Interview with Christian Walter, Managing Director, Walter Konzept Services (WKS)
Walter Konzept Services (WKS) has been offering solar O&M services for solar PV arrays since it was first founded in 2008. Christian Walter is the Managing Director of WKS, where 25 employees currently monitor a fleet of more than 850 solar PV plants in a 145 MW portfolio.
WKS works with industrial and wholesale customers, associations, municipalities, private customers and individual investors. They offer a wide range of O&M services including administration, contract management, plant operation, monitoring for performance failures, energy management, and routine maintenance.
Over the past 12 years, the solar O&M side of the business has grown so successfully that WKS no longer performs solar plant installation or set up. “We are in an interesting position at WKS,” says Christian, “All of our business now comes from word-of-mouth and customer referrals. Potential customers approach us directly.” In fact, WKS doesn’t do any marketing or advertising. They don’t have any outside sales representatives. Christian tells a story when a new, very happy customer recently asked why he was just now hearing about Christian’s O&M services. Christian joked, “because you hadn’t called me yet”.
“Plant owners can easily get 5-8% more out of the system when they have proficient plant management and O&M. This savings is even after the O&M service fees are factored in,” says Christian.
Maintaining a Large Solar Plant Fleet
Christian attributes much of the O&M success to reliable, inverter-agnostic monitoring. “WKS decided 10 years ago in favor of Solar-Log,” says Christian, “Because of the streamlined monitoring, we only need 3 employees to monitor the complete portfolio. Otherwise, we would have needed at least 10 employees to handle about 25 different systems/portals. Factor in the time it would take to train technicians on those systems and the solution was a no-brainer.” Since the back-office is efficiently structured, WKS expects to add 30-40 MWp to the portfolio, without a large increase in team size.
The 3-person monitoring team at WKS has a daily eye on the plants. They run reports on plant performance regularly and quickly detect errors or performance deviations. WKS customers rest-assured that their plants are performing optimally. Their investment is secured. If component failures or operational issues are detected, the WKS team of experts quickly decides on the correct plan-of-action. They promptly send a service technician to the site, if needed.
The Start of Solar O&M
According to Christian, the first two years after installation are the most critical for O&M. “If initial issues are not dealt with early, they will affect the plant’s performance throughout the lifetime of the array,” says Christian. “Laying a good basis in the beginning with high quality installation is key.”
Christian believes that price pressure is the main reason for poor quality installation. “High-quality installers currently price out about 30% more than the low-end providers. Of course, many times the end-customer opts for the lower-cost solution. The result is the need for O&M right from the start.” In Christian’s experience, the original installer often only guarantees the plant for 2 years. Once the two years are up, the only warranties in place are those with the manufactures for the components. Christian uses this point to again emphasize the importance of inspection early and often. He recommends on-site inspection a minimum of 1 time per year.
Defining a Solar O&M Team and a Market
For solar installation companies looking to offer O&M services, Christian recommends setting up a different team for the O&M department, if possible. “In my experience, installers don’t want to have to return to the site after installation. Very often they prefer to concentrate on assembly and installation. A designated O&M team specializes in identifying operational issues and fixing them.” Christian has even partnered with local installation companies. After installation, WKS will take over O&M for the installer so that everyone can focus on their strengths and core-business.
Christian also comments about the need for a change in mindset from a craftsman to a service provider. His team is passionate about providing excellent customer care. The O&M team keeps in contact with their customers on a regular and consistent basis. “When plant owners experience excellent customer service, the eagerly sign O&M service contracts on a 10-20-year basis.”
Commercial sites, particularly those with installed storage systems, are Christian’s target for long-term contracts. He and his team deal mainly with solar plants between 300-700kW. In the coming years they plan to further focus on ways to help plant owners optimize usage of self-produced power. They are projected to add 45MW in 2020.
When asked why he continued in solar, Christian says, “It’s fun. I work with a great team that is positively influencing the environment, one renewable kWh at a time.”