How Emerging Cloud Software Supports Renewable Energy O&M

A growing number of companies across the telecom, utilities, renewable energy, and other industries are discovering the value that deployment operations management systems can bring to operations and maintenance (O&M). That’s because, in addition to these systems’ better-known capabilities—managing high volume, repeatable but also site-specific, critical infrastructure projects—they are improving the management and execution of multisite O&M as well.

In renewable energy, and for solar in particular, that’s an important insight. Firms in this business are constantly growing their installation base, and once they deploy, operate and maintain what they’ve built. Using deployment operations management systems in O&M is proving to be a wise approach, particularly for companies that have relied on spreadsheet-heavy processes or a menagerie of systems to manage one or both of those core functions.

To back up for a moment, deployment operations management systems are cloud-based software solutions combining project planning, project management, and work management capabilities across tens, hundreds, or thousands of builds. These systems emerged from established industries like telecom looking to deploy their capital expenditures more efficiently.

1. Infrastructure development in the solar power sector includes finding qualified technical personnel who can help monitor installations. Thanks to advanced software, teams working in the field can use mobile applications and more to file reports. Courtesy: Sitetracker

They’ve helped tower, fiber, and other firms develop and manage countless projects. Deployment operations management systems standardize highly repeatable elements while enabling site-by-site variation based on equipment, accessibility, priority, staffing, material availability, and other factors. They apply machine learning to help managers refine forecasts and schedule more strategically. They harness mobile apps to bring field teams (Figure 1) and subcontractors into the fold.

The benefits add up and scale with volume. Deployment operations management systems help complete projects roughly 30% faster. Harnessing that capacity lets infrastructure-development firms in a growing number of industries improve margins, and take on more work while boosting employee experience—nontrivial in a tight labor market for qualified technical personnel.

Let’s consider how these systems apply in renewable energy O&M. While the lessons apply to any energy-related technology involving mass deployment, we’ll focus on solar.

Four Features Enable Massive Growth

The International Energy Agency has projected global solar photovoltaic (PV) capacity will nearly triple from 2022 to 2027, adding 1.5 TW to installed capacity, exceeding natural gas generation in 2026, and eclipsing coal-fired generation by 2027. U.S. solar growth is on a similar track, with today’s roughly 150 GW of capacity expected to grow to 375 GW by the end of 2028, a roughly 20% annual growth rate.

That’s a lot of new solar panels at a lot of new job sites—on rooftops great and small, in fields and deserts, on slopes, even over canals. Those deployments will be done for a wide range of customers: independent power producers, utilities, asset managers, property managers, businesses, school districts, housing authorities, and developers among them. The faster and more efficiently a builder can finish these projects, the more business that can be handled, and the faster a company can grow.

The story doesn’t end with deployment. Once those panels, inverters, interconnections, and so on are in place, someone’s got to maintain them en masse and across diverse locations. Doing all that in a way that helps ensure the longevity of the installation; the economics of the project; and the sanity of executives, managers, and field personnel takes a system. Those who have transitioned their deployment operations management systems into O&M—and it’s a seamless transition, typically—have found four fundamental features to be decisive. They are:

Single Source of Truth. This is about centralizing and keeping organized vast volumes of project data. Benefits of doing so in the cloud include an immediate understanding of status up and down the chain, and instant access to reliable data. That translates into an ability to collaborate in real time based on what all parties recognize as the ground truth.

Integrated Document Management. This includes maintaining version control and document tracking from development through O&M, including tracking obligations against contracts. Enabled by cloud-based storage and accessibility, document management also involves automated workflows and approvals. “Integrated” is key because a document without context has little value. Linking it with project progress and site history provides context necessary to operate at high volumes.

Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) Integration. Deployment operations management systems do a lot, but they don’t—and shouldn’t—reinvent the ERP wheel. Integrating the two ensures smooth data flows between systems and improved financial tracking and resource allocation.

Actionable Analytics. Reporting and analytics turn oceans of project data into information managers can act on. Deployment operations management systems provide customizable dashboards and key performance indicators, as well as automated reporting tools to help identify trends, risks, and opportunities. This helps in planning and prioritizing the entire project lifecycle, from project planning on through to O&M.

