Author: Jason Deign, Solarplaza
Solar operations and maintenance (O&M) has been growing in importance across Europe as the PV industry moves from plan-and-build to manage-and-operate mode. But what are the latest trends in this area? Here are our top five to watch.
Falling government support, increasing competition and the harsh outlook generally for European PV in recent years have all conspired to reduce the number of solar players in Europe. This means fewer owners with larger portfolios, often containing quite a diverse set of assets bolted on through mergers and acquisitions. Solarplaza’s overview of the 70 Largest PV Portfolios in Europe (2015) had already shown that the average portfolio size has been increasing over the last years, despite new assets being on average of smaller capacity. Asset management systems and tools are growing in importance as a way to tackle this diversity.
Combined with expanding portfolios, there is a growing need for multiple O&M providers to work together for particular asset owners. Such collaboration may be forced by geography, for example where a portfolio extends beyond a given O&M provider’s territory, or technology, for instance where solar service providers find themselves working with battery manufacturers.
There is also increasing need for collaboration in handoffs between engineering, procurement and construction contractors that built plants and the O&M providers now being contracted to carry out maintenance going forward.
Another function of larger portfolios is that for some asset managers it now makes sense to create an in-house maintenance function rather than relying on third-party providers. Perhaps the foremost exponent of this trend is Lightsource, Europe’s largest solar developer, which has even launched an O&M academy to ensure its people have some of the best skills in the business. According to Solarplaza’s latest overview, 94% of the companies prefer to do the non-technical management of their assets in-house, and only 6% still outsource it. As the scale of portfolios and economy of scale increase, it becomes more attractive to dedicate people internally to these tasks, rather than allocating budget for a third-party service provider.
The need for faster, better, more efficient solar O&M is spawning the birth of new business models such as those being pioneered by Raising Power in Germany. Described by Edmée Kelsey, chief executive of the asset management automation company 3megawatt, as “the Uber for O&M,” such new platforms allow small solar plant owners to call up pre-qualified maintenance experts at the press of a button.
These models could significantly open up the talent pool available for O&M and “will drive costs down because you can give work to people who are local,” Kelsey said.
The fact that solar is increasingly being paired with battery storage across Europe is no secret. What is not so clear at the moment is how this will affect O&M. That’s because, unlike the US market, most solar-plus-storage installations are currently taking place at residential scale. Things are changing, however, as utilities increasingly see the value of storing solar power.
In theory, integrating batteries into solar O&M need not be a major problem. There are specific processes that might need to be assimilated, such as re-connecting battery installations after islanding incidents. But in general, said Kelsey: “It’s just another asset that needs to be serviced.”