Regular maintenance of a solar PV system will ensure it is performing at maximum efficiency and minimise the possibility of hazards – it’s just a shame not everyone does it.
It might be great to harvest free electricity from your own rooftop power plant but if you want it to work properly you have to look after it. A few simple checks and some housecleaning now and then may be all that’s needed to keep a system running efficiently.
In 2012 solar consultancy SunWiz looked at data from 8,000 PV systems connected to NSW network AusGrid and found the average small-scale system was performing nearly 19% below capacity, with around 18% of systems performing 20% below expectations and 7% about 40% below expectations.
That was six years ago and here’s hoping things have improved since then, but system owners shouldn’t be complacent about their investment. Maintenance of a solar PV system is about so much more than cleaning the modules.
“System maintenance is crucial to the ongoing optimised performance of the system – if you want it to go well, you’ve got to look after it,” says Solar Analytics technical sales account manager Brett Bidwell.
The basics of maintenance include looking at the performance of the inverter and going over the solar array structure, the cabling and assessing whether anything has contributed to the system performing properly. The causes are not always related to sloppy installation standards or cheap equipment.
“Over the years I’ve seen ants, termites, possums, cockatoos, rats – you name it I’ve seen it destroy a solar power system,” says Bidwell. “Cows, horses, sheep – the whole lot. I’ve seen bats roosting under arrays, all sorts of things.”
Many variables that are completely unforeseen and unpredictable may impact the performance of a system, Bidwell says, so owners should understand why an annual inspection by a qualified solar installer – even it is to clean the panels – will be a good way to spot and fix issues that could become serious if left to fester. “There are opportunities there for maintenance to be discussed [with owners] very early on in the piece, even before the purchase of the system,” he says, emphasising that solar sales companies and installation companies should clearly explain the benefits of maintenance to their clients.
Installers are working all hours to get systems on rooftops, with record numbers of Small-scale Technology Certificates created last year and hopefully the same again this year, so how can they be expected to find the time to go around maintaining the 1.6 million systems already in place? Simple, says Bidwell – employ more people.
For a start, installers who have contractual commitments to maintain systems should manage schedules and staff especially for the purpose. “Suddenly you’ve got a crew running around doing regular maintenance,” he says. “Quite often the return on investment of those types of funding approaches is completely dependent on the optimised performance of the system, so that if it works better you get paid more.”
Any good commercial and industrial solar system agreement should include a clause about operations and maintenance, Bidwell says. “It’s not an option. If it’s not there, you’re dealing with the wrong people.”
At the Clean Energy Council, technical and compliance officer Luke Pickles says it’s not really incumbent on the installer to carry out maintenance – it’s up to customers to request it. “The problem is there’s a cost associated with doing maintenance and people normally buy a solar system with the purpose of saving money, so there’s a disconnect in that respect,” Pickles says. “But some companies that sell a system may include a maintenance visit as part of the sale price.”
Update on 44c FiT rule changes
On 15 February 2018, the Queensland Parliament re-introduced a Bill to change the Electricity Act 1994 (Qld). This Bill provides the industry with clearer rules about adding PV panels, generating systems and/or energy storage devices (such as batteries), to PV systems that already qualify for the 44 cents/kWh Feed-in Tariff (44c FiT) without forfeiting this premium tariff.
If the Bill is passed in its current format, 15 February 2018 will be the date that the changes come into effect rather than the previously advised date of 15 June 2017.
Therefore, if a customer with a PV system that qualifies for the 44c FiT does any of the following after 15 February 2018, they may forfeit eligibility for the 44c FiT (subject to some transitional provisions described later in this Update):
Until the Bill is passed, if we receive an application for an array upgrade on a 44c FiT-eligible PV system that will create a total array capacity exceeding the rated AC power capacity of the existing inverter/s, our Solar Team will contact the applicant to confirm their intent. The applicant can then choose to:
Remember that under the energy legislation and our connection contracts, you must obtain our consent before making modifications to a generating system (including, but not limited to, increasing array or inverter capacity and changing export limitation settings). This consent can be requested by lodging a network connection application through our Electrical Partners Portal.
If a customer entered into a contract to purchase additional panels that take the total array capacity above the inverter capacity before 15 February 2018, those panels can still be installed without forfeiting the 44c FiT if:
We understand that one or more panels in an array may need replacement under warranty. These rule changes have implications for the customer’s 44c FiT eligibility where the array with failed panels is already the same or a higher capacity as the connected inverter(s). We also understand that the existing panel wattage cannot always be matched exactly due to discontinued panel models, leaving only higher-wattage panels available.
We have worked with the Department of Natural Resources, Mines and Energy to provide the following guidance:
Battery energy storage systems
The changed rules are designed to allow customers on the 44c FiT to install a battery system if they wish, without forfeiting the 44c FiT. However, it is important to note that the system cannot be programmed in such a way that could result in the battery discharging while the PV system is operating or more electricity being exported than would otherwise be possible.
Applicants should attach a schematic diagram to any application to add batteries to a 44c FiT-eligible PV system, including a description of the battery charging/discharging mode, demonstrating compliance with these requirements. Applications to add a battery system to a 44c FiT-eligible PV system are being processed on the understanding that the programming will comply with the changed rules.
Please note we use automated meter data filters to identify sudden increases in exported electricity volumes. If we investigate and identify a battery system that is not compliant, the 44c FiT will be forfeited. The installer may also be referred to the Clean Energy Council.
Additional generating systems
The Bill clarifies, rather than changes, the current policy about adding additional generating systems to 44c FiT-eligible PV systems. If any type of generating system is added to the same tariff circuit and operates at the same time as the qualifying PV system (except during a network outage) or is able to export to the grid, eligibility for the 44c FiT will be forfeited.
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About Solar Industry Update
This newsletter will keep you informed about what's happening in the solar industry and any changes to compliance, rulings and legislation.
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