2015 International Solar Energy Industry Growth
by Pam Sornson
The growth of the international solar energy/photovoltaic (PV) industry has occurred in incremental steps. From the American solar cell-powered toys of the 1950’s to Spain’s Gemasolar power plant, each step of the way involved technology improvements, increased efficiency quotients and streamlined administrative processes. Today, in many parts of the world, PV power plants are emerging as true alternatives to power plants that generate electricity by burning fossil fuels. The evolution of the PV power plant has given rise to two new sub-industries, PV Plant Operations and Maintenance Systems, and PV Asset Management Systems.
Utility-Sized PV Plants Require Utility-Sized Maintenance:
Unlike residential installations (which need little or no routine maintenance), large PV installations require ongoing maintenance of the plant itself, to keep it running smoothly and efficiently. And even though most solar panels have long life spans (some are almost limitless), millions of panels now installed are at or near the end of their projected lives and will require replacement. At the same time, the systems to which those panels are attached may (or will probably) need updating to capture the innovations that have occurred since they were first deployed. According to GTM Research, by 2017, the worldwide operations and maintenance (O&M) market for megawatt PV plants will total 146 GW.
Global Scope Reveals Development Challenges:
Because the O&M industry of PV plants is truly global, its market growth will have some significant developmental challenges. For example, at least in some countries, a logical division is becoming clear between O&M and “Asset Management” when referring to oversight of a solar PV plant facility. Although there is an overlap between the two, the activities and expectations of each are different:
O&M activities can be defined as those that occur on the ground, within the facility itself. O&M technicians are involved in ensuring that the plant is producing at peak performance, remains secure in its structure and infrastructure, is in compliance with investor, utility and governmental regulations, and is accurately reporting its processes, performance data and risks. Europe's Solar Power Europe group is developing a standardized list of best practices for O&M activities.
Asset management looks at the PV plant as an investment portfolio piece. Managing the PV plant as an investment involves the financial and administrative processes that ensure the facility retains its revenue-producing capacity for investors. These functions include billings, capital improvements, and interfacing with grid, government and insurance entities. The Asset Managers report the plant's participation in incentive programs, power purchasing agreements, net metering and other combinations of private and public dealings.
American Economic Innovation May Prove Lucrative:
In America, the benefits of each sub-industry are becoming apparent. Many of the federal and state incentives for purchasing home and small business PV systems are being exhausted, and new sources for funding industry growth are being sought. At the same time, large-scale PV plants are being built by governmental and utility entities because of legal requirements to increase their use of renewable resources. As the PV industry reaches the point where utility-sized, solar PV generated electricity is a true option, the next step in the industry evolution will be finding funding for appropriate infrastructure in every home and business.
The US Nation Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) recently released a report suggesting that the current status of the PV industry might lend itself to securities and bonds investment strategies. Selling securities tied to PV industrial modules may provide both the funding necessary to build the new infrastructure while also opening financing opportunities for huge new PV developments. It would also provide a new and lucrative investment opportunity for clean energy aficionados.
As the world takes its next step away from fossil fuels, it appears to be stepping towards solar PV power as the alternative energy of choice for hundreds of governments and millions of people around the globe. As the industry matures, finding funding so that every home and business can enjoy solar power will be a challenge. "Selling" the plant as an investment asset, under the control of an Asset Manager, may be an answer to creating that financial opportunity in an environmentally responsive way. At the same time, standardized operations and maintenance of PV power plants will ensure that those investments are well maintained, running efficiently and running profitably.