Energy storage O&M: It’s more complicated than solar

Read this blog published in Energy Storage News here.

As the number of medium- and large-scale energy storage deployments has grown, so too has the recognition that the soon-to-be gigawatts of battery assets coming online will have to be properly managed and will require robust operations and maintenance programs. But unlike the solar PV sector where there’s often an attitude of “let’s sell the project first and worry about O&M later,” storage projects must have services built in to the thinking and financial process from the beginning. Utilities and other savvy asset owners want to know what type of O&M will be provided, how the teams will be qualified, and how the services will be provided to ensure the productivity of their new system. In other words, with storage, a strong O&M plan and team become part and parcel of making and closing a strong productive deal.

There are some areas of overlap between the best practices of PV and storage O&M: in both cases, designing for serviceability promotes system health. Good installation using quality products is one of the best ways to hedge against subpar performance. Predictive maintenance backed by advanced data analytics is more cost effective than rolling trucks whenever there might be an issue. A warranty is only as good as the financial strength of the company behind it.

But to say that “services provided to storage systems do not radically vary from those provided to solar systems” would be misleading. In many ways, the stakes are higher with storage O&M and the financial risks that must be managed are more difficult than in solar. Storage O&M is significantly more complicated than its solar sibling—involving a broader range of components and subsystems as well as power distribution and load management issues—and requires a higher level of technical training and expertise among the workforce as well.

Why are the stakes higher? Because we are no longer just working with and servicing a component of a power plant such as a tracker, inverter or solar panel; with storage, we are now servicing many additional critical layers of the power plant. As storage O&M providers, it’s not just about the battery: We must have expertise in every piece of the system so that we can help manage the owner’s financial risk by ensuring the storage asset performs at its optimal level.

If a PV array takes a hit in performance because of substandard O&M practices or problems with an inverter or faulty panels, the plant will still be operational, albeit at a reduced production level, and can be brought back up to speed with the proper repairs. If a lithium-ion storage system suffers a thermal runaway or other degradation-inducing event, the batteries will not recover, and the system may become a permanently low-performing or even stranded asset—and the asset owner will be out of pocket and out of luck.

Storage O&M providers must be able to service the whole system, whether it’s a containerized lithium ion platform or a flow battery, from the point where the DC current comes in to the system through the conversion process until the AC current leaves the system. They must monitor and address any anomalies across a range of electrical, electro-mechanical, chemical and thermal subsystems. There is firmware and software, fire suppression systems and battery management platforms to maintain. A keen knowledge of heat-load profiles and other performance metrics as well as potential failure points is required. Technicians need a comprehensive skill set across multiple technologies to deal with any issues that might arise over the lifetime of the system.

As with smart solar O&M, monitoring, bidirectional communications and connectivity, data analytics and, increasingly, machine learning and artificial intelligence algorithms will play a key role in keeping a storage system performing well and providing the owner with the expected revenue. While there might be a few dozen data points to keep an eye on for a tracker system, or an inverter, there are hundreds of points to be monitored in a storage system. Predicting when an issue might arise and planning for it rather than reacting to issues after they happen becomes even more critical to the life of the asset. The complexity of the data that’s gathered is much deeper and the number of things that must be analyzed more varied.

But complexity is not a barrier if you have data connectivity and know what you are looking for. Having machine learning capability and a team of data scientists that can make sense of all that data will be a significant component of successful storage O&M and asset management going forward.

Nextracker will be participating in the upcoming Solar Asset Management-North America conference, taking place in San Francisco, March 26-27.