Welcome to the Clean Power Hour! Today on the Clean Power Hour, Tim Montague is joined by Josh Richardson, Head of O&M at Continental Energy Solutions(CES), the largest solar installer in northern Illinois and an IBEW solar contractor and full-service EPC.
Josh Richardson has been the head of Solar O&M at Continental Energy Solutions since 2020. He ensures the optimal performance of solar assets to meet their financial expectations across their lifespan.
In this episode, Josh joins Tim and shares his expertise and insights on solar operations and maintenance. He provides valuable information on how to optimize the performance and lifespan of solar panels, as well as the importance of regular maintenance and monitoring.
This episode is a must-listen for anyone involved in the solar industry, from engineers to project managers and beyond.
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The Clean Power Hour is produced by the Clean Power Consulting Group and created by Tim Montague. Please subscribe on your favorite audio platform and on Youtube: bit.ly/cph-sub | www.CleanPowerHour.com | contact us by email: CleanPowerHour@gmail.com | Speeding the energy transition!
The Clean Power Hour is brought to you by CPS America. The maker of North America's number one three phase string inverter with over six gigawatts shipped in the US. The CPS America product lineup includes three phase string inverters ranging from 25 to 275 kW, their flagship inverter, the CPS 250 to 75 is designed to work with solar plants ranging from two megawatts to two gigawatts, the 250 to 75 pairs well, with CPS America's exceptional data communication controls and energy storage solutions. Go to chin power systems.com To find out more.Josh Richardson,:
inverter and tracking manufacturers require certification to name sure to make sure you're maintaining the warranty on this very expensive equipment. So you want to make sure you have somebody qualified to go out and service it.intro:
Are you speeding the energy transition? Here at the Clean Power Hour our hosts Tim Montague and John Weaver bring you the best in solar batteries and clean technologies every week want to go deeper into decarbonisation? We do too. We're here to help you understand and command the commercial, residential and utility, solar, wind and storage industries. So let's get together and we can speed the energy transition.Tim Montague:
Today on the Clean Power Hour, commercial, industrial solar operations and maintenance. My guest today is Josh Richardson. He is the director of lnM for Continental energy solutions in Northern Illinois. Welcome to the show, Josh.Josh Richardson,:
Thanks, Tim, for having me.Tim Montague:
I don't think that oh nm is the sexiest topic on Earth. But it is very important, right? If your K if your PV plant is not generating kWh, it's not generating savings for you, or revenue if it's a community solar project. And so keeping the array running, keeping it in tip top shape is actually extremely important to everyone involved, whether you're a behind the metre customer, or an asset owner. So give our listeners a little background on yourself. How did you get interested in Oh, Nm? And what is it that your group does there at Continental?Josh Richardson,:
Um, yeah, I'll start off by saying, my background, I started out with a very, very small firm sitting at a kitchen table. You know, in Illinois, it's still relatively new. And we were doing residential and naturally progressing to commercial. And after several years of helping to organise the company. And running larger projects, I came over to continental energy as a commercial project manager doing solar installations on big box stores and portfolios, a lot of cookie cutter projects that were just kind of took the lion's share of the original, sort of build out, I think, in Illinois, that the larger systems, we did some self development, but a lot of it was developers that were trying to get in on the early market here. And that naturally progressed as the incentives expanded the into community solar product projects. And as we started building into those, the original systems that we had built, started needing their their regular maintenance, getting inspections and repairs. And so I, you know, we were wearing many hats at the time. And that grew so rapidly that it just necessitated somebody to kind of steer the helm of the operations and maintenance. And so I kind of took advantage of that opportunity to, with my background experience of being in the field, being in the office, seeing all the sides to kind of run with it and build it up. So I'll say that, you know, the industry here in Illinois, the solar industry has been, it's like, like an all emerging all solar emerging industries across the states as they start. It's It's a quick and rapid growth and expansion. And I'll say that with continental energy, they've provided the support and resources that I haven't seen anywhere else, to take care of these larger projects, instal them, you know, and keep them maintained and repaired, having access to large engineering groups, a fleet of drones, you know, prefab and our warehouse support so from from the get go all the way to today. It's the support that I've I've been provided to help you know, in turn, keep all of the the solar assets that we oversee up and running has been phenomenal.Tim Montague:
