Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there is stress on every sector on the importance of moving towards automation and digitization. In the solar industry, the O&M function of the solar power plants especially is experiencing significant stress. While previously, O&M activities were limited to site management involving equipment maintenance, module cleaning, vegetation management; of late, the scope of O&M has been extended to the optimal use of the system and delivery of the promised generation. This has led the O&M players to start investing in the automation of predictive maintenance services of solar systems. As automation is likely to be more helpful than ever in decreasing manpower costs, with the low tariffs discovered in the recent solar auctions, the margins of O&M players have also been reduced. Thus, to maintain profitability on their growth path, the O&M players need to deploy technology to predict the future of components and assess their plants’ performances in order to avoid penalties. Data-led O&M was the topic of discussion at the Dubai Solar Show 2020. This exhibition aimed at achieving integration between all sectors of the energy industry and bringing together trade and technical sectors whilst facilitating the creation of new trade opportunities, enhancing an exchange of ideas and experiences, and showcasing the latest innovations.
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Data-led operations and maintenance protocols, systems and technologies is helping operators reduce the operational costs or expenditures. “Having control of your O&M, day by day at work, and being able to implement and view all that information that is captured during the O&M or even the construction phase, is crucial. So I would personally recommend the customers to have strong CMMS systems, automated management systems, and an O&M management system. If you have drone systems, you must have strong gate SCADA systems that help reduce the number of man hours that people have to dedicate, thereby drastically reducing the Opex costs,” says Daniel Ramirez Watson, head of Business Development at Isotrol, and one of the speakers at the Dubai Solar Show 2020.
Digitizing Workflows and Automating Tasks
Rahul Sankhe, President and Co-Founder of SenseHawk, and one of the speakers at the Dubai Solar Show 2020, adds, “I believe, digitalization is actually the way forward for aspects of data collection that is not yet properly digitalized. For instance, at many of the plants that we have had experience with, we see a lot of data from site O&M or field operations still using paper clipboards and paper-based checklists for conducting various activities. They do not necessarily use workflow tools that can track and streamline their actions on site systematically, or even monitor what’s going on.” Rahul believes that the use of the right kind of software solutions and moving to more digital workflows is an important aspect of wastage reduction. “Instead of having your O&M technician collect something in the field and come back, put the information in an Excel report, and email it to somebody; if they could just use a tablet or a mobile device and capture whatever information they need to, and initiate a workflow to whoever else needs to take action, they will have a much better work to do, instead of filing reports. They can then focus on improvement actions, instead of just routine hygiene activity stuff, where they’re spending a lot of time reporting,” he says.
As you can essentially deploy the resources you have, more effectively, store the information and share it, the use of digital solutions is definitely an important aspect of improving the overall &M effectiveness and efficiency, besides reducing costs. As the underlying question still remains, of whether or not a set of large-scale plant operators typically having more than one sites, can actually use this insight, Daniel sheds some light with his extensive experience of dealing with such operators. “At times when purchasing new projects, these operators try to look for sites in the same location to be able to utilize the resources better, use teams, and use the same warehouse for different PV plants or wind plants, and more. This has to be digitalized to follow stock behavior, ensuring that these operators have the correct people, the correct tools, consumables, etc. The next necessity of digitalization here is to be able to implement KPIs, reports, and analyses, keeping in mind the end users performing the O&M. Digitalization can actually give them KPIs, tools, alarms, reports, what they must focus on, what the main energy losses are, and their root causes. It will also help them correct bad quality data enabling them to have correct KPIs, reduce downtimes, reduce the time that they need to take action, and put the spotlight where the problem is, in specific inverters, trackers, at the substation, or the transmission line. Humans with their naked eyes, cannot identify these problems if they’re not given to us in a clear way, either in form of a report or in an analysis that we can run, or we can set up to have it run automatically or for our specific KPI,” says Daniel.
A Sneak Peek into the Reality
Rahul goes on to cite an example of how the operators having more than one sites are now able to compare and benchmark their data operations. “Drone-based thermography is something that we do quite routinely, and we’ve done over 12 gigawatts of thermal scans across 15 countries of assets. What we found is, on an average, over 2% of the modules or solar panels across these plants were impacted by hotspots. But for the best-in-class plants, this number was less than 0.1%. There, you have a huge difference between the average or the medium plants, and the best-in-class plants. The interesting insight from our analysis is that these best-in-class plants have no correlation to the size. So you have even 100 or 200 effective megawatt plants that have less than 0.1% of modules impacted which means that they are better designed and managed plants. Hence, benchmarks definitely are very useful, and they give you a reference for what is a good standard to aim for,” says Rahul.
Many other O&M issues would have existed, had they not been responded to at the earliest with the use of digital systems. Daniel throws some light here by giving an example, “A majority of the devices that work in wind farms or PV plants, can have warning alarms or shut down alarms, that guide the status of the devices depending on temperature, current, voltage, or any other variable of magnitude. However, many a times, these devices can be underperforming and not reaching any threshold. As a solution, the operators can have outliers, enabling them to compare the entire fleet of inverters in one of their PV plants. If it’s a site that is not very large, you’ll be able to see if all of the inverters are receiving similar radiance, solar resource, and are performing similarly. So you can set up outlier curves, standard studios, and monitor deviations that are higher than 5%, and provide a warning or alarm to the end user who can connect easily and quickly. We have had real cases on this, where software updates or upgrades on certain inverters were not performed correctly, and there were around 3 out of 30 inverters that were underperforming by a 7% on specific recurring times a day. Due to digitalization and this algorithm set in place, you can monitor this throughout for around 5 days every 1-2 weeks. Without digitalization, you wouldn’t have noticed it as there won’t be any alarm as it’s not that the system is not performing under correct conditions. It’s just that it is underperforming, but not with an over temperature, over voltage, or any kind of abnormality that would give a warning to the end user. Even the data provided by drones is not available to the system if you don’t perform an inspection.”
Drone-based mapping and construction monitoring is definitely SenseHawk’s top forte. Contact us to make it one of yours.