Responding to System Issues: Interview with O&M Director Phillip Stephenson

We asked Borrego Solar’s director of O&M, Phillip Stephenson, to define the gold standard in issue response. He illuminates on the role a solar owner plays, most common problems that O&M technicians fix and the most important attribute of a maintenance provider (hint: it’s not response time).

solar maintenance
One of our Project Managers at our Anaheim Convention Center project

What are the primary responsibilities of an O&M provider? 

Above all, an O&M provider’s job is to optimize asset performance and communicate the asset’s status in a continuous and streamlined fashion to the owner of the project. Optimizing asset performance simply means getting as many kilowatt hours (kWh) per kilowatt (kW) as possible. Through preventive maintenance and rapid response to failures, an O&M provider maximizes kWh/kW while assuring the solar asset does not age faster than necessary. This yields greater production over the long term.

What technologies do most O&M providers use to monitor production of an installation? 

Distributed solar assets are monitored by Data Acquisition Systems (DAS), which track project performance and related telemetry issues. Typically, DAS systems allow a solar maintenance provider to monitor at the equipment level for problems and use weather stations to make sure plants are operating optimally relative to expectations and environmental conditions. The DAS is also the O&M provider’s “eyes” on the site, facilitating performance tracking and identifying issues that require corrective maintenance.

What are the first three things you do when you get a system alert?

An alert from the DAS system is received and analyzed by the manager for the region in which the system is located as well as a member of the Systems Performance Group. The alert is then analyzed to determine if 1) it is a “false alarm”, 2) requires dispatching of a technician to site to troubleshoot, or 3) if further analysis is required by Borrego’s Systems Performance Group or engineering team to diagnose the issue and deploy an appropriate response. After diagnosis and analysis, the second action is typically to delete a false alarm or send a technician to site. At this time we notify the customer about the issue and what action we’re taking—if necessary—to resolve it. The third step is to develop and implement a plan of action to correct the issue. This can be as simple as re-setting equipment on site, or diagnosing a failure and submitting a warranty claim to the manufacturer with detailed justification.

While the ultimate goal with these visits is to get the solar asset performing optimally, it’s also important to properly diagnose whether the problem is being caused by some other less obvious issue. Comprehensive diagnosis reduces the amount of needed site visits, saving the solar asset owner money given the fact that multiple site visits can cost more than an installation not performing optimally during the diagnosis period. Once the problem is identified, any necessary follow-ups are scheduled and a full report is sent to the customer.

Depending on what type of contract the customer has with their O&M provider, they may need to approve dispatching a technician to site. Under a more reactive contract, the O&M provider would not need to wait for the customer’s approval, which works well for project owners that don’t have a person responsible for managing the relationship with their solar maintenance provider.

What are the most common problems your solar O&M technicians address?

  • Inverter failures
  • DAS failures
  • Ground faults
  • Equipment offline

What should customers demand from O&M providers in terms of an ideal response reaction and response time?

A customer should make sure that there are guaranteed response times laid out in the contract. The response times should also be clearly stated and vary according to the severity of the problem. For problems that have a major impact on production, the technician should be dispatched immediately. Anything else that isn’t negatively impacting production at that time can be addressed with less urgency. Having tiered response times better manages the cost of sending technicians out and saves the customer from unnecessary expenditures.

What needs to happen before you can close out a service ticket?

When problems are clear and straightforward we focus on getting the site back online as quickly as possible. We then send a case report to our customer. For problems that could flare up again, we closely monitor for an additional week or until we’re confident the problem has been resolved.

Are there any red flags that solar project owners should look for that would indicate an O&M provider isn’t prepared to respond to issues quickly enough?

The speed at which an O&M provider responds to the site isn’t actually the most important indicator of an O&M provider’s ability to keep a system producing optimally. Getting to the site an hour earlier won’t make a difference if the technician does not have the skills and experience to quickly and competently diagnose problems as well as effectively get warranty providers to address problems. The first thing a solar asset owner should consider as an indicator of whether they are getting the best solar maintenance, is simply whether or not their system is performing optimally. And secondly, whether a solar maintenance provider is adept at solving problems right the first time.

How is the customer kept in the loop about what’s going on with their system?

All solar maintenance providers should offer customers access to a DAS platform where they can view system production and other key metrics in real time. An asset owner should receive a case report after every alarm that results in a technician being deployed to site. The report should account for all actions taken, the timing of each, and the specific resolution. Additionally, quality providers should aggregate both the performance data from your DAS provider and the preventive and corrective service reporting information in an accessible format regularly. It should be clear in those reports how the system performance was impacted by any maintenance issues. Borrego Solar’s System Performance Group works closely with our O&M operations group to ensure this information is carefully tracked and communicated to customers. Without this type of reporting, it would be very difficult for an asset owner to accurately assess the performance of its site or its O&M provider.

What responsibility does the customer have in the event something goes wrong with a system under management?

Most O&M providers offer a reactive services package, which enables them to address problems as they arise without approval from the customer. This is a more hands-off approach for the customer, where the O&M provider acts on behalf of the customer. Under non-reactive O&M contracts, the customer must approve any work on the installation before it’s done. This requires the customer to be responsive to alerts and equipped to handle them. Regardless of the contract, solar maintenance providers need a responsive point of contact in case they have any questions that need immediate attention.

How much time do you think a customer needs to devote to maintaining their system if they have an O&M provider in place and how is that different if they were maintaining it themselves?

This depends entirely on the type of O&M service that is put in place. Borrego Solar offers a full range of offerings to fit the needs of a spectrum of customers, which include solar companies that only need à la carte services to fill in gaps in their offerings to financial entities that prefer comprehensive service packages.

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