Intersolar North America 2014: The year of O&M and bankability

I often hear complaints that solar tradeshows aren’t offering much that is new and exciting—but I beg to differ. Every year I see trends emerging—trends that are often overlooked until months after the show. Intersolar North America was no exception. This year I was struck by the emerging focus on quality, bankability, and operations and maintenance (O&M).

In the recent past, solar shows and conferences have been very focused on either equipment, or sales and marketing of systems or leases. Now, after several years of leases growing dramatically, the owners of PV systems have begun to focus heavily on ensuring that the systems they own will perform to expectations, and administering their performance guarantees.

I spoke at the bankability and quality session moderated by Minh Le, Director of the Solar Energy Technologies Office at the Department of Energy. One speaker during the session, Dr. Sarah Kurtz of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, spoke about solar product quality, including efforts to develop a PV-specific ISO 9001 standard, and to upgrade PV component qualification standards in a project called Qualification Plus.

The work of Dr. Kurtz reflects the growing focus on system performance. Investors are demanding that system performance risks be minimized through the use of higher-quality, more rigorously tested components, higher-quality solar resource data, and more sophisticated O&M processes.

During the session, I spoke about bankable meteorological data for solar resource assessment and monitoring. Through real-life examples, I illustrated the importance of using geographically- and temporally-specific solar resource data—such as SolarAnywhere® Data—for resource assessment, and to set and manage performance guarantees. I also spoke about methods for combining satellite data with high-quality ground data from companies like GroundWork Renewables, Inc., to generate a solar resource dataset that offers the highest level of precision for siting and financing utility scale PV systems.

While those topics generated interested, it was my discussion about using satellite-based irradiance to support monitoring and maintenance of distributed PV systems that really caught people’s attention. It was remarkable to learn how many companies are struggling with the challenge of monitoring and maintaining distributed fleets of residential or commercial systems.

Without a real-time benchmark to show what the systems should be producing, third-party system owners and their O&M partners are lost. It is difficult to make informed decisions about maintenance when little or no information to identify the root causes of performance issues is available.

Clean Power Research is addressing this challenge with SolarAnywhere® SystemCheck®. Before integrating SystemCheck into their O&M platforms, lease and power purchase agreement (PPA) providers have been caught between costly truck roles, and the specter of large performance guarantee payments or revenue losses. The problem has become so great that I spent the majority of my time at Intersolar this year speaking with customers and prospective customers about SystemCheck, and how it can be used to effectively manage their systems.

It is refreshing to see the solar industry mature to the point where ongoing system operations and maintenance has become as important as sales and installation. This will ensure an industry that is healthy and respected for years to come.