Solar O&M Specifics

With that big picture in mind, how do deployment operations management systems improve solar O&M efficiency? First, recognize that while solar PV is less maintenance-intensive than traditional fossil fuel plants or renewable generation involving turbines, its installations do need to be inspected (Figure 2) over the long term.

2. Workers can help complete, inspect, service, and maintain solar power installations. Regular maintenance and monitoring of system performance can ensure systems operate as intended and be as efficient as possible during their lifecycle. Courtesy: Sitetracker 

Unlike power plants and wind farms, solar O&M ranges from the highly technical to low-cost, frequent activities such as mowing the surrounding area and module cleaning. That means monitoring system performance; doing preventative, operational, and corrective maintenance; and managing assets, warranties, and field work. The overall aim is to keep these systems performing as designed while ensuring maximal system longevity. Some specific solar O&M tasks include:

■ Remote system monitoring.

■ Routine testing of the system under load.

■ Visual inspection.

■ Drone aerial thermography scans to spot failing modules.

■ Vegetation management, which can involve scheduled maintenance, ongoing vegetation height monitoring, and fire-prevention plans for system-reliability, performance, and insurance reasons.

■ Robotic module washing (pollen and other forms of soiling can cement to module surfaces, costing 7% of efficiency in some parts of the U.S. and as much as 50% in places like the Middle East).

■ Storm response.

■ Parts procurement and management.

■ Warranty administration.

■ Fixing what’s broken (or, based on preventative maintenance, what may soon break).

■ Ongoing, meaningful, targeted communications with customers.

Keys to O&M: Asset Management and Work Management

Deployment operations management systems manage O&M across large numbers of solar installations via two main avenues: asset management and work management.

Asset management involves managing leases, purchase power agreements, incentives, and, in the U.S., North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) reporting. Deployment operations management systems’ asset-management features include:

■ Automated entitlements management to ensure timely adherence to contractual mandates.

■ Risk management to highlight and minimize risks.

■ Budget management to centralize and present budget information, including purchase orders and invoices.

■ Inventory management to closely track assets through a unified, real-time database that ensures a trustworthy understanding of asset inventory, status, and location. This helps move assets to the right job at the right time and reduce truck rolls.

Work management revolves around managing the people, tools, and teams involved in doing solar O&M. Some of the key work-management features of these systems include:

■ Centralized maintenance management for scheduling and tracking all corrective and preventive maintenance, including detailed reports, forecasts, and historical maintenance information.

■ Work order tracking that integrates work scheduled, in-process, and completed with related inventory information.

■ Mobile apps with offline support to let workers in the field record progress, note adjustments, and document work completed. Note that usability is paramount here, because the power of the system in general depends on specific workers seeing it as a help rather than a hindrance to their day-to-day work.

■ Standardized job templates based on time-honored best practices that standardize work and enable faster project completion. These templates must also allow for flexibility based on the vagaries of a given job site.

■ Smart human-resource allocation to codify roles and tasks, taking into account certifications and job-performance history. This helps match people to teams and projects, helps employees take on new challenges when they’re ready for them, and reduces ramp time for new crew members.

Deployment and Operations Management

While the focus here has been on solar, deployment operations management systems have proven their value in O&M across utility infrastructure, electric vehicle charging station networks, and even monitoring of railroad hardware installations. The details may differ, but the benefits are proving to be universal: a centralized, continually refreshed database ensures a reliable view into inventory and scheduling status of individual projects and O&M efforts in aggregate.

Project templates standardize O&M work, speeding job completion and boosting quality. Mobile apps for field personnel reduce cycle times and improve reaction times when issues arise. Reports and dashboards help O&M leaders quickly share insights with stakeholders while staying on top of team performance system status. Deployment operations management systems can determine the equipment and field workers best suited to do a particular job based on sweeping visibility in real time.

Solar and renewable energy are booming. The opportunities for those who can efficiently deliver, operate, and maintain large portfolios of renewable energy projects are immense. Deployment operations management systems, which are designed to orchestrate the complexities and interdependencies of myriad concurrent infrastructure projects, can help capitalize on those opportunities.

Emily Obenauer is senior product marketing manager for energy at Sitetracker, a group that provides intelligent deployment operations software.

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