You know, there's sometimes there's a conflict in in the Solar World and that is between quality on the one hand and price on the other. And you there is a spectrum of types of equipment that you can instal in the solar industry. It's a fairly mature industry. It's been around for 70 years, and it's good, bad, ugly, right? And of course, it If we're choosing as solar developers and installers the equipment, we're going to choose quality equipment. And that's one of the things that I very much appreciate about continental is they, they don't try to go cheap, they don't try to cut corners, they use quality equipment, they use tier one. And they use tried and true methodologies. But you, of course, running Oh nm in now what is, you know, a top 10 solar market in the US see a complete spectrum of this good, bad, ugly, right. So there's the equipment, and then there's the Labour and the installation of the equipment. And things can go wrong on both sides of that equation. And I understand why asset owners or the people financing a project may want to cut corners on the front end to make the project theoretically more lucrative down the line. And especially if they're just flipping it, right building flip is a model in the in the solar industry, but somebody's inheriting that equipment, and has to maintain it and benefit from it. And so they're inheriting headache. But tell us a little bit about what you have seen what you and your crews have seen, as far as community solar and large CNI. In Northern Illinois,Josh Richardson,:
you kind of hit it right on the head that, you know, there's there's many layers, I'll say a lot of it kind of starts with investors, developers, and then you get into the construction. But even within the construction side, you can have GCS that are overseeing the installation crews that are different company. So you can have many hands in the bucket. And ultimately, the investors are just looking to have a, like a quality installation, that's going to provide an ROI that they've mapped out on their spreadsheets to make sure that that, you know, it's going to bring the returns that they calculate that they calculate it out. So I'll say, you know, that disconnect of so many layers from especially for groups outside of Illinois that don't have direct contact or visibility to the sites is one of the biggest issues and disparities that we're seeing is that, you know, they're relying on, like, you're saying they've mapped out pricing and budgets, and they have to find these multiple layers to all fit within that budget. And in the end, you can potentially see, you know, I've, we've seen day labourers installing, you know, electrical components, and our group is, you know, I would say, puts a very critical eye a very concerned and critical eye, number one, because somebody's paying us to perform this service. But number two, you know, we want to make sure that the solar that's been installed, is up to the highest standard is reliable and is going to provide that return. But also just like, bring a sense of safety to whether it's on a rooftop, or even if it's out, you know, in rural farmland, the surrounding people, the neighbours that are also tied to that same grid, have an expectation of reliability and safety themselves, that they take for granted, not knowing that things could potentially go wrong, if just left, you know, ignored. So what we see here in Illinois with with this, with this growth is, you know, primarily that disconnect that can be you know, sort of, sort of stopgap by having progress inspections, during installation, QA QC at the end, we provide commissioning, though, that's not like a primary function, it's just our one of our expertise is because we're involved we're, we're touching this equipment all the time, we know how to interface with it, and how to how to programme it correctly. From the communication side to the utility and our connection requirements, everything in between, we do medium voltage. So you know, seeing that whole spectrum, from you know, the smallest weather sensor to you know, large utility transformers allows us to, you know, know what to look for what issues are going on, and make sure that we can stop things as early as possible to get them corrected because the other the other thing that we've seen a lot of is installation issues by poor installation practices can lead to incredibly high cost down the road if they're not stopped early on, and that's where progress inspections are very useful even if you get during the installation process 50% inspection at the minimum, you know, get a third party inspection at the end of it because you know, companies punch listing their own their own installations are gonna like overlook certain things or you know, things become a grey area not not with code explicitly, but installation practices, what are viewed as best practices in the industry. So, you know, we keep an eye out for that and as the owners wrapper as a third party coming in, there's we don't hold punches. There's Not nobody to look out for but the client themselves. So I can't stress enough, those early inspections and the cost savings they provide down the line if, if even the smallest problem is discovered,Tim Montague:
but glad you I'm glad you mentioned labour, you know, continental is an IBEW contractor. And, of course, the IBEW has a rigorous training programme, these electricians are going through three to five years of apprenticeship before they become journeyman electricians, and, and so you just that that is a level of quality that you're not going to see in non union labour organisations. You know, meanwhile, now we do have significant requirements with the IRA legislation and Seija in Illinois, that certainly, larger facilities have to use prevailing wage labour. And so that is upping everybody's game. Because it's just going to, it's going to force a more qualified labour force on the market, which is, which is going to be good for everyone. You also mentioned safety, we can never forget this, that, you know, this is electrical equipment, things do go wrong, it can cause problems for the built environment and cause, you know, safety concerns. So we just want to keep that front and centre of human safety is the foremost but then ROI, right, we want to have a good ROI for whoever's the asset owner or benefactor from a behind the metre solar project. Let's talk about a little bit about that, you know, we I remember, you know, some of the horror stories from projects that continental did not build but was called in to inspect and do Oh, and on am on. And, you know, it, it was it was a little shocking that some of these practices were going on, in a relatively, you know, together place like Illinois, I mean, this, this isn't the third world. But what is it that you've seen in is are things improving as the market matures here in Illinois,Josh Richardson,:
