Amanda Bybee, CEO Amicus O&M Cooperative: Page 3 of 3
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SP: How sophisticated are your customers about solar O&M requirements?
AB: It’s a pretty broad spectrum, actually. When you talk to professional asset owners and asset managers, they, of course, are very knowledgeable. They have high expectations of the services that we provide. Then there are others who are new to the role and need a lot of education. In some cases, people know exactly what they want, and they hand you the scope of work. In other cases, they say, “What are you gonna do for me?”
It’s been interesting to explore the gaps between the financially minded and the technically minded, because they don’t always understand each other’s perspectives. The financial folks may want something that is not actually reasonable to provide, and the technicians don’t always understand the financial impact of what they’re doing. Being a bridge between those groups is one of the roles that I hope to play. I love the field side of things and have gotten to know the technicians from all of our companies through our trainings, but then I’m also out there talking to the asset owners.
SP: Do you think that industry stakeholders have a good understanding of how to value and budget for long-term solar O&M?
AB: In many cases, no. They may think far enough out to request an O&M contract from a service provider to cover the annual preventive maintenance inspections, but they may not think through the comprehensive costs that come with system ownership (corrective maintenance budget, DAS subscriptions, internet access, security and so on). When asset owners under-budget for O&M, it sets up a chronic tension between them and the O&M provider. There is still more education to do in the marketplace about how to have a realistic budget.
SP: As a for-profit business, the Amicus O&M Cooperative obviously sees a significant business opportunity in providing solar O&M services. How do you manage the balance between healthy competition and cooperation?
AB: One of the things that’s been very interesting is learning about how the cooperative needs to operate with regard to antitrust laws. We are very careful in how we structure ourselves and how we function so that we preserve competition. We pay attention, certainly, to how much overlap and redundancy member companies create in any given geographic region, but we don’t prohibit it. It’s certainly possible that members of the cooperative will compete against each other. This may be one aspect of our practices that gives confidence to the asset owners—that we aren’t complacent in our pricing. Healthy competition keeps us (and our pencils) sharp.
There is so much runway for improvement that we have got to be in this together. And the more we learn, the more we develop, the better we are as an industry. The better we are, the more we are able to provide a better, more efficient service, at a lower cost.
SP: How do you think the recent 30% solar tariff will impact the industry from a solar O&M perspective?
AB: There are a few potential impacts. Currently, the members of the cooperative are all also EPC firms, not just pure-play O&M companies. The same is true for a lot of O&M providers across the country. If they were to see their EPC business affected and were to lay off any kind of field staff, that could potentially mean that they have fewer resources to provide O&M services. Conversely, potentially more companies will see O&M as a safer revenue source. They could choose to get into the business and make it a more crowded marketplace.
The biggest impact of the tariff from my perspective was the uncertainty it introduced. It held up the development of a lot of projects, so all those new O&M contracts went on hold as well.
Now that the tariff is a known quantity, we can get back to business. This space is the solar coaster, and we know how to roll with the punches. We’ve had a lot over the past 15 years. I’m not too concerned about the medium- to long-term view. We will find ways to absorb the tariffs and continue growing.
SP: Is there anything that you are working on now with the O&M co-op that you’re just excited to talk about?
AB: I’m most excited about the opportunity to keep improving this part of the marketplace and to bring an entrepreneurial spirit to it while it is still figuring itself out. It’s fun to have conversations with people about how do you define asset management. What falls into that exactly? When you say “analytics,” what do you really mean? These are terms that people throw around as buzzwords, but there isn’t a common understanding of how we really apply them in practice. I like to break that highfalutin term into really practical chunks.
I’m excited about the software side of things. More companies are providing important services and giving us better visibility into how PV systems are doing or why they’re not performing as well as they should. I spent a lot of my time over the past 8 months developing software to manage, in our case, just really a narrow slice of that pie, which is the work order system. I’m finding ways to do that for my members that are affordable because pricing is still all over the place, both for software services and for O&M. We’re approaching these things creatively and comprehensively, but also affordably. It’s easy to get complicated.
We’re trying to strike a balance and develop tools that are simple enough to be user friendly, but thorough enough to be useful on the back end. A lot of us fall into the trap of gathering so much data that we don’t know what to do with it. How do we find the right balance of information to really be good at what we do and not overwhelm each other with all this unnecessary information that just clutters the space? After 11 years at Namasté Solar, my stock answer to every such question is “It’s a balance.”
If you have so much information, you can do a lot with it. But if you have too much and no one uses it at all, then you’ve shot yourself in the foot. Conversely, if you don’t have enough, then you’re flying blind.
We’re constantly striving for that balance. We want to make sure the technicians are equipped to provide the right level of service. No one size fits all in every situation, so we strive to find the right ways to address that and apply different scopes of work to different-sized systems or different price tags. We want to get this to where we can provide O&M really cost effectively, still keep the systems up and running, and allow our companies to make some money along the way.