The digitalisation of PV operations

October 31st, 2019, Published in Articles: Energize

All eyes are on digital technology as European PV plant operators continue to seek meaningful reductions in asset management and operations and maintenance (O&M) costs. Digitalisation promises to slash operational expenses and boost efficiency by automating many tasks that currently have to be done by hand, and by improving asset managers’ ability to rapidly identify and remedy issues affecting plant profitability.

But the process of digitalisation is not without its challenges. Digital systems cost money and are not guaranteed to deliver the insights they are meant for. Choosing the right platforms, applications and integrations to invest in is not always an easy process.

The market context

The solar energy sector gets top marks for embracing digital technology. According to research by the global quality assurance and risk management company DNV GL, solar is the most advanced of any energy sector in terms of digital transformation [1]. Demand for blockchain skills by solar companies, for example, is 50% higher than in the energy sector as a whole. The use of drones is a third higher in solar than in other energy-related industries [2].

Perhaps most importantly, only 13% of solar experts claimed that lack of a digital mindset was an obstacle to digitalisation, the lowest level of any energy industry surveyed. Clearly, solar leaders are well aware of the benefits of digitalisation. That does not necessarily mean they are having an easy time with digital transformation, though. Panellists at PV Operations Europe 2019 highlighted many benefits from digitalisation while at the same time acknowledging significant challenges in adoption.

Fig. 1: The relvance of information, interfaces, service management and workflow organisation in an O&M process (Meteocontrol).

Overcoming these challenges is a critical task for the industry as it strives to use technology to continue driving down costs.

Drivers for digitalisation

Digitalisation is relevant to almost all players in the solar value chain, according to Martin Schneider, the MD of Meteocontrol, which monitors 13 GW of power across 45 000 PV plants worldwide. “If you are an operator, you can optimise your process,” he says. “If you are an asset manager, you see how you can challenge your operator a bit more.” Perhaps one of the biggest drivers for the application of digital technologies is the high cost of manpower in the sector, particularly in Europe where skilled technicians demand relatively high salaries. “To use field service personnel very effectively is a key challenge,” Schneider points out. “Here in Europe those resources are limited. It’s about handling more plants with the same resources.”

The manpower issue is particularly acute for the growing number of operators that have portfolios distributed over large regions or across borders. Keeping a handle on the plants in large portfolios becomes very difficult without digital technology, not least because of the resources required for manual data collection and analysis.

Table 1: Five categories of analysis which can be carried out with SCADA and CMMS data.

For example, at Encavis, which has almost 2 GW of solar and wind in Italy, “the technical availability is often calculated manually by the O&M [provider],” says Saul Lazzarini, technical portfolio manager. “How can I check 84 reports? I cannot afford to do that.”

In contrast, if technologies such as supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems are linked into broader workflow and analysis platforms then a small central team can respond rapidly to events on the ground while having a broad view of operations.

The potential of the technology

Digitalisation has the potential to impact on four major areas of solar O&M. Schneider suggests the following.

Workflow organisation

Maintaining efficient workflows is key to solar cost reduction and digital systems can help asset managers to keep track of recurring tasks, such as green keeping, as well as single events such as expiring warranties. Workflow organisation systems can also provide a portfolio overview within which asset managers can assign priorities to certain parameters. Otherwise, “if you have a hundred tools, it’s difficult to know which ones are critical,” Schneider says.

Information

Three sources of information can be managed by digital systems to improve plant performance. The first of these includes plant documentation, contract documents, warranty conditions and the like, usually stored in a document management system. Beyond this, there is extended system data, such as plant access details, service partner administration information and technician costs, and component histories.

Service management

This includes key performance indicators (KPIs) such as availability, along with work orders, reports and analyses. Companies such as Meteocontrol offer service management packages in the form of a mobile app, for use in the field. “The operator transfers what he wants to do on site and there is direct feedback,” Schneider comments. Traditionally, he says, “this kind of reporting takes a week or two weeks and is far too long. With digitalisation you reduce timing.”

Interfaces

Digital tools work most effectively when they are properly integrated into the supply chain, for example to enable spare parts management and enterprise resource planning functions such as quoting and ordering. “Interfaces are key if you talk about digitalisation,” says Schneider.

What digitalisation delivers today

Basic plant infrastructure such as SCADA and computerized maintenance management system (CMMS) platforms can deliver a host of insights if the data is analysed correctly. Enrique Camacho, predictive maintenance and life extension coordinator at Ingeteam Power, lists five categories of analysis that can be carried out on SCADA and CMMS data (see Table 1).

