How-To: Improve Cost Efficiency of Electrical Grid Assets

While it may be more cost-efficient to build photovoltaic (PV) power plants than operate coal plants, PV power grids need maintenance. Renewable energy grids, such as solar, require monitoring and maintenance. These activities are essential for achieving the plant’s 25-year (or greater) lifespan and improve the cost efficiency of electrical grid assets .

In this article we are going to discuss the 7 grid assets that require the most maintenance and repair (and the impact that can have on a PV plant). Then we’ll go on to explore some methods of maximizing the cost-efficiency of PV plant assets (and microgrids generally).

Improve Cost Efficiency of Electrical Grid Assets

Temperature, debris, ambient conditions, electromagnetic fields, and even vandalism cause wear and tear on PV power plant assets. As components wear out, their efficiency will reduce, and some can even cause strings to become non-performant. Repairing and replacing these assets is, therefore, essential for improving the cost efficiency of electrical grid assets .

These PV power plant assets cause the greatest number of faults, according to Raptor Maps’ 2021 Global Solar Aerial Inspection Report :

1. String – String faults impact 173,002 kW worth of production. Composed of wires, combiner boxes, junctions, electrical disconnects, service panels, and more, strings have numerous points of failure. Anything from worn-out boxes to improperly installed cables can cause downtime.

2. Solar Inverters – Inverters are the most active component in a PV system and one of the primary causes of unplanned interruptions. Inverters can fail due to overheating, over- or under-voltage, faults in the MPPT module, and manufacturing defects.

Faulty installation–such as incorrectly matching inverter capacity to solar panels–too, harms efficiency and can reduce the inverter’s lifespan.

3. PV Panels – The large surface area of photovoltaic panels and exposure to ambient conditions means panels are prone to damage from debris (such as pebbles), soiling, and overheating. Vegetation can cause shading, reducing the efficiency of the panel, as can dust and moisture accumulation.

4. Cabling – Wiring, connectors, and diodes are essential components in solar power generation, and prone to damage. Improper installation and maintenance training, overheating, and environmental damage, in addition to expected wear and tear, mean cabling must be inspected regularly.

Scrutinizing wiring and electrical connections should be performed visually, by current-voltage (I-V) curve analysis, and thermal scanning.

5. Racking/Tracker – Racking upkeep costs are relatively minor as long-term issues tend to be few and far between. Tacker issues, however, like any mechanical system will be higher (doubling the number of service calls annually, according to one survey ).

Trackers can suffer breakdowns in power supplies, controllers, hydraulics, motors, and other equipment.

6. Vegetation Management – Vegetation management, usually considered a “cost-plus” contingency item, is highly variable depending on the acreage and location of the solar power system. Other than shading, which reduces panel performance, improper vegetation management can increase the chances of panel damage, too.

7. Firmware Updates – A relatively lesser-known issue, firmware updates for inverters can impact solar power production, causing panels to “go dark” or perform at a level lower than surrounding ones. If possible, assess the impact of firmware updates on a small section of the plant before rolling it out entirely.

How to Improve the Cost Efficiency of Electrical Grid Assets at a PV Power Plant

Operational cost efficiency is a primary consideration for any power plant, especially for microgrids; and anything over $2 million per megawatt becomes “too expensive for customers that we are trying to serve,” says Manoj Sinha . Regular maintenance, repair, and replacement activities can help achieve production targets and preserve uptime.

A PV plant can improve the cost efficiency of electrical grid assets by:

Following Effective Maintenance Routines

Asset maintenance begins with selecting the right maintenance styles, rather than just seeing maintenance activity as a cost center. The longer components can be used, the greater the value that can be extracted from them.

  • Preventative Maintenance (PM or PBM) – Routine inspection and servicing of assets reduces the likelihood of breakdowns and unplanned downtime. PBM must be performed in moderation, else maintenance-based activities themselves can induce wear and tear on components.
  • Corrective Maintenance (CM) – Addressing asset breakdown is essential for mitigating the impact of unplanned downtime. This break/fix activity may seem to reduce maintenance costs but can actually lead to higher costs due to reputational harm and possible loss of customers (since it is reactive to downtime).
    It is best teamed with a comprehensive condition-based maintenance strategy.
  • Condition-Based Maintenance (CBM) – Using real-time data to optimize and prioritize maintenance resources. CBM requires investment into hardware and software to monitor condition, and manage maintenance activities, but it can offer greater operations and maintenance (O&M) efficiencies.

PV- powered plants are trending towards CBM approaches that allow in-depth oversight and asset management. Facilities that don’t have the need/resources to implement O&M themselves turn to third-party providers for proactive and reactive maintenance.

 

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The Cornerstone of Effective Maintenance: Training

About 52% of respondents to a survey said their team wasn’t trained on maintenance best practices during PV system installation; over 70% said they didn’t understand the impact of the environment on the solar array.

Unsurprisingly, nearly 100% of respondents agreed that maintenance personnel didn’t have the skills and knowledge for maintaining solar PV power plants.

The study further found a relationship between maintenance practices and PV system performance. If adequate maintenance and repair activities are not undertaken, the plant can become inoperative in 3-5 years.

It’s why continual training, inspections, and revisiting maintenance best practices periodically are essential for maximizing the lifespan of the PV plant and minimizing the cost of electricity generated .

Reducing Costs Through Modularity

Standardized, modular microgrids can help reduce upfront and operating costs and provide a path to grid modernization . Shifting away from the adage “ If you’ve seen one microgrid, you’ve seen one microgrid’ ” and adopting standardized components can drive down costs and improve reliability and resilience .

That’s not to say all PV microgrids have to be the same, rather they should have a sufficiently modular design.

System integration issues can be reduced by pre-configuring switchgear and controls before they are sent for on-site deployment, too.

 

Learn more about solar power maintenance:

 

O&M activities can become overwhelming and disorganized as the electric grid becomes more sophisticated and ages over time. Reliably logging maintenance schedules, data, and planning maintenance activity requires a CMMS that allows your team to collaborate and communicate effortlessly.

It’s why owner-operators and third-party maintenance providers turn to 60Hertz Energy’s CMMS software. Our system can be customized to suit your KPIs, works with offline-ready mobile applications, and enables grid scalability that improve the cost efficiency of electrical grid assets . Book a demo today.

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