“New-Normal” Weather Doesn’t Spare PV Plants | SEPA Skip to content

“New-Normal” Weather Doesn’t Spare PV Plants

The industry shift from PPA contracts towards more utility-owned and operated solar generation heightens the need to safeguard solar assets through robust disaster response plans. Hence, asset owners are turning to plant repowering experts to inform strategies and guide recovery efforts.

From storm surges to wildfires, natural disasters can wreak havoc on solar infrastructure by taking out inverters, knocking entire plants offline, and sending owners into a spiral of downtime, repair costs, and lost revenue. Insurance provider GCube reports that 50% of North American renewable energy claims in 2019 resulted from weather-related incidents.

Strategies to get plants back to peak performance
From damage assessment and salvage expertise through insurance claims management and rapid restoration, asset owners need to minimize revenue loss. The following is a step-by-step guide to getting back to peak performance.

  1. Balance production with restoration. Minimizing business interruption insurance claims can help maximize recovery. Emphasize staggering work to prioritize production recovery. For example, if one inverter is down because of a ground fault but the rest of the row is in good shape, prioritize restoration at that location to get sections of the plant back online. If components delivery is delayed in one area, shift work immediately to a process that doesn’t require new parts.
  2. Mitigate component risks. Partnering with a well-established engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) firm with Tier 1 procurement agreements and an inventory of spare parts on hand at regional warehouses can substantially improve equipment issue resolution and time to secure new components.
  3. Manage insurance claims and keep documentation clear. Insurers want to see rapid progress toward repairs, particularly if they’re paying lost production damages, but they also want to see extensive validation to justify bids. Insurers will also have their vendors tracking the project, such as subrogation and investigations teams. Although asset managers may work directly with an insurance adjuster, contractors are more likely to communicate through a third party hired to assist the adjuster. Different documentation may be required at each level of the claims process, which will be reviewed by parties with varying degrees of technical understanding.
  4. Salvage and save. To determine which components can be salvaged and which need to be replaced, first test damaged equipment and establish criteria defining the conditions that warrant repair and those mandating replacement. Flexibility is key.
  5. Blend original and new technologies. Salvage following a disaster often means weaving together still-functional older parts with state-of-the-art PV technology. Sometimes the damaged plant’s original equipment is no longer manufactured. With many component manufacturers going out of business, restoration experts can help determine the best path forward, including manufacturing replacement parts, if needed.

Example: Salvaging solutions from the floodwaters
When two hurricanes tore through a 92-megawatt solar plant in the Southeast, 10 of the 40 power conversion stations flooded for days with nearly 18 inches of water. Since the plant’s operator had taken all of the inverters offline before the hurricanes hit, condensation had formed inside all 40. Rather than voiding the warranty on the 10 flooded inverters, the manufacturer denied responsibility for all of them. Consequently, the plant owner faced a substantial financial loss and potentially months offline.

Photo credit: Auston Taber

But after the DEPCOM team proved the units had design flaws that caused the condensation, the manufacturer restored warranty coverage and agreed to repair the inverters. The wait time for delivery of new inverters, however, threatened revenue losses between $400,000 and $700,000. DEPCOM’s team suggested salvaging and refurbishing the flooded units, saving time and $4 million in replacement costs.

The insurer approved the plan but required additional measures to protect the inverters. The restoration team designed three-foot-tall concrete pads to keep the units well out of harm’s way. In just six weeks, crews lifted the pads — 22 weeks faster than the lead time required to install new inverters.

This efficient solution minimized business interruption and got the flooded portion of the plant back online. Ultimately, the plant was fully restored 152 days faster than the competing solution and netted savings of nearly $2.5 million overall.

Lessons from the field: Standing up to wind damage
After a wind storm damaged 15% of the trackers at a solar PV plant, it was discovered that more than one-quarter of the trackers weren’t operational before the winds hit, preventing them from maneuvering into a protective stow position. As a result, 233 of 1,600 trackers were damaged and needed restoration.

Initially, the plant owner relied on O&M personnel to assess the damage and submit insurance claims. Four months later, restoration work had yet to begin. Within four weeks of contracting with DEPCOM, a plan was in place to deconstruct the damaged areas, conduct testing to determine what could be salvaged, and source replacement components.

Ultimately, the original, older technology was successfully married with new, modern equipment to repower the site — all without a significant (and costly) redesign. While the asset owner anticipated replacing damaged components for roughly $1.75 million, they instead were able to salvage the modules. The plan saved $1.3 million and recovered 70% more modules than originally forecasted. Additional savings came from reduced business interruption claims, a more efficient timeline, and staggered execution.

Merging restoration with EPC/O&M strengths to bring PV back fast
Recovery following an extreme weather event is complex, often more so than initial plant construction. Unlike new builds, restorations involve balancing current production needs against deconstruction and replacement demands.

Utilities should look for an end-to-end solution to mitigate production losses and safeguard revenue.

About the Author: Jessica Super, Vice President of Business Development at DEPCOM

Jessica Super plays a critical role in developing DEPCOM’s Repowering+ division, which includes plant restoration, repowering and recertification services. She brings over 12 years of experience in the solar industry, serving in executive roles for leading companies including president of ReneSola America, regional sales manager at Canadian Solar, and regional manager at SEIA. Super holds a degree in finance and international business from Pennsylvania State University and an MBA from UCLA’s Anderson School of Business. More at www.depcompower.com