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O&M key to keeping solar power productive

Operations and maintenance are key to keeping a solar project productive, and BayWa r.e. Operation Services is doing exactly that with a recently completed solar power project in Texas.

By Diane Mettler

Once a solar power facility has been built and is operational, who keeps it running?

Enter the Operation Services team, those unsung heroes responsible for the maintenance and repair required to keep all the parts that comprise a solar array running at full capacity for the life of the project.

BayWa r.e. Operation Services LLC, a group of innovative people equipped with the technological know-how to maintain and operate solar projects, are such heroes.

BayWa r.e. Operation Services' parent company, BayWa r.e., is a leading global renewable company that delivers end-to-end project solutions, ongoing operations management and is an independent power producer with an expanding energy trading business. The group has successfully brought over 4.5 GW of renewable energy online, while managing over 10 GW of assets. The vast enterprise has operations in 29 countries and in the United States, they specialize in the following business areas: solar projects, wind projects, solar distribution, and energy solutions and services. BayWa r.e. developed, engineered and constructed the 2,000 acre, 266 MWdc/200 MWac Corazon I solar project which has been operating since August 2021, and is in the process of constructing the 200 MW/400 MWh Guajillo storage project, both located in Webb County, Texas.

The Corazon I solar plant features bifacial photovoltaic (PV) modules and one axis tracker and generates over 500 GWh annually, which is equivalent to offsetting more than 250 kt of CO2 emissions per year. The Corazon I solar plant has been winterized to withstand sub-freezing temperatures, being an example of the new generation of solar projects that will contribute to Texas' resilience for winter storms.

The Guajillo storage project—targeted to be operational by the end of 2023—is an example of the next generation of utility-scale storage projects paired with a solar power plant. Together, these two facilities are expected to support the local network by storing energy when the generation of renewable energy is high and delivering it when there is peak consumption—enough energy to power more than 38,000 homes each year.

BayWa r.e. Operation Services, LLC has three Remote Operating Control Centers (ROCCs), including one in Irvine, California (inset photo, above). The ROCCs are unique to BayWa r.e., says the company. BayWa r.e. has over 10 GW of renewable projects, both wind and solar, under contract and managed through its three ROCCs. 

Earlier this year, BayWa r.e. sold these two assets to Eni New Energy US, owned by Plenitude (Eni), and has partnered with them to manage the plant operations through their service business, BayWa r.e. Operation Services, LLC. David Barnes, Executive Vice President, manages both projects along with his seasoned team and the company's Remote Operating Control Center (ROCC).

"The project was developed by BayWa r. e. Solar Projects, which is our development vertical under the North America region for the U.S. and Mexico," explained Barnes. "The Operation Services vertical under my management is charged with operating and maintaining the plants that are within our development portfolio, as well as a third-party market, such as Corazon I, which is really the bulk of our work.

"The ROCC is unique to BayWa r.e.," said Barnes. "We have three. One in Munich, Germany, one in Bangkok, Thailand, and one located in Irvine, California. BayWa r.e. has over 10 GW of renewable projects, both wind and solar, under contract and managed through one of those three ROCCs.

 BayWa r.e. Operations provides clients with a multitude of services and skills. They take advantage of the latest technology, including using ultra-high-performance, professional drones to fly over solar power plants, which can scan solar panels with a thermal camera.

"From the Irvine ROCC, we are operating all of the projects we manage in the U.S. and in Mexico. Currently, our 30 U.S. employees and 12 employees in Mexico are operating 19 projects in the U.S. and another two in Mexico."

Operating a plant is threefold. Not only is BayWa r.e. Operation Services physically controlling the plant and managing all the electrical switching, they are also responsible for maintaining the equipment and the landscape. In addition, there is a performance engineering group who analyzes data collected on a daily basis, from which the team is constantly developing new, streamlined, and cost-effective solutions to maximize project performance.

"We are looking for things that may not be performing up to our standards, and then we will start to dive into the cause. We strive to be preventative rather than reactive," Barnes said.

