Interview: 'Janitorial' O&M rising despite the robots

pv magazine: How much awareness is there of the importance of what you call “janitorial” O&M services in the market at present and how have you seen that change over time?

Jay A. Welsh: O&M in general was an afterthought 10 years ago, but the need for technical O&M became apparent quickly as an extension to the commissioning requirements. Janitorial O&M however remained off the radar until about 2011 when the reality of diminished production began to eat away profit margins.

Because the industry’s biggest selling point was a maintenance free system, they began to believe their own hype. As recently as two years ago I would still hear solar developers claiming that washing panels was not necessary, but as we all know now this is not true and developers today can not even approach project funding without a long term plan and budget for janitorial O&M.

Solar Maid launched in 2003, but we spent the first five years marketing the brand and trying to convince companies this was a required service, but today we don’t do any marketing as the entire industry is so far behind in the required janitorial O&M that we simply rely on our strong branding to bring in customers.

In the North American market, what has been your experience of O&M price dynamics over time? Is there downward pressure on pricing?

With any service, pricing pressure is always an issue and especially in a brand new industry that did not account for this expenditure. Solar Maid provides value by having built a network of local service providers across North America. This allows nationwide customers the ability to hire a single contractor who can service their assets in a much more timely manner and at a reduced cost. In addition, our corporate office handles all the service logistics for our customers, so they don’t have the added hassle of hiring multiple local contractors.

How do you establish cleaning or grass cutting regimes and schedule it to minimize manpower and equipment costs, while at the same time maximizing a project’s performance ration (PR)?

Our local operators, which are Solar Maid Licensees, handle most issues related to manpower, equipment and scheduling based on the specific challenges or requirements of each job. Corporate supports the local operators from an informational and financial aspect.

What has been your experience with module coatings and resistance to soiling?

No panel coating products on the market today have had enough time to establish any data sets to really impact the market. Panel manufactures are very unforgiving when it comes to the warranties they provide and to apply a foreign substance to their product with their blessing would take a miracle.

In terms of cleaning, surely robots are the future?

As the General Manager it is my job to keep an eye on the current and potential developments that will affect our future revenue and looking out five years down the road. Robotic cleaning systems will be the biggest threat to our utility scale revenue. Robotic systems today are still in their infancy and will require some time to work out all the bugs. One of our largest customers actually owns a robotics company and we have been put to the test in a side-by-side competition and good old manpower still had about a 15% advantage. Of course once the bugs are worked out we anticipate that advantage to flip to the robots, but what you are saving in labor costs, you are actually exchanging for quality.

While robots will become a future threat in the utility side of our business, we do not see them as a threat on the commercial or residential end of our business because in these categories robots require more labor input than is returned as production output on a smaller solar asset.

The February edition of pv magazine investigates many aspects of the O&M market, from “janitorial” to monitoring and technical, market shifts, tracking technology and the entry of big players such as SMA and First Solar. Check out three articles from the edition here for free.