Day in the life: Jan Muller – Technical & Asset Management Director

Jan Muller is one of the most experienced solar engineers in the world. He tells us about his solar journey and his life as Solarcentury’s Technical & Asset Management Director .

How long have you been working in solar?

I’ve worked with solar power since 1994. That’s 25 years this year, 19 of them at Solarcentury.

The first project I was involved with was an EU initiative to install over three hundred systems for homes on the outer islands of Tonga. It was one of the biggest projects of its kind at the time, and a great experience for me.

Why solar?

I was working in agriculture originally, and in the early 1990s found myself in the Kingdom of Tonga working for the Ministry of Agriculture.

I was looking at water pumping for irrigation systems on these remote and environmentally delicate islands in the Pacific. Solar pumping was clearly the most appropriate solution. No diesel or oil would spill over the wells and no diesel was needed to transport; simple. A compelling combination indeed, but at the time the higher initial cost was a significant challenge.

Trade show in Tonga, 1994

This then expanded to solar home systems – a couple of modules, a battery, a charge regulator and 4 lights; Navigation Aids which were important for the scattered islands of the Pacific to mark the reefs and navigable channels to harbours.

In 2000 I came back to the UK and found that my experience was actually useful and started with Solarcentury!

 How has the industry changed in the last 25 years?

The changes are immense. The first projects I worked on were 120Wp homes systems, now we’re working on 300MWp plants (2.5 million times bigger).

Perhaps the most significant change since the ‘90s is that solar power is fast becoming the affordable energy choice – and prices will continue to fall. Solar farms are already cheaper to build than coal and gas power stations. According to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), costs have dropped 73% since 2010.

Our projects now generate electricity to power the equivalent of 410,000 homes each year and over the next couple of years alone we expect to increase our solar capacity by fourfold.

It’s certainly a very exciting time, and I’m immensely proud that we’re making an impact.

What has made you stay with Solarcentury for 19 years?

Good question. As with any job and company, there are ups and downs but the constantly changing and developing work has kept me interested and challenged.

Over these 19 years, I’ve been a project manager, engineer, head of engineering, director of engineering, technical director, I set up the customer services team, set up installation teams, field engineering teams, country teams, design teams, data analysis teams and now the Asset Management team. I’ve basically done a bit of everything here!

The team and atmosphere are great at Solarcentury, which makes it easy to keep moving forward and enjoying my time here.

Solarcentury has recently started to manage solar as an asset. How this different to the company’s previous practices?

It’s not so different. In fact, we’re actually pulling all our skills and experience together to operate solar PV plants to their maximum potential.

It’s great to be able to make this shift and see all the knowledge and experience being drawn together.

What does a Technical & Asset Management Director and his team do?

We use data and insight drawn from managing solar farms to inform how they are designed and built in the first place. One example of this is that we made the decision to build with small string inverters rather than large central inverters. String inverters are quick to change out, easy to maintain, and require less technical knowledge in the field. Having such high availability from our solar farms means we significantly improve yields.

And yet it would not be possible to manage utility-scale solar farms of the scale we are now designing without a matching digital strategy. At Talayuela, the 300MWp solar farm we are developing in Spain, we will be installing 2.500 string inverters. The amount of data produced by this number of inverters is phenomenal and certainly cannot be managed by excel spreadsheets. Our team is therefore running python scripts and deploying machine learning to optimise our portfolio of solar farms.

In short, it’s our experience, long-term interest, application of knowledge and advanced analytics that all add up to making sure a solar plant operates as a valuable asset.

You’ve been in the renewable energy industry for 25 years. What’s the impact of this on your personal life? 

It’s had a positive impact, definitely. Knowing that I’m actively working each day to provide a clean energy future is my main drive and source of motivation every day.

Socially, there has been a gradual change in reactions that have reflected the mood of the time. People’s reactions are positive now, whereas, when I started, I was a source of amusement and the butt of long-haired eco hippy jokes, which when I was a long-haired eco hippy in the Pacific were probably warranted!

Jan and his daughter 

How do you like to unwind?

I’m up for any outdoor sport to be honest. Over the years its ranged from sea kayaking or windsurfing after work in the Pacific, to being a keen road cyclist. It is also easier to dash out for quick bike ride with my kids than to go wind surfing in the UK, even though I’ve lived just half an hour away from the beach for the past 19 years.

The change to road riding was practical, and with Solarcentury events like the Dragon Ride and ETape du Tour it has become a passion – a good result!

Last question – What’s the future of solar?

As we transition to an electric future, where homes will be heated with electricity and petrol garages are a thing of the past, we’ll see increasingly more solar and wind power in the world. Here at Solarcentury we believe that the majority of the world will be powered by clean, solar electricity by 2030.

As the globe shifts to electricity as its dominant power source, powering cars, buildings and other infrastructure, my team and I have always believed that widespread adoption of solar power can and will make a meaningful difference in the reduction of CO2 emissions and the fight against climate change.

We’ll see more solar PV and wind turbines around, which is great. Coal and nuclear plants have an industrial beauty of their own but their emissions we can do without. It is the solar century after all.

Read more from our day in the life series:

Day in the life: Rick Fransen – Business Development Manager

Day in the life: Schola Wangui – Administration and Accounts Manager for East Africa

Day in the life: Kahya Engler – Head of Residential Operations

Day in the life: Marcus Spedding – O&M Service Manager 

Day in the life: Bernice Awodele – Office Manager 

Day in the life: Andrew Crossland – Energy Storage Specialist