Training, Installation Vital for DG Solar’s LongevityBy Cas Biekmann | Wed, 04/06/2022 - 10:44
Although technology manufacturers are adjusting their warranties to longer PV system life cycles, none of these guarantees applies to shoddily installed or maintained systems. Experts, therefore, are shifting the focus to best practices in installation: meeting these standards is a key challenge for Mexico’s up-and-coming distributed generation (DG) industry.
The average useful life of a solar power plant has grown significantly. While expectations stood at 10 years as of 2008, by 2020, this had increased to 33 years, according to the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL). For both utility-scale developers and smaller-scale self-suppliers, this provides a useful “tail” in the life cycle of a project, in which returns on investment can continue to add value as operational expenditures do not necessarily increase. Technology manufacturers have caught on, offering between 25 and 30 years of warranty for their product.
Components might even last longer. “A photovoltaic solar module has a life cycle of around 25 years and can easily outlive its warranty. Inverters are built to last, as well,” explains Ernesto Najera, Business Development Director for Latin America at K2 Systems. According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), the upper range of a PV solar project’s useful life is as much as 40 years. With these predictions, the technology has the potential to outlive any wind or cogeneration installation. Yet, to reach this long life, many more factors come into play. As important as the core technology of a system is, industry insiders agree that the way systems are installed is key to ensure proper functionality. “Equipment is important but a correct installation provides quality for the long run,” emphasizes Enrique Garduño, Co-Founder and CEO of Skysense.
To begin with, solar systems need a good racking system or mounting solution, says Najera. “Without the optimal solution, panels can come under stress, can get damaged or even fly away under strong winds in the worst-case scenario. Global warming has brought stronger winds and hurricanes. All this needs to be considered in designs,” he says. Safety is, therefore, the most important factor for any installation. After all, equipment should not only protect investments made but the people surrounding them, too. “A properly built mounting system allows you to sleep well, knowing that the installation will stand strong for the next 25 years. If you install it properly, the system will have a higher energy yield,” Najera adds.
Smaller DG systems can easily take up a lot of space, making its design a complicated matter. Fortunately, technology is easing these efforts, particularly for smaller systems. “Once customers are ready to proceed, we match them with our local installers and send our drones to take measurements and show them what the installation will look like without being too intrusive,” says Andrés Friedman, Co-Founder and CEO of Solfium. Still, for larger systems in the commercial and industrial (C&I) environment, other factors are at play. Here, the design aspect changes due to the many types of roofs that can be encountered in such environments, says Co-Founder of Bright Jonah Greenberger. “As a result, our process for the design of installations had to change. In residential solar, we could remotely remove the friction in the design process. For C&I, this would be impossible without seeing the site in person.” Technology may be beneficial but boots on the ground continue to be the best way to move forward in some cases.
Training Boosts Quality
Even in processes boosted by digitalization and components of automation, people will eventually participate in the installation of the system. In a market where solar development, particularly in the DG environment, is poised for explosive growth, this creates challenges. “For one, increased competition could lead companies to race to the bottom when it comes to the price offer. Low pricing is often at the expense of quality or even safety. This is a situation we should completely avoid,” says Najera. But even if a project is adequately priced and planned, the skills of the workforce need to be up to scratch. “Solar is becoming trendy in Mexico, meaning that more professionals are coming into the field. Nonetheless, the sector needs to do even more work,” continues Najera.
Najera argues that many institutions can provide certified training and have good methods and manuals for installations. Furthermore, many companies are willing to invest in certifications to prove their merit. “We provide fully trained and certified installers to create a superior customer experience across the whole country. The goal is to empower new entrepreneurs in solar installation and set them up for success,” concurs Friedman. When it comes to ensuring all components are installed correctly, a little support for the people working in the field can go a long way. “If they have any questions, we will support them right away so that the system can be installed correctly and as fast as possible. Building trust with the installer network is essential,” concludes Najera.