannot fully control,” he said.

According to SolarPower Europe, the incorporation of acknowledgement times and response times would provide a more comprehensive measurement of O&M performance.

“The KPIs that reflect the performance of maintenance as reaction time, resolution time and reporting, those kind of indicators are the ones neglected somehow,” Theologitis said.

Experienced service providers with larger portfolios are well-placed to implement new KPIs and provide faster reaction times, he said. Larger portfolios allow aggregation of data which feeds back into improved performance.

Outside factors

The type of metrics included in O&M contracts has until now depended on the type of project, and on what the O&M providers are willing to accept, according to Clark.

Contracts do not typically use response time benchmarks, for example, as these are greatly influenced by site-specific factors such as location, he said.

In its O&M best practice guidelines, SolarPower Europe notes that while acknowledgement times and response times can be guaranteed, resolution times often do not depend entirely on the O&M contractor.

According to Heidecke, differences in site characteristics, such as size, location or technology, make it difficult to provide standardised benchmarks for fault resolution times. Some O&M goals must be defined case-by-case, he said.

As owner-operators continue to demand higher efficiency O&M, more service providers will adopt best practices and new metrics, provided the risk profile can be incorporated into their business model, Clark said.

“Ultimately everything is driven by costs, so they are not going to voluntarily start to apply additional metrics,” he said.

Technology boost

Performance indicators like fault response and resolution times are best measured by integrated work-flow systems, Heidecke said.

Conergy Services, which has already adopted most of SolarPower Europe’s best practice guidelines, is looking to increase efficiency by implementing a new integrated software platform.

The Qantum platform, supplied by software company QOS Energy, integrates monitoring, lifecycle registry, a ticketing system and financial administration.

One of the main challenges faced by the integration project is the connection of older plant sites, some more than 10 years old, Heidecke said.

It can be difficult to find a data-logger capable of understanding the different old inverter data protocols and sensor data, and able to change the Internet connection from analogue telephone to a modern 4G, LTE, satellite or DSL line, he said. 

The cost of the system was dependent on the kind of old technology installed, he noted.

SolarPower Europe will hold meetings with members of its O&M Task Force in the coming months to evaluate industry feedback on its O&M Best Practices Guidelines.

“We would have to wait [a] few more months to see the actual impact of this work in the industry,” Theologitis said.

By Anna Flávia Rochas