as you as you noted, with the new legislation and the requirements for prevailing wage, I think it's going to have to improve the quality of installation, nobody is going to tolerate, you know, paying those wages to somebody who has no experience. So it's a qualifier, and I think it will help what we're seeing on the back end, on the repairing side, I mean, a lot of our repairs are due to poor installation, we also see, you know, just equipment failures that don't even say, you know, we've we've looked at installations that on the surface seem fine, but they it gets down really into the specs of every tiny piece of hardware. You know, we have an Trent, I don't want to get lost in the weeds too much. But, you know, we'll see transformer terminations that are rated for copper wire, but they use aluminium wire, and it starts overheating. And that was just oversight by either an engineer or the crew lead. And those minor oversights can can be caught at and this was during new asset that we we brought into our group that was we just did a QA QC on it was it was a kind of post installation inspection, after the site had been running for a while. And we discovered some some major issues like that, that seemed to be more more oversights, but our our critical eye to those details and our connections to vendors to give us facts on on loads, we can take a picture, send it to our vendor, they will tell us the you know, the specs and ratings for and we can make determinations right away. But outside of that, I'll say one of the issues I believe in the solar industry is it across the world, it's mature. But there's always new technologies coming out, especially with tracking systems, in particular, new new inverter requirements that are that haven't been tried and true, as you said that content and so it's kind of known for like we do not like trying out new systems we do not like, you know, we want to make sure that what we're installing is reliable and in will need minimal maintenance ongoing. We see a lot of tracker installations with with new designs and systems that are having pretty big issues and cold temperatures and and just with their tracking technologies. So we're there like that to support those clients. Through it all and we learn along with them with these new with these new systems, how to correct them, how to maintain them, and work with the manufacturers didn't get and provide feedback. They're asking us in our text, how we're fixing things and what we're doing, you know what we're seeing on their system. is because we're the we're the hands on the eyes in the field. So we're on that front line, so to speak, to have the potential failures and sort of happenstance causes, you know, there's preventative equipment for we see lightning strikes we see we see it all out there so but I do I do to your point really quick I'll wrap up is that I think that Illinois being a later later to the solar industry has helped them in some regard because, you know, there are a lot of improvements in the equipment. The production of the of this equipment is way more efficient, and you can get a lot more out of every drop of sun that's that's pouring on it. So in that regard, I do see some major improvements. And in this will turn in the industry to provide training and qualifications to the installers I think is a huge boon to Illinois.Tim Montague:
The Clean Power Hour is brought to you by CPS America, the maker of North America's number one three phase string inverter with over six gigawatts shipped in the US. The CPS America product lineup includes three phase string inverters ranging from 25 to 275 kW, their flagship inverter, the CPS 252 75, is designed to work with solar plants ranging from two megawatts to two gigawatts, the 250 to 75. pairs well, with CPS America's exceptional data communication controls and energy storage solutions, go to chin power systems.com. To find out more. I'm curious, you know, one of the services you offer is performance evaluation and performance monitoring. Give our listeners some some general comments about that how our systems performing in comparison to how you might expect them to based on the design?Josh Richardson,:
Yeah, I think, you know, it really comes down to the equipment and the the quality of installation more than anything else. The industry as a whole, I think the modelling is pretty spot on. Most of the standards are produced by the are produced by academics and federal government agencies. So there's a lot of research behind it, I will say more off the shelf modelling through the various software applications is is a little hit and miss because maybe it doesn't take into the fact the impact of snow on modules or, you know, the amount, they try to model based upon weather, but there's a few small gaps that I think will be ironed out as more data presents itself in these areas that are preventing or providing this, he's anomalies in their data set. So everything's always improving. I do believe that, you know, if done correctly, then the models are very accurate as long as you have that uptime. And will, you know, note for the O and M that uptime is kept up by for operations and maintenance by repairing failures that happen on equipment, or just, you know, we can the software these days is at the point where you can almost do predictive analysis and pay attention to trends in the data that you're receiving from individual inverters from individual strings on an inverter, you can start to see things as they are failing and get out there in advance to say, you know, potentially save money on the truck rolls on turning wrenches on providing replacement equipment. So I do think the industry as a whole his has improved Justin, in the time, you know that I've been in solar the past like 70 years has come a really long way.Tim Montague:
