Operations & Maintenance 101: Frequently Asked Questions

By: Pivot Energy

October 27 2023

We sat down with Pivot Energy’s Angela Burke and Kwasi Lee to discuss operations and maintenance (O&M) and shed light on this crucial aspect of renewable energy project development.

How would you describe Operations and Maintenance (O&M) at a high level?


At its core, O&M ensures that everything is operating at maximum efficiency. It's a combination of preventative maintenance work, and corrective or reactive work. A well executed O&M strategy can reduce costs by improving energy production and thus, site revenue.


I like to say that O&M is similar to watching over your personal well-being. You don’t get an annual checkup cause you think something’s wrong; you’re there to try and catch any issues before it's a major problem or substantial financial issue.

What’s a typical O&M strategy?


Well, first of all, every renewable energy developer has their own O&M strategy. Whereas there are a ton of regulations and best practices for constructing, commissioning, and energizing a renewable energy site, there aren’t really any strict O&M requirements. At Pivot Energy, we prefer to be proactive and schedule two annual preventative maintenance – or PM – visits. Specifically, we schedule PM visits for both the spring and fall. Essentially to make sure that everything is running smoothly before those high production summer months, and then check up on everything again in the fall to ensure it's tuned up before the winter weather hits. We find that this reduces the cost of maintenance throughout the lifespan of our solar projects. Some asset owners opt to schedule PM visits once a year and then accept that they’ll likely need to deal with more corrective dispatches. And then again, different solar providers are going to have slightly different checklists for each PM visit. Since Pivot owns sites coast to coast, we partnered with Omnidian, who has an extremely robust O&M checklist. Our partnership with Omnidian helps us to ensure that we’re going above and beyond consistently across the board.

Can you give an example of how Pivot Energy’s O&M strategy goes above and beyond?


Of course! Most utilities require vegetation to be maintained below a certain height for overall safety, fire prevention, and other such reasons. For years, the industry standard has been relying on mechanical mowers, but at Pivot-owned locations, we use sheep grazing as long as there are no unusual conditions that would prohibit this practice. Sheep grazing is definitely more time consuming and takes more effort to coordinate, but we feel that it's worthwhile to eliminate carbon emissions from traditional mowing methods.

Is there a difference between O&M for a rooftop array vs ground mount solar panels?


Although there's a difference in design, as far as O&M protocol, they’re essentially the same. We're going to check out all the modules. We will check out the wiring to ensure that our wire management is on point. And we'll inspect the electrical boxes to ensure there isn't any moisture, dust, or anything else. Whether the solar array is installed on a rooftop or ground mount, there may be slight differences for corrective practices. But these are all site specific. Some folks assume that a ground mount array equals community solar and that rooftop equals electricity for the building, but that isn’t always the case. There are many different combinations: a ground mount array can be leveraged for virtual net metering for a specific offtaker, there are rooftop community solar arrays, and so forth. From an O&M lens, we treat everything the same.

What are the best practices for cleaning solar panels?


When it comes to module cleaning, we and the entire solar industry are still dialing in best practices for determining how often specific sites should be cleaned. At Pivot, we're considering the use of special sensors that can provide data that will help us determine when “soiling” – a term for dirt that has aggregate on the tops of solar panels – has reached a high enough threshold, such that the resulting increase in production justifies the cleaning cost. We tend to approach cleaning regionally. In areas like Illinois, we know there's gonna be some heavy pollen in the spring, so we know to keep a closer eye on production levels after those spring months. Typically, we assume a dryer climate, such as Colorado or California, would require a couple of yearly cleanings to combat that lack of precipitation, which can somewhat naturally clean the panels. Beyond that, it's really site specific. So, a Colorado site right next to agricultural activities might require an extra cleaning after they finish planting in the fall and another once their harvest is complete. In more urban sites, like LA, there's a lot more potential for soiling related to pollution and air particles. So we would assume that a more urban site would require more frequent cleans.

What happens between PM visits? What are these corrective visits? 


Between PM visits, we're actively monitoring the sites 24/7 with data acquisition systems or DAS, and addressing all one-off outages or other alerts. Depending on the type of outage and the location, we determine whether we need to send a truck over to troubleshoot the problem. 


Most problems tend to be site specific. An array can be damaged from a certain weather event, a heat wave, or maybe a hurricane just knocked out the local utility provider.

What happens when solar equipment gets damaged?


All the major equipment has a warranty. The inverters have a 10-year warranty, and the racking and modules have 25-year warranties. If a defect or some fault occurs with that equipment within the warranty period, it will be replaced by the manufacturer. However, when an event transpired that’s not covered under warranty – perhaps there’s a projectile hole, damage from softball sized hail, or perhaps a tree falls and damages five panels – our strategy is to try and leverage spare parts instead of filing insurance claims. In the extremely rare event that a more significant disaster occurs, for instance, a tornado tears through the middle of the array, we would file an insurance claim and have engineers get the site back up and running. The damaged panels get collected on a palette over time. Once that palette is full, we ship it over to a recycler.

Solar arrays can be over 50 acres; how do you figure out what’s wrong on a site that big?


We leverage aerial imagery, which involves flying drones over the site once or twice a year. On top of that, our installers scan and geotag each individual serial number of every panel – which can be as many as 5,000 or more solar panels. With each panel geotagged, our subsequent drone flights collect infrared or IR images, plus photos of the entire site. With that, we can identify any failed panels or cells and anything that might be warranty related. This setup may be a bit time consuming, but it makes managing these assets much easier in the long run.

What do you like about O&M?


I really enjoy O&M. In the past, it’s been overlooked, and I'm excited to see the industry is starting to shift. O&M is prioritized much more frequently. O&M is really cool and important. There's a wide range of skills required to be on the O&M asset management side of the solar industry. It’s a really great long-term career trajectory for solar professionals, and there are lots of different ways to “plug in”. The field is growing quickly as we dispatch more and more assets. It's a thrilling place to be.


It's really gratifying, and it keeps you on your toes. Every day is different. Many areas of the solar industry involve doing the same repetitive routine. With O&M, you wake up never knowing what's going to happen that day. Everything is unique, and there’s always a new opportunity to learn. I've been in the industry for over 15 years now, and I’m still seeing new stuff regularly, thanks to the nature of O&M. We get to dabble in all aspects of solar: contracting, sales, permitting, and engineering. We’re the ones that are solving unique problems and keeping everything moving forward. It's really cool to be on site and see O&M in action.

Reach Out to Learn More about O&M

O&M professionals, such as Angela and Kwasi, are the unsung heroes in the renewable energy industry, ensuring the sustained vitality of our solar projects. As the industry evolves, the significance of O&M has become undeniable, as it underpins the reliability, efficiency, and environmental impact of solar arrays. Get in touch to learn more about Pivot's dedication to excellence in O&M and the entire realm of renewable energy. 


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