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Comment: The Internet of Things: Enabling intelligent solar assets

Stefan Degener

Stefan Degener, Senior Director at First Solar Energy Services, considers how the Internet of Things has impacted the implementation of Operations & Maintenance services in the solar industry.

Those of us who have been in the solar industry since its early days will remember a time when Operations & Maintenance (O&M) was thrown, almost as an afterthought, into Project Development and Engineering, Procurement and Construction (EPC) contracts. In those days, O&M usually involved sending someone around to cut the grass around the arrays and to ensure that the local rodent population hadn’t nibbled on the cables. 

Today, thanks to the evolving needs of asset owners and lenders who recognize that professional O&M services are critical to optimizing plant performance, we operate in a highly technologized environment. From sophisticated plant monitoring systems to operations centres that resemble the mission control for a space flight, the solar O&M trade has rapidly transformed and has fully embracing the benefits of connectivity, real-time performance monitoring, preventive maintenance and in-depth data analysis. 

The so-called Internet of Things (IoT) lies at the heart of this transformation and is responsible for the way we now operate, manage, and optimize solar energy assets, while enabling the global energy transition. 

Just as O&M has evolved, photovoltaic (PV) power plants have also adapted to the new connected reality. Today’s PV power plants are truly intelligent: using a combination of hardware and software to gather and process performance data that is instantly made available to the O&M solution providers, to facilitate real-time decision making and to owners and asset managers, to increase the level of information and to allow and drive fleet integration.

This is critical as we move from a centralized world of power generation, to an environment with diverse and distributed generators: the increasing number of solar plants feeding their electricity into the grid need to be monitored and controlled more precisely to ensure grid stability. And as the fleet of PV power plants grows in Europe and around the world, it isn’t uncommon for operators – based in state-of-the-art operations centres - to manage tens or even hundreds of geographically-dispersed megawatts, which are connected to national and regional grids. 

This places a tremendous amount of responsibility on the plant and grid operators to ensure high-precision supervision and control of all relevant physical quantities at the grid connection point, while also managing the feed-in of active and reactive power. In these scenarios, the IoT forms the basis for the collection, display and analysis of the data required to enable real-time decision making and action. 

The tools in the solar PV IoT ecosystem are varied. In terms of hardware: onsite sensors measure irradiation and weather; monitoring systems keep track of single component and entire plant performance; smart meters measure energy yields at the grid connection point or, if necessary, behind every inverter; closed-circuit television systems provide site visibility and perimeter security; while servers ensure the secure flow of data to the monitoring solution provider and the O&M specialist. From here data will be made available to the asset manager and the owner through easily understandable web-portals and detailed reports.

Central to the solar PV IoT is the SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition) software platform, which collates, processes, and visualizes the data gathered from the networked web of onsite hardware. The SCADA system serves as a data hub, analyzing and streamlining the flow of information that allows asset managers to make intelligent, real-time decisions that can optimize plant, or even portfolio, performance. In keeping with the need for information to be available on-the-go, apps also allow SCADA data to be available on mobile devices.

With geographically dispersed power plants being the norm, data analysis is usually a consolidated process for both, asset owners with multiple plants in their portfolios and for professional O&M service providers managing large fleets. 

Purpose-built operations centres allow for that data consolidation and analysis to happen under the watchful eye of trained O&M professionals who use it to track plant performance, to detect and diagnose issues, and to schedule and manage on-site maintenance activities. A professional O&M service provider will treat this data with the highest security and confidentiality, only making it available to asset owners, grid operators, and regulators, to ensure compliance and optimal plant performance.

Because of a power plant’s web of interconnected devices, an operator sitting at an operations centre in Berlin can assess whether a facility in Dubai needs a change in its cleaning schedule because of unusual soiling caused by a dust storm or whether underperforming modules need to be replaced in a plant in South Africa.

This reliance on technology and data-driven decision-making has helped perfect professional O&M services, lowering operating costs and improving efficiencies. It also provides owners, lenders, and investors with a powerful tool that allows them transparent access to plant performance data and the ability to check on the health of an asset in real-time. This makes for truly intelligent asset management. 

In a world where utility-scale solar PV plants are valued assets and where plant optimization is driven by data, a premium must be placed on fully leveraging the IoT to take advantage of the sheer scale of data generated by intelligent power plants. This is something that only a professional O&M service provider can deliver.


Stefan Degener is the Senior Director of First Solar Energy Services in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. =


First Solar Energy Services, 

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Photovoltaics (PV)  •  Solar electricity