There is no doubt the solar energy landscape is on the rise with no signs of stopping. It’s estimated that by 2050, electric power generated by low-carbon energy sources like solar, will account for a quarter of global energy demand. While the increasing demand for renewable energy and falling costs of solar installations are fueling the industry’s growth, solar companies are continuously challenged to ensure the profitability of their enterprises. More importantly, solar energy producers have become more aware today that knowing how to manage their resources is just as important as how much they produce. Here’s where solar site inspections play a pivotal role.
The exponential growth of solar in markets like Europe (incentivized by government subsidies), has equally created a steep learning curve in how to effectively manage solar sites. At the early stages of the industry boom, solar companies focused their efforts in speeding up their return on investment. Subsidies ensured companies could easily see a return on investment within a short period of time. As subsidies dwindled, many operators went bankrupt, with the remainder realizing their suvival depended on how well they could manage their solar assets and maximize their output.
A time consuming effort
Inspections of solar sites have relied heavily on physical inspection. Maintenance operators monitor the energy produced by their solar panel clusters at invertor levels. Finding the root cause however is a time consuming activity that can easily take weeks for a large site.
The time consuming effort will thus translate into thousands of billable man hours, an astronomical figure when larger sites are inspected. Specialized equipment (like thermal cameras) can add an additional layer of costs. In most cases, the root causes are not clearly visible to the human eye.
Technicians performing solar site inspections can identify several types of issues, however; this method of anomaly detection is prone to mistakes due to element of human interpretation. Experience in thermography playes a huge part as well on the outcome of inspections.
These challenges have brought new technologies to the forefront. One of these technologies, drone inspections, are becoming an essential tool for solar sites. Not only are they capable of providing reliable anomaly data at a cell level, they can reduce inspection times significantly. Together with time efficiencies and cost reductions, drone inspections can be a great asset. “Instead of time-consuming regular inspection rounds, our inspection staff now perform targeted (drone) inspections when required”, explains Iwein Giogne, General Manager for Eneco’s Solar Division. “Not only does this create efficiencies, but also minimises risk for our inspectors for roof based installations.”
This technology is proving an invaluable tool in the continuous improvement of maintenance efforts of solar sites. Refering to his experience with drone inspections, Dr. Elias Urrejola, Lead Solar Expert, ENGIE Laborelec Chile says “This was crucial for us, in order to fine-tune the maintenance process and boost the monitoring of the PV plant normally done by the onsite team.”