Commercial Solar Power Systems: Are They Durable or Fragile?

9th May 18

Written by James Doyle

When home and business owners are considering a solar power system, one of the first questions asked is whether the technology is durable or not. Keep in mind that the initial investment does not represent the full ownership cost of an energy generation system, and maintenance needs vary by technology. The business case for renewable energy generation becomes less attractive when the equipment used has complex maintenance requirements, especially if the user has no previous experience servicing energy generation equipment.

Fortunately, solar power is characterised by having the simplest maintenance requirements among all electricity generation systems. The yearly maintenance cost of a photovoltaic array is normally below 2 percent of the initial investment, and in large utility-scale projects it is often below 1 percent.

The solar panels themselves normally come with a 10-year warranty against manufacturing defects, and a 25-year warranty for electricity output. Just keep in mind that warranties are only valid if the manufacturer continues to operate for the entire warranty period, so working with well-established providers is highly recommended.

What Makes Solar Power Maintenance Simple?

When comparing solar photovoltaic panels with other types of energy generation equipment, there is a difference than stands out immediately: there are no moving parts in solar panels. Steam, wind and hydroelectric turbines all have rotating shafts resting on bearings and connected with couplings, making mechanical wear inevitable. However, solar cells are solid-state devices that generate voltage and current output when exposed to light, with no movement needed.

Solar panels are also well protected from the environment, since their body is typically made from weather-proof and corrosion-proof. Photovoltaic modules are only threatened by extreme weather events: large hailstones can crack their surface, and hurricane force winds can dislodge them from racking and supports.

Dust Accumulation and Shadows

Anything that blocks sunshine is detrimental for solar panel performance. Nighttime and cloudy weather are inevitable, but dirt accumulation and shadows can be kept under control.

Since PV modules are connected in series, one affected module restricts current and reduces the output of the entire circuit. Internally at the module level, one affected cell diminishes the output of the rest. Given the long service life of solar panels, shadows must be checked regularly. Perhaps you had an excellent location without shadows when the array was first installed, but this may change over time because of growing trees or new constructions around your property.

With respect to cleaning, water must be used with care with solar panels. Although they are weatherproof, solar panels can get very hot around noon, and spraying cold water can cause some of their components to crack. When panels must be cleaned with water, the recommended time is in the early morning, after they have cooled down for the entire night.

Component Replacements

Some components used in commercial solar power systems have a shorter service life than the PV panels themselves, so it is important to schedule replacements well in advance.

  • Inverters convert the direct-current output into an alternating-current supply that is suitable for home and business appliances. However, inverters are normally rated for around 10 years of use.
  • If you have decided to add battery storage, keep in mind that most lithium-ion products are rated for only a few thousand cycles. For example, 3,000 cycles may seem a lot, but is only slightly above 8 years if the unit is charged and discharged daily.

Solar trackers are mechanisms that move PV arrays during the day to keep them pointed at the sun at all times. However, solar trackers add moving elements to the system and require additional maintenance. If you want more generation, increasing the commercial solar array size is normally a much better option. Solar trackers are only recommended if you run out of space and if the added ownership cost is less than the savings achieved with extra energy generation.

Importance of Checking the Roof Condition

The best location for most commercial solar systems is the rooftop, since this saves valuable ground space. However, keep in mind that you will be installing a system with a service life of over two decades on your roof structure.

If your roof is old and you are considering a replacement, you should do it before going solar. Otherwise, you may have to dismount your photovoltaic array temporarily, which brings extra labor costs and the risk of damaging equipment. Also keep in mind that your power bills will increase temporarily while your roof is being upgraded, due to the loss of solar generation.

Be warned that some old roofs may have asbestos shingles, which are brittle and unsuitable for solar panel installation. In addition, asbestos is an extremely dangerous substance for humans when inhaled, and only specially qualified contractors can remove construction materials that contain asbestos.

Solar as a Service: An Alternative to Maintenance

Although solar arrays have simpler maintenance needs than other energy generation systems, it can still be a challenge if the owner lacks the required experience or technical staff. However, there is a business model called solar as a service, where you do not actually purchase the installation. Instead, you pay the solar PV system provider for the energy delivered, at a price below your current electricity tariff.

Solar as a service involves signing a contract called a Power Purchase Agreement (PPA), where you agree to purchase the output of a commercial solar array for a determined period of time. In turn, the system owner is responsible for financing and maintenance, which means you can start saving right away. The solar PV system provider is responsible for maintenance, and they send qualified and experienced technicians to service your installation at regular intervals.

With a solar PPA, the provider also takes care of handling any warranty claims if necessary. Warranties protect your investment even if purchase your PV system normally without a PPA, but with solar as a service you can forget about the required paperwork and you don’t have to coordinate component replacements.

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    power purchase agreements 7 things you must know when dealing with PPA