January 18 2021
Steve Williams, Clean Solar Solutions
Rooftop Operations and Maintenence Working Group Chair
In light of the ever-challenging working conditions in the U.K. during 2021 so far, it seems appropriate to discuss the challenges and trends that rooftop O&M will face for the rest of the year.
As time progresses, we see the wider industry recognising that rooftop and ground mounted O&M are very different undertakings, requiring different skill sets and having differing price points. I feel that 2021 will see the divide between the two arms be recognised more and see some O&M contractors specialising between one or the other.
The dreaded ‘C’ word still dominates headlines and as I write, working conditions for the U.K. continue to get tighter and tighter. Although in the O&M arm of the solar industry we have the luxury of being classified as ‘essential workers’, even with this status I fear that the rooftop solar O&M industry will be impacted negatively.
As seen in Q2 of 2020, many rooftop O&M contractors understandably had restrictions placed upon their works by building owners and tenants. They simply were not allowed on to site to carry out their works.
This may well be the case as we head through Q1 and into Q2 of 2021. Lack of access to buildings may well impede works considerably.
This may well push back O&M activities later into the year than planned and create a few issues. The first may be the need to furlough some staff in certain companies, which is a sad, but realistic probability. However, when restrictions are lifted there will be a huge backlog of O&M work to be done on systems and dates for attending sites will be at a premium. It will require a more diligent approach to the logistics and planning of routes for companies, to ensure that their clients are serviced in a safe, timely and profitable manner.
With the progression of technology, asset owners becoming more knowledgeable and O&M companies become more sophisticated in their approach, this healthy combination may well lead to less physical site visits being performed. For example, in years past, solar panel cleaning companies may have just gone to a rooftop array, cleaned the panels, produced a simple ‘before and after’ photographic report and walked away.
However, some cleaning companies now look at the overall health of the system and are more observant as they clean. Some now produce very detailed reports including information about signage, inverter status, cabling issues, loose panels and a whole host of other problems. This can be reported back to the system owner and replaces the need for a visual inspection visit that may usually be completed by the main O&M company. This can lead to either increased profit for the O&M company or a reduced O&M cost, depending on how the O&M company wishes to shape their business model.
Another trend which I feel we will see is consolidation of O&M companies. Larger O&M companies who subcontract out specialist services such as panel cleaning, drone thermography or ground maintenance, may wish to bring these services in-house. Rather than look to build these services from the ground up themselves, they may look to buy up specialist O&M companies, taking onboard expertise, established systems of work and skilled staff. This will lead to a smooth integration of the new service. The larger the portfolio under O&M management, the more attractive this proposition will become.
Despite the likelihood of a slow start to the year, the outlook for the rooftop O&M sector is very bright indeed during the latter half of 2021, as we look to play catch up for our clients and indubitably for our lives in general.