When talking about solar panels, a lot of you will instantly think about those that are used in residential settings. These are photovoltaic cells installed in rooftops to harness the energy of the sun. It is then converted into electricity that powers common household appliances, such as televisions and fans, among others. What many people fail to realize is that solar panels are also used in a massive scale. Commercial plants combine hundreds of thousands of panels for a commercial-grade output.
In an industrial PV plant, proper operations and maintenance are crucial in unlocking the full benefits. This will help in maximizing yield and extending functional life. More so, it will minimize costs, especially those that are associated to repair. While solar panels can last up to 25 years, getting the best possible ROI is possible only if you take care of the entire set-up. You need to work with the experts or assign competent personnel to handle operations and maintenance. Read this guideand let’s talk about some of the most important ways to guarantee the peak performance of the PV solar plant.
Types of Solar Plant Maintenance
To start, let’s list down the maintenance works necessary in a solar plant. The subcontractors and technicians will basically have to complete the following maintenance jobs:
- Preventive Maintenance: It is the most important part of power plant maintenance. These are the routine inspections and verifications that aim to pin-point potential problems so that the right party can act accordingly. From the solar panels to inverters, all the key components must work as they should, depending on the requirements and recommendations of the original equipment manufacturer. It is scheduled and often done at least once a year.
- Corrective Maintenance: This type of maintenance happens after detecting a failure. Whether it is through physical inspection or remote audit, when a problem has been identified, corrective maintenance must be implemented as soon as possible. It has three main parts – fault diagnosis, temporary repair, and repair. If the plant needs to be turned off, this is best done at night.
- Condition-Based Maintenance: As the name implies, this kind of maintenance follows certain conditions before being implemented. For instance, it can be done when the performance ratio or inverter efficiency is at their low points. These are situations when maintenance work is necessary to avoid further exacerbating the issue.
Components that Require Maintenance
During the operations of a power plant, several components may fail. This can be a result of old age or an emergency situation, such as a storm. Regardless, here is a quick rundown of the most important components in a solar plant, as well as the issues that they might encounter any time.
Without a doubt, they are the most important components of the solar plant. These are the photovoltaic cells that absorb energy from the sun. They are angled at a specific position to encourage maximum yield. Through time, the panels will encounter several problems. When not given immediate attention, it can result in production loss and inefficiency. Here is a quick rundown of some of the most common solar panel problems in utility plants.
- Cracks: Even new panels can crack, especially when they are inferior or when they are damaged in transit. Most of these are small, so they are called micro-cracks or micro-fractures. In many situations, they are too small, and hence, invisible to the naked eye. It is a must to take a close look at the panels and to get an extensive warranty coverage.
- Hotspots: As the name implies, these are portions of the panel that get extremely hot. Being too hot does not mean that the panels are getting the most energy. When the panels are exposed to high temperatures for a long time, they can crack and eventually become inefficient.
- Discoloration: This is a visual defect that appear in panels after years of use. This is not just an aesthetic problem. When the panels are discolored, it affects the amount of sunlight that it absorbs, making it inefficient. There is nothing much you can do when the panels discolored, so the most important to maintain them properly.
Another important component of the solar installation is an inverter. This is what converts the energy from the sun into electricity that is supplied commercially. In large-scale applications, there are several inverters and they work together to maximize yield. The following are the most common problems
- Overheating: When the components are working more than they should, it stresses the system. The result is overheating. It can lead to loss of efficiency and productivity, negatively affecting the energy output. To prevent this, mind the proper spacing of the solar inverters to encourage a well-ventilated installation.
- Isolation Fault: This is one of the most common error codes in an inverter. This is indicative of a short-circuit. Moisture is among the top culprits. It is common in utility solar plants in places with high humidity, especially near the ocean. When there is an isolation fault, the inverter can halt working or will operate at the minimum efficiency. Either way, it negatively affects the energy output.
- Wiring: The inverters have wires that connect to the solar panels and other important components of your set-up. When there are wiring problems, the efficiency can be affected. As a part of routine maintenance, make sure that the wires are secure. There should be no cracks or other damages that can hinder the solar system’s full performance. Also, see to it that the right wires are used, especially in terms of gauge.
In massive solar plants, a tracker is one of the essential components. This is not one thing that you will see in residential solar systems. Its main function is to direct the panels where the sun is to ensure optimal yield. It follows the sun throughout the day. In turn, it maximizes its output.
One of the most common problems you might experience with a solar tracker is when it does not move as it should be. It can be stuck in a specific position, and hence, it fails to chase the sun. This can be because of having dirt and debris stuck in the mechanism, preventing the tracker from completing its rotation.
Ensuring a Smooth Power Plant Operation
Handling the day-to-day operations of a solar power plant is not an easy task. It includes comprehensive tasks to make sure that things are going as smoothly as possible. It also needs proper coordination with the right people.
- Documentation Management System: Not everything has to happen in the field where the panels are installed. Office work is equally important, and that is when a document management system enters the picture. It should be as informative as possible and must be updated as needed. Maintaining the right documents is also important to meet compliance requirements and boost investor confidence.
