Interview with Stefan Degener, First Solar

Speaker interview intro


We recently asked Stefan Degener, Senior Director, O&M EMEA from First Solar for his honest opinions on the solar market in Europe. Read on for his thoughts...


Stefan Degener interview

Q.What’s your greatest professional achievement to date?
A.The opening of the new utility-scale PV Operations Center in Berlin a few weeks ago has definitely been a very important milestone since I took over responsibility for Operations & Maintenance in Europe, Middle East and Africa for First Solar. The new facility is a further piece of the puzzle on our path to support a global energy system based on renewables. It also helps us to grow our O&M business in the EMEA region. Next to Tempe, USA and Sydney, Australia this is our 3rd Operations Center and we are proud to now provide Operations Management solutions to utility-scale PV power plants in all global time zones. 


Q.Energy storage is predicted to be a game changer for the solar industry – what’s your opinion on this?
A.Energy storage can certainly help to bridge the times, when the sun is not shining and PV power plants are not producing any energy. Currently, energy storage is most viable in places, where there is no grid or where energy generation is extremely costly due to it’s remote location or the use of diesel generators. In markets with well functioning grids and existing power generation fleets, energy storage is still too expensive compared to sophisticated energy generation management that e.g. we offer with our O&M services. The latter depends on the ability to interconnect energy generators and grid operators with the help of big data and precise production forecasts. And these are already available for solar PV generation today, since grid operators and generators are able to ramp up or down PV plants as needed. Once more R&D is being invested in energy storage solutions and will become more cost effective, then the entire energy system could benefit from it.


Q.What is the biggest challenging facing the Solar O&M industry today?
A.There are different challenges in different regions. In Europe, plant and portfolio owners seek accountable and effective O&M services, which is what First Solar offers to them under the brand of skytron energy, agnostic to the technology installed in the field. In North Africa and the Middle East business on utility-scale PV has just started to pick up and plant owners are looking for reliable, bankable partners. They actually want remote services, which we provide with our global Operations Centers. Another challenge that effects O&M services worldwide is the price factor. Costs can only be lowered, if maintenance labor is being kept to a minimum and a highly effective service of planning and scheduling maintenance tasks is being implemented. So, the secret of driving the technology further and costs down is the acquisition and availability of high quality, reliable and secure data. With the technology and O&M solutions provided by skytron energy and First Solar, plant operators can avoid yield losses and maximize the efficiency of their power plants, all of which will subsequently lead to the competitiveness of PV power generation worldwide. 


Q.What advice would you give on building good relationships with asset managers/owners?
A.First of all, a good relationship with plant owners or asset mangers is the key element for running a successful O&M business. When talking about a good relationship, it also means to really knowing the plant details, it’s technology, it’s environment as well as market conditions and very important, the grid requirements for solar PV. Lenders will actually look the past experience and track record of O&M providers with asset managers and owners, so this should not to be undermined. To allow most effective collaboration and information, seamless and accurate communication is important. As an example, we use PVGuard® as our supervision platform, which is installed in all controlled PV power plants. It delivers precise production as well as environment data and reports any system errors of failures. Our highly-qualified staff oversees all incoming data at one of our Operations Centers, qualifies errors warnings and decides what actions to take. If desired, decisions are made in direct exchange with the plant operators and owners. This proves that personal interaction and transparency on all levels is required to achieve the best possible output of a plant. 


Q.What are you most looking forward to about the SPG Europe congress?
A.The SPG shows that O&M is not the tail end of the initial solar plant investment anymore as it used to be in the past, but that it has developed into a professional industry and that it is key to optimizing the availability and power generation of a PV power plant today. It also proves that O&M has become of great importance for asset owners, lenders and managers, who are focussed on bankable, reliable and highly experienced partners. They have realized that without appropriate and thorough O&M services their plant revenues are at risk. We therefore welcome the recent initiative of SolarPowerEurope to take on a long overdue development of guidelines for professional O&M solutions for utility-scale solar PV. Having supported this initiative from the beginning, we are happy to contribute to ensure the reliable performance and long-term profitability of PV plants. This will help the entire industry to focus on the right O&M KPI’s and recognize solar PV as a reliable and effective energy source in Europe and globally.