However, he notes, it is important to check the accuracy of the data before applying analysis techniques. “When we receive the SCADA or CMMS data, we use pattern analysis and neural network algorithms to know when the information is OK,” he says.

For the analysis, many asset managers prefer a mix of off-the-shelf and in-house systems, although the balance depends on factors such as the budget available for IT investment. At Encavis, for example, “it’s external,” says Lazzarini. “We don’t have the capacity to do it internally. It’s huge investment.”

Christian Ahrens, Head of Solar Asset Management at Aquila Capital, which controls 2,8 GW of wind and solar, mostly in Europe and Japan, says most of his company’s analysis systems are also external. The sole exception is for some software that was used to analyse systemic defects in a particular component.

“In our experience, it’s very important to have that kind of key software in house because if it gets really tense in court then you have to know what you are doing,” Ahrens says.

Fig. 2: Components of a big data system for renewable energy.

Challenges to be overcome

While the solar industry is clearly racing to embrace digitalisation, there are still considerable hurdles to be overcome. One of the main problems relates to tying together numerous IT systems acquired over time through mergers and acquisitions. “Most companies already have an existing IT landscape and when you introduce a new system or a new platform for renewable assets it’s always a challenge to deal with the legacy,” says Jacqueline Huynh, asset manager at Allianz Global Investors.

The cost of integration can be a serious barrier to digitalisation, particularly when legacy systems are present in only a small number of plants. Aquila Capital, for example, has opted to leave some of its smaller plants out of its analytics platform because “they are running fine and it will cost too much include them in the system,” says Ahrens.

Another challenge for asset managers is in finding analytics packages that deliver a wide enough range of functionality. For example, Huynh says: “Because we are a pure financial investor, we don’t need to deal with the assets on a daily basis, but we still want everything. We still want financial reporting, we still want technical reporting, we want to know what happens on site.”

Digitalisation’s future promise

Despite these challenges, most solar asset managers are fully aware of the potential benefits of digitalisation.

“Once we have everything on a single platform, once all the data is aggregated, we will be able to perform benchmarking, and this is very important,” Huynh says. “It’s going to allow us to see who our best partners are, who are the best contractors, which are the sites bringing in most revenues. It’s what allows you to make resource allocation.”

Increasing digitalisation will not just deliver much greater O&M and asset management efficiency, but also promises to allow much more detailed analyses of the future state of plants and portfolios. And this insight could be tied to financial forecasts, says Huynh. “You can look at the past, analyse the last 15 years and know exactly what happened and how the asset behaved, and you will be able to look into the future,” she says. Based on past performance and external data, she claims, “you can make predictions with dynamic weather forecasts. You can make predictions based on price curves. You’re going to have dynamic business models and you can have dynamic, updated cashflows.”

These cashflow projections could even offer guidance on investor dividends “this year, next year, in five years and 15 years from now,” Huynh says.

For Schneider, digitalisation is the key to future market growth. “We think if you digitalise your whole process it leads to higher electrical yield, lower operating costs, it creates more confidence in the technology and the transparency leads to more investment and a growing PV market,” he says.

Outlook and conclusions

While the benefits of digitalisation are obvious, and solar is further along the curve than other energy sectors, Schneider cautions that there is still a long way to go. “We are not half the way there,” he says. “I doubt that anyone has the complete process digitalised. The last parts are the hardest ones. We haven’t reached 50% of what’s possible yet.”

Far from being a problem, though, Schneider believes solar’s current state of digitalisation is positive because it highlights that there is still a long way to go in terms of possible cost reduction and efficiency gain. “There’s a lot of potential still,” he says.

Exactly how much potential is impossible to say. However, Schneider points out that studies by McKinsey, the management consultancy, have shown that data-driven companies are 19 times more likely to be profitable than those that do not make the most of the data they have.

“Digitalisation is a big challenge on one hand, but it’s also a big opportunity,” says Schneider.

Clearly, digitalisation is set to play a key role as solar enters an unprecedented phase of growth. Between now and 2023, the International Energy Agency forecasts solar will expand by almost 600 GW, more than all other renewable energy technologies combined [3].

References

[1] Sinead Murray: “Solar industry most advanced energy sector to drive digital transformation”, DNV GL, www.dnvgl.com/news/solar-industry-most-advanced-energy-sector-to-drive-digital-transformation-148542.

[2] Ibid.

[3] International Energy Agency: “Modern bioenergy leads the growth of all renewables to 2023”, www.iea.org/newsroom/news/2018/october/modern-bioenergy-leads-the-growth-of-allrenewables-to-2023-according-to-latest-.html.

Contact Luke Brett, New Energy Update, luke@newenergyupdate.com

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