August 24, 2018
One of the challenges of developing utility-scale solar projects is anticipating the magnitude of operations and maintenance responsibilities. Developing an accurate O&M budget early on is critical so the operating funds are available when needed. While the direct maintenance of equipment is easy to quantify, first-time solar investors often fail to account for expenses related to land management. Here are five commonly-overlooked line items to ensure you get covered in your next solar PV project plan.
1. Vegetation Management
Many utility-scale solar projects either don’t budget for site mowing or weed abatement, or they under-budget for these necessary services. Skimping on weed control services can allow invasive species to gain a foothold on your site. Once invasive species such as Russian thistle (tumbleweeds) or mustard grass establish themselves at your site, they become difficult to control, and these or other noxious weeds can wreak havoc on a utility-scale project and blow your O&M budget out of the water. Mowing hundreds or thousands of acres inside energized solar arrays, while navigating solar panels, pylons, tracking systems, electrical cables and other critical site components is a unique skill set. Proper planning during the O&M planning phase or project development phase is critical to minimizing your overall O&M budget.
2. Ground Erosion Management
Ground erosion is one often-overlooked way weather can impact the return on your PV project investment. Erosion can wash out footings on racking, moving panels out of alignment and binding up panel tracking systems. Left unchecked, erosion can lead to flooding and premature equipment failure. Ground erosion often happens slowly, but poor land management can speed the process. Sloping and drainage must be planned and maintained. Simply contouring the site and adding swales and detention ponds can provide excellent control of ground erosion while mitigating stormwater runoff. Also, avoid the “eradication” approach to vegetation management — while you’ll benefit in the short run from less frequent mowing, healthy vegetation is important because it slows groundwater runoff and anchors the soil together, making it one of the best tools to prevent ground erosion. While some erosion is inevitable, once erosion occurs, it must be mitigated quickly. Ensure that you have internal staff who can identify and respond to damage, or that your O&M contractor can provide these capabilities.
3. Maintenance-Friendly Panel Layout
To reduce the installed cost of utility-scale solar projects, utilities may choose to limit the amount of free area around PV panels, maximizing panel density and minimizing per-kW land costs. However, utilities must be careful not to impact the serviceability of their PV systems. Separating panels by only the minimum to prevent shading can make future servicing difficult. Consider laying out panels, racks, inverters and cable conduit so that the O&M contractor can complete weed trimming and panel washing projects with automated equipment. It may be beneficial to consult with the O&M team or a land management contractor during the design phase so maintenance requirements can be integrated into the design. Providing adequate clearance makes O&M tasks easier to complete, ensuring they get done on schedule and with fewer hours billed.
4. Physical Security
Ensuring physical security of the project boundary is essential. Preventing intrusion serves both to protect the utility’s assets and to eliminate the potential liability of intruders injured by contact with high voltage. While some amount of vandalism is inevitable at unattended utility-scale solar projects, it is important to perform cleanup and repairs quickly to deter trespassers and discourage further vandalism. Off-site monitoring (with intrusion alarms and security cameras) can provide an early warning system, as well as a documented record for insurance and legal requirements – but when it comes to security, nothing beats the effectiveness of a physical presence. Your site support package should include frequent security patrols, and while this can be done in-house, a local third-party security presence is often more responsive, more effective, and cheaper. Randomized security patrols and off-site monitoring are necessary O&M expenses that help prevent damage and theft of PV equipment, avoiding costly repairs and keeping your site online.
5. Animal Intrusion
Unlike would-be vandals, animals care little about perimeter fences and no-trespassing postings at utility-scale solar projects. Your solar farm can serve as a source of food, water, shelter, or space for any number of insects and woodland creatures, and once inside, animals can dig, cover, chew, nest, and excrete all over panels, wiring, inverters, switchgear, transformers and control hardware. It’s likely you will have to tolerate some amount of animal intrusion, but there are steps you can take to ensure animals don’t create a nuisance. While installing dig wire along the bottom of the perimeter fence can discourage intrusion by digging, many sites are required to build fences with gaps for animals to safely enter and exit a site. A pest management contractor can institute a trapping and baiting program, and can perform extermination as necessary. An effective vegetation management program can remove choice habitat, making the solar farm undesirable to animals. The type and measure of response will need to be tailored to your specific animal and environmental requirements, so stay vigilant and be prepared to respond proactively by making sure this line item is covered in your project plan.
If you’re developing a plan for your solar PV project, there’s good news: you don’t have to go it alone. World Wind and Solar can provide expert advice on what you need and what you don’t. Draw on our experience as a recognized leader in the solar power industry. We specialize in utility and commercial scale solar operations and maintenance. We are Here to Serve, with the tools, training and expertise to deliver exceptional results for our partner clients on an ongoing or on-demand basis. With satisfied clients in 34 states nationwide, World Wind and Solar can provide cost-effective service solutions for utility-scale solar projects, no matter their location. View our full menu of Utility-Scale Solar Services to learn how WWS can help your farm or contact us for your quote today.