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Focus: Interview

Reg Tucker

One-on-one with Evelyn Butler, business development director of UL’s Energy and Industrial Systems business.


Underwriters Laboratories (UL) recently launched an extended suite of services offered to help stakeholders manage risks and reduce costs associated with building and operating PV plants. The comprehensive programme was developed to provide assistance to investors, developers and operators to make better and informed decisions as they assess the risks and uncertainties associated with designing and commissioning a PV plant.

Renewable Energy Focus magazine caught up with Evelyn Butler, business development director of UL’s Energy and Industrial Systems business, to discuss the company’s newly expanded PV Plant Services programme in greater detail. Following are excerpts of the discussion:
Q: Consider the complexity of the various laws, regulations and codes specific to each country on matters related to renewable energy projects and contracts. Explain how UL’s suite of PV Plant Services might take these different regional factors into consideration when developing risk assessment programmes.

A: There are not only differences between countries, but also differences between various regions within the US. As an example, let’s look at some of the differences between India, China and the US: India has some pretty stringent administrative requirements in terms of aesthetics, format, inspections, etc. So when we offered the PV plant services in India, we really wrapped what we were doing around each of those different areas so that the developers or plant owners could specifically draw that connection and say, “OK, what do we need to investigate in terms of equipment, quality and connection on site.” Essentially we were able to provide a report that shows all of the information.  
In China, by comparison, it tends to be a little bit different, because there are a lot of requirements placed by the government. There are also a lot of investor-based requirements. owner/operator.

So there we have two sets of things that were a little bit different than what is normally done to take into consideration — so not only the basics, but also performing some specific tests on the PV module that was going to be installed, specifically the longevity and durability of those modules. They also asked us to look into different parts of some of the international standards, so they could pick and choose from those requirements.
In the US, a lot depends on the region or jurisdiction, where the electrical inspectors, the building inspectors or even the utilities might have some requirements that they need to employ. A good example is the state of California; the modules have to be tested for California’s Energy Commission requirements. So it is necessary for the PV plant owner to show that the requirements have been met (i.e., testing score, testimonial from the PV manufacturer, etc.). So we help to provide that information as well as the testing itself. At the same time, if there are any technical questions about the equipment that is being installed, we can provide that as well. This way the client is able to [proceed] to commissioning of the full package.
Q: So it sounds like there’s a lot of flexibility in UL’s Plant Services Programme, depending the client’s needs or based on some of these regional preferences.  

A:  Yes, absolutely. I think you will find that no two PV module projects are ever identical — even, for example, if you had two similar residential apartment buildings. There are usually various nuances — the way the sun is shining on the building, how the equipment has to be installed and operated, etc.
As a result, we’ve developed a suite of basic services that can be tailored [to a specific application] because we recognize that every project is different — different hardware, connectors, inverters, etc. There could even be different engineers involved, or different utilities and regulations. The flexibility is important, because that gives us the opportunity to showcase our expertise to the client.
Q: Looking at the various markets and regions that you serve, are you finding a greater demand for these PV plant services in the US vs. other parts of the world.

A: I would say that the type of need varies. Certainly the US has quite a lot of demand because of the sheer number of projects that are being scheduled to come online in the next couple of years. There’s also a high demand in China; it’s just going crazy with solar PV installations; I think last year alone it was 12GW. They use of a lot of locally made equipment, but doesn’t absolve anybody from still meeting the requirements. India tends to fluctuate, depending on government support of the projects and how the states get involved in that. At the end of the day it really depends on the size of the projects and where they are being installed.
Q: New entrants to the PV market seemingly come and go with great frequency. What are some of the common mistakes/pitfalls that new PV plant players encounter when planning or developing projects? Put another way, which aspects of a PV project are operators more likely to overlook that may expose them to greater risk?
A: One of the big challenges is gaining knowledge from an equipment perspective given the growth the industry has seen over the past few years. Not only do you have your main products, such as the modules and inverters, but there are also other critical components, such as the connectors, wiring, fuses, junction boxes, mounting systems. As the industry has grown and evolved, no standards have been created to address the safety and performance of some of those products. So, sometimes there’s a lack of general knowledge about the fact that requirements exist.

Q: What is UL doing to address this knowledge-deficit issue?
A: We are helping primary product manufacturers as well as component suppliers and buyers better understand how all these pieces fit together. In other words, helping clients understand how all these products are connected together on site, so that they don’t run into problems such as over-sizing fuses or under-sizing wiring, etc. Certified, experienced installers tend to be a little bit ahead of the curve, but there are some who are not keeping up with that. So, what we try to do is also help provide some of that education that installations have to be done with these requirements in mind. This goes a long way in preventing the commissioning inspection from resulting in a lot of re-work.

Read this interview in its entirety in the forthcoming May/June edition of Renewable Energy Focus magazine. Subscribe online today!


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Energy infrastructure  •  Photovoltaics (PV)  •  Policy, investment and markets  •  Solar electricity