Using Data to Manage Solar Power Plants

MaxGen Energy Services's Joe Brotherton is leveraging technology to get the most from energy from the sun

A solar power plant is more than rows of shining modules in the middle of the desert. It’s also the glow of the energy control center—the heart of MaxGen Energy Services—hundreds of miles away. “Our operations center analyzes the data stream coming from each plant and then communicates with the field staff to handle preventive or predictive maintenance based on what the data shows,” says Joe Brotherton, president and founder of MaxGen.

Formed in May of 2013 as a third-party service provider in the solar operations and management space, MaxGen was acquired by Solarrus Corporation in 2014 to handle large utility-scale projects and asset-management operations. “Our smallest site today is about twenty megawatts (MW), which is 70,000 solar panels covering 200 acres,” Brotherton says. Nationwide, MaxGen services more than 2,000 MW of solar production in conjunction with its parent company.


Combined megawatts operated by MaxGen and subsidiaries as of January 2015

Production sites as of January 2015


States in which MaxGen is managing solar arrays


Growth in 2014

“We’re not just the Maytag repairman,” Brotherton jokes. Rather than a host of independently operating repair teams, MaxGen uses advanced analytics to direct in-field technicians and address minor inefficiencies before they become major issues. Although component failure does occur from time to time, the majority of MaxGen’s data analysis is focused on maximizing performance and efficiency of an entire array. “High-level observations indicate where we may need to dig deeper,” Brotherton says. “Once we get into component data, we may see a particular inverter generating 8 percent less than its counterparts.”

An alert can then direct the technician to perform an inspection and diagnose the issue. Sometimes the solution requires repair or replacement; other times it’s as simple as trimming vegetation or removing a bird’s nest. MaxGen looks for the same holistic approach from its partners. Vidsec, a pioneer in “interactive security,” helped MaxGen centralize the security monitoring of its facilities via a network of cameras, microphones, and speakers. The system provides cost-effective surveillance to MaxGen’s dispersed locations, while cutting down on the liability of having security guards on site.

Unlike coal, gas, or even nuclear power plants, the daily output of solar plants is at the mercy of the elements. MaxGen’s servers generate site-specific output forecasts using algorithms to account for factors such as location, temperature, weather, and irradiance (the amount of sun getting to the panel). Seasonal changes can generate surprising results as well. “In southern Arizona during monsoon season, you can expect heavy rain every two to three weeks,” Brotherton says, “but that rain will also clean off dust that accumulates on the panels.”

MaxGen’s biggest challenge may be keeping up with the current diversity and flux of the solar industry. “Right now, we manage multiple sites all over the country running a variety of software systems,” Brotherton says. And just like cell phones or tablets, there is a new solar monitoring system every six months. “Our emphasis being on [operations], we need to have a platform that allows us to use our standard operating procedures across all those sites and systems.” To that end, MaxGen is partnering with a third party to develop a platform that can be overlaid on any existing software to extract the raw data. “We’re not always going to work with the same company or inverters or panels,” Brotherton says. “We need to know that our process can be overlaid on top of any project.”

Accessing that data is paramount to MaxGen’s business model. Currently, solar growth in the utility space is being driven largely by a tax-credit set to expire in 2016. Uncertainty over the credit’s renewal is behind a huge push to turn new sites on by December 31, 2016. Since these developments are usually accompanied by at least a twenty-year production guarantee, today’s focus on development will drive tomorrow’s need for operations and management.

As more projects come online, Brotherton’s goal is to double MaxGen’s revenue by the end of 2015. “I don’t think [the industry] is looking at solar operations,” he says. “The groups that are involved are still focused on building and development, whereas we only have one focus: operating for the long term.”