What Can Solar Learn from A Former Wind Guy?

Before utility-scale solar deployment grew to multi-gigawatt proportions, wind power had been operating at that scale for years. The monitoring and servicing of those wind assets have a long track record, with robust operational best practices, supply chain management and maintenance processes. Might there be some lessons to learn and comparisons to share from our clean energy colleagues, perhaps offering ideas on how solar services could be improved? This former wind guy thinks so.

While the electrons generated from a solar plant or wind farm might share clean origins, there are some significant differences between the two cousins when it comes to operations, maintenance, and asset management. Wind turbines are massive, self-contained, complex machines, made by a single manufacturer, bought by the developer, and serviced in many cases by the OEM under contract with the asset owner. That relationship begins early and can continue for the life of the project—the necessity of optimizing lifetime performance of those turbines is baked in during the project execution phases. The aftermarket supply chain for replacement parts is sophisticated and optimized, the critical maintenance schedules are known and understood, and there are onsite O&M teams ready to respond to issues.

Wind operators plan for failures: modeling in downtime, loss of production, and the like. The amount of data, analytics, and, yes, experience based on sound inspection plans and maintenance practices bolsters a strong preventive maintenance mentality, one that is more proactive than reactive. When a turbine’s gearbox fails, the stakes are high: the costs quickly run deep into six figures to have an O&M team on the ground, secure a crane (fyi, the biggest piece of the budget pie), replace the components—and take the production hit. Rather than react when something fails, owners would rather nip potential problems in the bud.

Although solar asset management and O&M technology and programs have come a long way in a relatively short time, there are still opportunities for improvement. Some solar asset developers, managers, and owners haven’t always made life-cycle concerns a top priority. Given the industry’s relative maturation, the utility-scale solar industry – as a whole – is still perfecting best practices with assets now coming of age after 10-15 years of project life, requiring consistent focus on repairs, replacements, and production—as well as advanced digitalization and analytics innovation.

Unlike a wind farm, a solar farm is not a monoculture operation. There are many “crops to plant,” given the various equipment sets from different vendors. Suppliers are now just beginning to develop comprehensive services offerings – going beyond tracking warranty claims. (The inverter vendors and a few tracker companies might be the closest solar OEMs to a wind OEM in their approaches.) The asset managers, owners, and EPCs must deal with many supplier relationships and a patchwork of support. It’s what some have called “the Frankenstein effect.”

Another difference in the approaches for wind and solar services in the U.S. stems from the different federal incentives in play: the Production Tax Credit (PTC) for wind and Investment Tax Credit (ITC) for solar. To get the most bang for their PTC buck, wind operators have needed to keep their power plants performing at the highest level possible over the life of the plant. For solar, the ITC has no such performance aspect – the simplified version boils down to develop, build, commission, and get the plant to Permission to Operate (PTO), then reap the tax credit benefits.

The implementation of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) may change that. One of the act’s opportunities allows solar developers to choose either the ITC or PTC route, based on which option provides the best economics for their projects. If they select the PTC, it will become a necessity for PV asset owners to act more like the wind folks and pay even closer attention to the lifetime operational optimization of their assets. In the end, it’s likely that more solar owners will demand availability/performance guarantees from their suppliers and vendors as a result.

Nextracker’s global services team has taken some of these lessons from our breezy colleagues to heart. But it’s important to note that we have the most reliable systems in the industry, built with the highest quality components (which are less expensive and last longer than many wind components, I’ve been surprised to find out), while delivering more energy over the lifetime of the power plant than other platforms.

Here are a few quality data points. Nextracker only receives about 80 “nonconformity reports” for every gigawatt of systems shipped – that’s 80 “parts per billion” watts–well below the metrics of traditional systems. In terms of operational system availability, verified data shows our trackers performing at a crisp 99.63% — a number that far exceeds the norm, according to asset owners and managers.

We get involved early with all of the stakeholders, long before construction has started. We collaborate closely with our aftermarket providers, and deploy best-in-class data monitoring, control and predictive analytics platforms like NX Navigator, proactive operational services, and other aftermarket services to support and enable in-house and third-party providers. Much of the time tech support issues can be dealt with remotely via our connected network by Nextracker’s dedicated engineering and support staff.

We collaborate with our customers to help them keep their tracker assets running in peak condition throughout their lifetimes, with minimal expense and interruption.

An example of Nextracker’s customer-focused approach is our spares management program, which allows them to reduce inventory costs and supply chain risks by contracting with them to strategically place controllers, motors, slew gears and other critical components in our global network of warehouses. Our aftermarket services model demonstrates that parts supply agreements can drive anywhere from 10-20% savings on tracker inventory and associated sourcing costs, depending on the site.

We also provide training through our PowerworX Academy programs, so our customers can identify qualified talent, and we can provide insights and best practices to help them maintain and optimize their systems.

With the next terawatt-scale stage of solar deployment just a few years away, it is critical that PV plants perform optimally and continue to generate financial returns for their owners. Recent studies suggest a worrying underperformance trend among solar assets, so the need for proactive, smart global services has become even more essential. We’ve taken a page out of the wind industry’s book and raised the bar—and encourage the solar industry to do the same.

To learn more about Nextracker aftermarket service offerings, go to our webpage or send me an email: zdrawbaugh@nextracker.com.

Zach Drawbaugh is Director of Business Development, Services at Nextracker. Before joining the company, Zach worked in the wind industry for Vestas and GE on natural gas power generation for over 10 years as well as for renewables analytics and engineering firm, ONYX Insight. He has a BS in mechanical engineering from Bucknell and an MBA from University of Chicago.