The COVID-19 pandemic has stressed the importance of moving towards automation and digitization, especially for the operations and maintenance (O&M) of the solar sector in the country. Initially, O&M activities were limited to site management, involving module cleaning and grass cutting. Later, the scope of O&M was extended to the optimal use of the balance of system and delivery of the promised generation.
Now, O&M players have started investing in the automation of predictive maintenance services of solar systems. One of the reasons why automation is so helpful is that it decreases manpower costs. With the low tariffs discovered in the recent solar auctions, the margins of O&M players have also been reduced. This means that to maintain profitability, O&M players must deploy technology to predict the future of components and assess plant performance in order to avoid penalties.
Another reason for O&M players to invest in the automation of predictive maintenance services is the strict scheduling, forecasting, and deviation settlement regulations done by the state governments, which penalize over- and under-generation of electricity from renewable energy plants.
Not only can automation help in preventive maintenance on the field in the form of drones, robots, and smart sensors, but it can also work in offices where remote monitoring systems can be set up at a centralized location. Remote monitoring helps identify underperforming components, operate automatic ticketing systems and detect soiling losses. They can also monitor the whole solar plant remotely and take quick actions in the case of any untoward incidents.
Inspire Clean Energy, a Mumbai based O&M service company has developed a software platform called EIRA. The model of EIRA is based on the three-second and three-click concept, wherein a client is made aware of the status of solar plants in three clicks. EIRA logs into every project at 15-minute intervals to check the performance parameters of each inverter, energy meter and transformer. If a flaw is detected, it automatically generates a ticket and sends it to the nearest engineer. As soon as the problem is solved, a report is sent to the client.
“The EIRA technology platform and Inspire Clean Energy’s Investment Model O&M strategy helped a 10 MW plant in Andhra Pradesh see a reduction in unplanned inverter downtime by 23%”VEH GLOBAL
Technologies have matured over time from computer-based automated monitoring systems to drones, robots, and wearables, and now to solutions based on artificial intelligence (AI) and the internet of things (IoT).
Robotic water-free module cleaning technologies are one of the latest developments to reduce water wastage and minimize the physical workforce.
Nowadays, the real-time monitoring of equipment performance and measurement of energy generation is necessary to ensure that a plant is performing at an optimum level. That is why supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems have become an inherent part of all solar plants. This system allows for small distributed plants to be monitored remotely to identify faults without hindering plant operations.
Drones are excellent for site assessment and O&M as they can provide greater detail then ground crews. According to industry experts, drones can inspect all the modules in a 2 MW plant in about 15 minutes, while the same activity will require more than three hours if carried out manually. Moreover, thermal imaging cameras on drones can detect malfunctioning modules, specifically hotspots that reduce electricity generation. They can identify faulty modules or strings with great reliability and can save up to 30,000 hours of hazardous work each year. Meanwhile, crawling robots can get quite close to a structure’s surface, and use microwave and ultrasonic transmitters and receivers to penetrate equipment structures and reveal defects in materials.
However, using all these solar automation tools can also entail significant costs. But of robotics, drones, and other automated tools reapplied on a certain minimum scale and across regions, it may prove to be cost-effective in terms of total efficiency gains. As more and more companies invest in automation, a more focused O&M strategy can be devised.
As the segment becomes more technology-driven, the composition of the total cost is likely to shift from personnel to digital soon. As per estimates, the share of personnel in the total cost will come down to 17% and the expenditure on digital equipment will comprise more than 50% of the total cost by 2028. It is believed that if the current pace of automation is maintained, the majority of the O&M activities will be carried out through AI-enabled field assistants instead of manpower.
The remobilization of the workforce post-COVID will be the next big challenge for O&M players. Developers that have invested heavily in remote monitoring and digitalization will face fewer issues while transitioning from these difficult times.
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Summarized from RenewableWatch Magazine