- Performance Analysis: As the name implies, it is all about analyzing the current performance of the solar plant. This can be done by considering the key performance indicators, including those we’ll mention later. It helps in data analysis, giving the organization an accurate picture of where it currently stands.
- Predictive Maintenance: It is crucial to anticipate the needs of the solar plant, and that is what can be done through predictive maintenance. It follows a forecast and creates a solid plan on what can be done in the worst of situations. It optimizes safety, increases availability, and maximizes yield, among other benefits.
Highlighting Environment and Safety
Operations and maintenance should also highlight environmental and health concerns, not just of the people in the plant but of the general public as well. This will form an important component of the asset owner’s corporate social responsibility.
Being electricity-generating, solar power plants can be a risk. Be proactive approach in lessening the possibility of injuries. The workers should be wearing personal protective equipment when necessary. Install proper signage to warn others when there are hazards.
More so, health problems can arise from medical problems, slips, falls, trips, collision, electrocution, weather, fire, and mechanical injury, among others. These are also important concerns for the operations and management, making sure that the workplace is safe for everyone. Any health and safety issue can disrupt operations.
Key Performance Indicators
In monitoring the operations of large power plants, one of the most important is an understanding of the essential key performance indicators. These are the most important metrics that are indicative of the performance of the plant. It shows whether or not it is achieving the anticipated outcome. If not, then the management should take a bold move to change things and improve its output.
- Performance Ratio: This is an indicator of the solar plant’s quality. It is usually measured based in a long duration, such as a year, making it paint a more accurate picture of what it should depict also measures the real value of energy production versus what is expected and shows how effective a plant is in achieving what it is designed to do.
- Inverter Efficiency: The main job of an inverter is to convert the sun’s energy into electricity. This KPI is a measurement of how well the inverter is performing. It is crucial to have one with the highest efficiency possible.
- Mean Time to Repair: When a problem arises, how long does it usually take for the repair to be completed? That is what is measured by this KPI, which seeks to measure how effective and efficient the maintenance is. Ideally, it should be as short as possible, making sure that the power plant facility will soon be going back to its normal operations.
solar operations and maintenance
- Mean Time Between Failures: It is an indication of how reliable the solar plant is. The shorter the mean time between failures is, the better. If it is longer, it means that the problems are huge, and the maintenance is a failure. The goal is to have a longer time wherein the system is not experiencing a failure.
- Plant Availability: This is the percentage of the plant’s availability in providing the anticipated output. It provides the asset owner a guarantee of the power plant’s efficiency. The best practice is to have a plant availability of at least 98% in a year, which will make it easier to gain maximum ROI out of the solar plant.
- Peak Solar Hours: Do not confuse this KPI with daylight hours. While they both measure the duration of sunlight, there is a minimum value that is counted if you want to identify the peak solar hours. Quarterly and annual targets are made known to the operations and maintenance team.
- Energy Performance Index: It is the ratio of the specific and expected yield. It gives an accurate picture of the plant’s performance without considering weather conditions. It is important for comparing solar plants and identifying the flaws.
- Uptime: This is one KPI directly related to plant availability. It is the total possible time that the solar plant operates, which is also a measure of its reliability. The goal is to have a long uptime to provide more power to those connected to the system. A lower uptime also means that there are often problems.
Managing Spare Parts
Spare parts are not main parts installed in a solar plant. This means that they do not include the solar panels, inverters, and batteries, among other components that are crucial to get the plant up and running. Nonetheless, these does not mean that they should be ignored. Regardless of how small they are, they are part of a bigger system and they assume an important role. Some of the common examples of spare parts in a solar plant include fuses, weather station sensors, gearboxes, harnesses, cables, and screws. The security cameras installed in the solar plant also fall under this category.
When managing spare parts, it is important to determine the frequency and impact of failure, as well as the cost of the spare part. The operations and maintenance team must always have spare parts ready to remedy any emergency situation. An onsite facility with spare parts storage is a good practice, making it possible to respond immediately to any situation.
Considerations in a Contractual Framework
A solar power plant usually hires a third-party agency to handle operations and maintenance. The asset owner and the operations and maintenance provider enter into a contract to clarify the scope of the work and expectations. Below, we’ll look at the most important stipulations of the contract:
- Scope of Work: It emphasizes the job responsibilities of the contractor. It should be as detailed as possible. It includes jobs like submitting reports to the asset owner, ensuring compliance, and documentations.
- Fee: A contract reiterates the payments that will be made to the contractor. The goal is to compensate the contractor properly without causing unnecessary losses for the solar plant.
- Guarantees: The contractor must also define its guarantees, which will let the owner maximize the amount it is paying. From uptime to performance, the contract must list several guarantees of service. These are contractual obligations that should be met.
- Accountability: Aside from outlining the scope of work, the contract must also identify the consequences of the failure to meet the obligations. It might also give the asset owner the right to terminate the contract early when the obligations are not met.
In sum, managing the operations and maintenance of utility-scale power plants is not an easy job. It requires a proactive approach to maximize yield. Whether done in-house or outsourced, maintenance services are highly-influential in determining a solar plant’s performance. It can be expensive, but it is worth every dollar. Do not think of it as an unnecessary expense. Rather, this is an investment towards improved reliability and better service.