Reflecting on the 2020 Solar Industry

2020 has proved to be an enlightening year for the solar industry. The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in many canceled trade shows and conferences, prompting the solar community to explore and leverage the potential of virtual events.

Reflecting on the 2020 Solar Industry

Image Credit: OTT HydroMet - Solar Energy

This article summarizes several key findings from four notable events about the solar industry: the Solar Asset Management, Solar Power International, Solar Summit and the PV Magazine Roundtable events.

Kipp & Zonen’s Application Development Manager Damon Nitzel attended over 100 hours of webinars, courses and discussions throughout 2020, drawing out two key points that summarize current trends in the global solar industry:

“1. More data on solar irradiance is required to boost predictive analytics, that improve pre-construction production estimates and increase site performance while reducing maintenance labor costs.”

Nitzel continues, “2. The solar industry has begun to earn the trust in both economy and society, and this requires that all of the market players continue to focus on building for long-term resilience using quality, as opposed to lowest-bid construction.”

Reducing Labor Costs

A significant number of PV plants are found in remote places such as deserts, with novel developments such as ‘floatovoltaics’ situated offshore.

Facilitating the large-scale operation of remote power plants requires many more data points and accurate predictive analytics around power production and maintenance.

A combination of increasingly dense data and additional types of measurements can assist site operators in determining the cause of performance ratio (PR) losses, for example, via warning signs, soiling rates, degradation rates or weather forecasts.

The need to reduce staff not only stems from a need to minimize costs – there is also a shortage of skilled labor.

The solar market continues to grow at a rapid rate of 15-20%. This requires the solar industry to constantly hire, resulting in a knowledge and training gap, which can ultimately lead to delays in project completion.

There are several approaches that can help foster effective remote PV site management, reducing the requirements for on-site labor.

Increased use of real-time data enables the root causes of issues to be determined remotely, prior to calling for a technician. This approach helps the technician know which parts are needed in advance, how long the job will take and whether it is more cost-effective to visit a site to apply a single fix, wait for multiple repairs or wait for a routine maintenance visit.

It is advisable to automate as much cleaning, vegetation management and repair as possible.

It is also advised to build sites better to mitigate the need for future maintenance and repowering due to poor quality cabling, junction boxes, connectors and combiner boxes.

If budgets allow, drones are an excellent tool for conducting site evaluation before purchasing. Module-level analysis can, therefore, be performed to determine site health and boost investor confidence.

Solar Energy Viability and Plant Resiliency

Constructing a PV site requires long-term vision to minimize downtime. The solar market is made stronger when users of solar power feel that they can trust the long-term stability of PV power generation.

This vital need for stability and resiliency has led many industry-leading companies to consider the importance of upstream and downstream effects ahead of short-term profits.

This change in approach stems from even young sites of only 3-4 years old being prone to performance losses, predominantly from rudimentary and easily preventable issues.

Ensuring minimal downtime is an essential element of a site’s resiliency plan. The ability to identify the cause of performance loss(es) remotely - particularly in a predictive fashion - is instrumental in delivering a rapid, appropriate response.

This can be challenging, however, when insufficient or inappropriate monitoring equipment is installed. The reliable monitoring of a range of site and environmental parameters is key to successfully identifying the causes of performance losses.

Performance losses can be categorized into two groups:

  • Recoverable losses to take action on, for example, stuck tracks, broken panels or soiling
  • Unrecoverable to account for; for example, cloud cover, extreme weather or smoke

Site Financial Viability and Performance Predictions

Site owners and financiers typically expect projects to perform as if they are operated in optimistic conditions, which unfortunately are often not realistic.

A range of factors can hinder the site’s ability to meet the project’s power output requirements, for example, weather conditions, resource availability, module degradation rates, module soiling, equipment failure rates, etc.

Site owners should answer questions around whether problems can be fixed promptly, including the frequency of washing panels. It is also essential to consider whether the new site will be prone to more extreme weather resulting from climate change.

As increasing numbers of PV installations are brought online, these continue to generate historical production data sets that can be used to optimize and enhance production forecasts for new sites.

As funding sources look to move away from tax equity, the availability of superior production forecasts will be essential in avoiding new sites going into default due to underperformance.

Acknowledgments

Produced from materials originally authored by Martin Maly from OTT HydroMet.

This information has been sourced, reviewed and adapted from materials provided by OTT HydroMet - Solar Energy.

For more information on this source, please visit OTT HydroMet - Solar Energy.

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