The ROCC requires extremely specialized employees, or, as Barnes calls them, ‘unicorns.' Not only is it necessary for these individuals to be bilingual and, in some cases, multilingual, but they also are required to be certified to work with the various independent operating systems of the assets they are managing; systems such as PJM, MISO, CAL, ISO and, in Mexico, CENACE.

The Corazon I solar plant features bifacial photovoltaic (PV) modules and one axis tracker and generates over 500 GWh annually, which is equivalent to offsetting more than 250 kt of CO2 emissions per year. 

"It's a very, very different business. It's much more electrical. You need master electricians. And you also need OT/IT groups who work on all the communications and networking just to have all of the data," Barnes said.

Making sure clients receive this data is key. "We have scheduled reporting that we agree upon with each client. It gets delivered, daily, weekly, or monthly, depending on what we're looking at. In addition to that, we also give our clients a portal where they can go in and look at various data whenever they please."

BayWa r.e. Operation Services makes as much of their reporting as automated as possible. Not only does this provide a more economical service, but it also provides the client with an easy way to access their information in order for them to monitor the performance of the site, understand it, and communicate the data within their company.

"There's a trend in the market that's really following the wind model, which offers modules of maintenance and operations to clients, rather than an all-in-one plan," Barnes said. "Wind is now much more modular, and I think that is the direction where solar is heading. Clients have gaps that need to be covered and BayWa r.e. Operation Services will cover those gaps. For instance, a client does their own commercial asset management, they do their accounting and tax and other back office tasking, and so they don't need those particular functions—but they need field services.


"They need somebody to come in and just do correctives, preventative maintenance or vegetation management. We come in and fill in the gaps. If they need correctives and maintenance, we will be their technicians. If they need vegetation management, we become a gardening service, landscaping on a grand scale. We're talking about a couple of thousand acres of land that has to be managed."

Of all of these services, vegetation management is a bit more involved than people give credit. It is so massive in scale.

"You have to be very careful if you're using mowers and equipment," Barnes said. "Mowers can throw rocks and you are in a glass house; all of those panels are made of glass. If we go in and mow, for instance, the Corazon 1 site which is about 1,850 acres of solar array—it's a nearly 270 MW DC array, so it's quite huge and costly. It costs approximately $250,000-plus to do a single mowing with specialized equipment."

Vegetation management is a challenge for the solar industry. When plants get too large, they shade the panels, causing them to be less effective. Some sites use herbicides to keep the tall weeds down, some create pollinator habitats, while others have tried livestock grazing; however, that comes with its own set of issues. Cows and horses are too large, and they like to scratch on fixtures, breaking panels, while goats will jump up on the panels causing damage.

Streamlining and finding cost-effective solutions is one of the main focuses for BayWa r.e. Operation Services. An example of their philosophy-in-action is how they determine when it is time to wash solar panels, and which strings of panels to focus upon.

"With the help of our Performance Analytics team and some outside contractors, we've developed a software and an algorithm," Barnes said. "We can look at the data on a very granular level to determine when is the right time to wash a given array.

"The algorithm includes weather forecasts, historical data, location, and everything else to help us find the best timing," said Barnes. "If two weeks or three weeks from now, you're expecting rain, then we will know to focus on the modular strings that are actually degraded enough to pay for the wash with an increase in performance, and you aren't paying for a whole array to be washed.

"Those strings are typically the ones that are near to the road, or near to a field that a farmer's plowing or maintaining, where dust works its way into the panels and contaminates."

As with the mowing equipment, there is specialized washing equipment with large rotating brushes that are attached to a specifically designed tractor-like vehicle. There are also new waterless systems that use a fan and lightly touch the panels to gently knock the dust off. What equipment is used is determined by the location and terrain of the array itself.

So, the next time you see a solar facility, remember all the behind-the-scenes O&M teams who keep that site at peak performance, teams such as BayWa r.e. Operation Services. It takes so much more than just the installation and the activation, to make energy sustainable.

Q3 2022