You mentioned trackers and some of the challenges trackers face here in cold climates. I love technology and but it's a double edge, right we saw tracker sweep, sweep the field really starting in 2017, all the designs changed from fixed to tracker. And trackers give you more production per kW. That's why they're used right? You can you can see a 10 to 15% bump in the energy produced for the same amount of solar panels. And that's a good thing. And it's very cool when it works, right. But if the tracker stops tracking, then the array is going to produce significantly less than it would with a standard fixed tilt array and so you want to make sure that the tracker is tracking. There is more to say about trackers or other technologies that are you know it's it's a it's a growing field of manufacturers. We have some very tried and true companies in that industry but also many upstartsJosh Richardson,:
agree and and even those tried and true are coming out with new new models, new technologies But they're implementing that, you know, you don't want to be the guinea pig in that market is my takeaway, you know, we have some sort of newer technologies that we maintain. That are, we've had some very cold days this winter and seen a lot of issues on them. And there are just there trackers that just keep on track. And you know, they don't hesitate there. I don't know, I have a lot of respect for the additional production that's coming out of them and makes a lot of sense. And as long as it's a simple mechanism, and you're not trying to reinvent anything, then I think it's reliable it in the industry, a lot of the emphasis is placed on, obviously the cost of equipment, and how to find more savings. And I think that's a slippery slope, especially with with new technologies. Without without a lot of data and examples to back it up, I would be somewhat hesitant because we are repairing a lot of a lot of equipment out there.Tim Montague:
When it comes to small utility community solar, you know, we have a couple 100 of these projects now and a couple 100 more in the works. This brings up the issue though, vegetation, how are you covering the ground? Are you using pollinator friendly? are you pursuing some more advanced agro voltaic approach, but what are you seeing when it comes to plantings of these arrays and vegetation management?Josh Richardson,:
I'll come in that I think agricole takes is a great idea, but I do it has a lot more planning that I think it's harder to financially model unless you have a farmer that's already in that in that industry to partner with, like, I'll say, for the most part, it's its turf. And no, I do like we have, we maintain several sites that do have pollinator friendly, and they take a larger upfront commitment to, you know, Spot tree, nuisance species. But all in all, like the, we haven't, I haven't seen the long, long term effect of it, but the intent is that you won't have to know that the savings bear themselves out in later years, it's still a little early in our industry to see that those have established, you know, solid leave. And I think that's a great idea. You know, we a lot of the larger portfolio partners we work with, they budget for for mowing. And that also comes into play with with the trackers that you're talking about, you then have to coordinate them, if you have a cap system, which is a hanging, it's above ground DC wire run. If you're hanging your wires up, you're effectively limiting access to mowers, these are things that you wouldn't necessarily think about, but it becomes more complicated and can increase the cost of mowing. You know, the the trackers themselves as they're rotating, the vegetation management company has to have experience with solving the trackers, putting them into a set, anticipated pitch so that as they're mowing, they don't have to get out of the way of these huge arrays that are shifting position. As the day progresses, these sites are, you know, up to 20 acres for the community solar, it takes take some time to mow them. And throughout the day, those trackers are positioned in different ways than they can make it hard to access. So there's you know, in the minutia of it, it can get a little difficult. So you want to make sure that you have somebody as you're not hiring the kid next door to mow your 20 Solar deal. You're using somebody who's qualified as experience on it, I think asTim Montague:
well what else would you like to say to developers and asset owners? who might be looking for an arms? Oh, nm service provider? What do you have to say to them about how they're approaching their work? And you know, Project longevity?Josh Richardson,:
