2017 Solar Power AMP Puts Spotlight on New Technology, Standards and Best Practices | SEPA Skip to content

2017 Solar Power AMP Puts Spotlight on New Technology, Standards and Best Practices

When the Smart Electric Power Alliance (SEPA) and the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) launched our first Solar Power Asset Management & Performance (AMP) conference in 2016, the focus was on basic knowledge. Indeed, the fundamental connection between asset management of utility-scale solar projects — that is, their overall performance — and the more technical details of operations and maintenance (O&M) was still a relatively new and evolving idea.

This year’s event, set for Jan. 19-20 in San Diego, reflects the sector’s growing knowledge base and sophistication, with new technologies, such as unmanned aircraft systems, and discussions over standards and best practices now taking center stage.

On the floor at the 2016 Asset Management and Performance Conference: The small size of the event promotes more in-depth conversations among attendees.
On the floor at the 2016 Asset Management and Performance Conference: The small size of the event promotes more in-depth conversations among attendees.

In the interim, SEPA, in partnership with solar developer High Performance PV, has published the Asset Management and Operations and Maintenance Resource Guide — which, like last year’s conference, is focused on basic information and resources. In addition, we established an asset management and performance working group, which has provided an ongoing forum on the key issues and challenges solar developers, utilities, asset managers and O&M providers now face in ensuring optimal performance of utility-scale projects.

Some of the best practices developed in these discussions will be a central focus in San Diego, including issues such as the importance of having a well-planned spare parts strategy and real-time performance reporting. As noted by Bob Holsinger of Pacific Gas and Electric, a member of SEPA’s asset management and performance working group, spare parts that are available today, may not be available in a month or next year. Similarly, ongoing technological change may mean project upgrades will be necessary for optimal efficiency and performance, he said.

The 60 Minutes of Best Practices workshop at the conference promises a concentrated focus on key areas in project design and operation, with participants leaving with new insights and knowledge they can put into practice immediately.

Many of these underlying issues are not new — or necessarily specific to solar. What is new is the elevated awareness of their importance, as a more holistic approach to utility-scale project planning, design and operations in the field moves toward becoming an industry norm.

Tearing down silos

One of the essential challenges in the asset management and performance space has been replacing formerly siloed functions with cross-functional communication and collaboration. Such an approach is particularly important because asset managers now handling solar may have had prior experience with other fuel sources — coal, natural gas or hydro — that may not be directly transferrable to renewables. A similar situation may also exist among the full range of stakeholders involved in plant delivery; they are often unfamiliar with the key differences between solar and other generation resources and with the need for a cross-functional approach to design, construction and operations.

One of the marquis sessions at this year’s conference — the Asset Management & Performance Business Institute — provides a peer learning experience uniquely targeted at tearing down traditional silos. The 2 1/2-hour session will include professionally moderated, interactive discussions based on hypothetical case studies, built around real-life situations, that will challenge participants to think outside their usual perspectives. Project owners, engineering, procurement and construction specialists, and O&M providers will all be encouraged to come at problems from a different angle.

The goal here is to distill the expertise of different participants, so individuals can see the full scope of possible solutions and help them develop strategies and practices that can be customized for their particular situation. Another, related goal is to help fill knowledge gaps, for example, for solar asset managers who may have minimal knowledge of the nuts-and-bolts technology of a project’s design and operation or limited experience in managing a full portfolio of projects.

Data Standardization

The past year has seen a new, intensive focus on data management and analysis emerge in a range of professional discussions and forums across the electric power sector. In solar asset management and performance, the need to develop standardized datasets, metrics and platforms for data communication has become a top priority.

With individual projects generating vast amounts of raw data, the current lack of standards raises obvious questions for asset managers. At the most basic level, what data should be collected? Then, when looking at certain datasets, how do you distill significant performance metrics so you can forecast potential problems and prevent lost generation? How, and how often, do you communicate such metrics across projects to more effectively manage a portfolio, or fleet, of utility-scale projects?

A key program in this area is the U.S. Department of Energy’s Orange Button initiative, a $4-million research effort aimed at creating cross-industry platforms for gathering and streamlining communication of key datasets. The goals of the initiative are to provide solar developers, utilities and other stakeholders with more robust, transparent data, which will, in turn, drive down costs and project risks, while improving performance and project financing. The initiative is still in its early stages; grants for four projects were announced last April.

The importance of this initiative and data issues in general is reflected in two conference workshops. Getting it Right the First Time will focus on the basics of data collection for improved project performance. Big Data: Little Orange Button will provide an update on the Orange Button initiative project, and a discussion with industry experts on how best to prepare and leverage project data to take advantage of emerging standards and communications platforms.

Onboarding and mastering the handoff

The conference session on onboarding — the process of handing off a project from one stage of development, or one O&M or other service provider, to another — is a direct result of discussions in SEPA’s asset management and performance working group.

Group members often describe the challenges of onboarding as trying to jump on a train already in motion. The central question, they say, is how do you get up to speed?

Just one example, in the past year, the use of unmanned aerial systems — drones — has gone from isolated experiments to an increasingly recognized tool for improving O&M efficiency. What if a project owner wants to change service providers to expand the use of these systems for project monitoring, or simply change O&M providers to incorporate aerial monitoring? What information or skills are needed for a smooth transfer?

For example, while most O&M providers have a basic professional skill set — such as the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners (NABCEP) certification for solar installers — specific issues and needs may vary across individual projects or a fleet of projects.

The Mastering Handoffs session at the conference will feature a panel of experts who will detail their own checklist of most-often omitted details in onboarding efforts. For instance, individual installers may have different techniques for connecting wires — the electrical connection points — within a project, which can, in turn, raise safety issue if maintenance plans do not account for such a likelihood.

John Balfour, coauthor of the Asset Management and Performance Resource Guide, says the AMP conference has been particularly valuable for him because it is a smaller, more intimate event.

“You have the opportunity to get to meet the people that are speaking. You get the opportunity to ask questions,” he said. “People are a lot friendlier because they are not as much in a hurry to go from one place to another. . . . People will walk away with some real knowledge, not just a taste of it.”

Solar Power Asset Management & Performance, Jan 19-20 in San Diego, is especially targeted at front-line engineering, maintenance, and financial professionals responsible for asset management in the solar industry. The conference is designed to provide a range of tools and expertise to improve the performance of the systems and installations that generate solar power. Registration information is available here.
Daisy Chung is a research manager at SEPA. She can be reached at [email protected].