Yeah, I mean, I'd say a lot of the larger developers that are in community solar, they already know they've been doing this for a while in different areas. I would say the biggest change is the Geography The in the weather of Illinois is different and provides its own nuances. But then I'd also say you know, having having qualified people that have exposure to the specific equipment that you're working on some of these inverter and tracking manufacturers require certification to make sure to make sure you're maintaining the warranty on this very expensive equipment. So you want to make sure you have somebody qualified to go out and service it. We've gone out to you know, a number of sites following on on the boots have somebody else who had tried to repair and either caused damage or just got in over their heads and and I think that's the nature and then like I said an emerging solar markets is you have a lot of people that have ramped up from small residential straight into commercial, industrial, and community solar without the experience and exposure. And they're not wreaking havoc. But there's there's long term issues that are being developed, we've seen, you know, being in the OM group, I could spend days talking about the the amazing things we've seen and had to repair. It's, it's shocking and no pun intended. But it's also like it's concerning, you know, the, the, that I think that's the biggest takeaway is, when you're out of state developing large solar, you don't know who's doing the installation. And the only thing, the best mitigation you can do is get somebody qualified to inspect for you, that has no skin in the game on on the company that's performing the installation, having anybody else come in and put a critical eye and start, start punch listing items and start calling out for code violations. But all the way to best practice. You know, a lot of these groups aren't reading the fine detail on the engineering prints, the recipe books that are handed to them, explicitly state a lot of things about wire management and types of connectors and everything else that's glossed over ignored, and there's no verification of it to the to that the investors, they, they just assume that the power is on they see production, and it's good to go. And it could be, you know, wildly the opposite direction. SoTim Montague:
cool. Well, I don't really have any other questions for you. Is there anything else you'd like our listeners to know about what you're up to at continental energy solutions?Josh Richardson,:
Yeah, I'd say one of the other kind of cool emerging technologies is bringing drones into the mix. I mean, most solar people in the solar industry are well aware of this, but doing thermal drone inspections, has nearly replaced some of the labour time and like testing that we do as far as as far as IV curve tracing, IV curve tracing has a very relevant place in our Oh nm, world, and, and conditioning. But at the same time, a lot of what you're trying to identify, can be picked up by drones and our fleet and our data processing, as has has shown a lot of in a short amount of time can reveal a lot of very poignant issues that you can then go to, you can imagine that array behind you're the one behind me, when you have 1000s of solar panels. How do you how do you identify which one of those a panel and diode has failed on a panel and it curved trace will show some diminished projection, but it's not going to show that a module is failing? Or that you know, you have connection issues or anything else? So I'd say that the drone aspect has has changed the industry very quickly, and everybody's adapted to it. You know, like, it's just integrated it seamlessly and I think it's just part of our new tool belt. That's pretty cool.Tim Montague:
Yeah, I love it. And I love the automation aspects, right, of being able to get a quick read on what's working and what's not. So, all right, well, Josh, how can our listeners find you?Josh Richardson,:
So let's see if I can point the right way. We have some contact information right here or URL, there's our service email address, we started a new four Oh, nm only we call it thermal Thursdays, we're putting kinda like crazy thermal images. And what we're seeing and what what you don't see, you know, everything electrically, looks like it's operating silently. And normally, it's all you, you look at the heat signature, and it can be very revealing. So we have on Instagram, a thermal Thursday hashtag that we throw out there. And we post on Instagram on the construction site, as well as the own inside a lot of the things we see. I I hesitate on the RNM we only see kind of scary things sort of the the ugly side, as you said at the beginning of this. And so it, you know, we're that that's why we're called in into the field is to address the ugly side. So I'm slow to post a lot of that and because for the most part, solar is, you know, it's reliable, it's safe, it it's producing a lot of revenue for its investors. I mean, it's a great business model. And Illinois has come a long way on on reaching their carbon offset goals. So I think it's all headed in the right direction.Tim Montague:
Absolutely. We'll check out continental energy solutions at CES nrg.com. And you just click on the lnM tab to find Josh's group there. I'm Tim Montague. You can find all of our content here at the Clean Power Hour at Clean Power hour.com. Please give us a rating and a review on Apple and Spotify and subscribe to our YouTube channel. I want to thank Josh Richardson, the director of Oh Nm at CES two for coming on the show. Thank you so much, Josh. Thanks, Dan. Let's go solar. The Clean Power Hour is brought to you by CPS America. The maker of North America's number one three phase string inverter with over six gigawatts shipped in the US. The CPS America product lineup includes three phase string inverters ranging from 25 to 275 Kw their flagship inverter the CPS 252 75, is designed to work with solar plants ranging from two megawatts to two gigawatts, the 250 to 75 pairs well, with CPS America's exceptional data communication controls and energy storage solutions. Go to chin power systems.com To find out more