4 Big Problems with Solar Big Data

March 25, 2015

This article originally appeared in Solar Power World Magazine.4 big problems for solar PV big data infographic article image

Last week solar professionals registered from 32 countries gathered for a webinar putting the use of “big data” for solar PV asset care under a microscope.

Conducted on March 19 by Solar Power World, a leading industry publication, and Alectris, a global solar PV asset care provider, the webinar “Drowning in Solar Data, but Starving for Knowledge?” was an interactive format giving attendees the opportunity to express their chief complaints.

The discoveries unearthed in the webinar included four big problems inherent in the current status of monitoring and analytics for the operations, maintenance and asset management of the world’s solar PV sites.

The industry’s widespread need for effective information processing was reinforced by noted researcher, Cedric Brehaut, author of the GTM Research Reports Megawatt-Scale PV O&M and Asset Management and Global PV Monitoring who stated: “Solar PV monitoring and data analysis solutions are increasingly expected to enable efficiency and productivity gains in operations & maintenance and asset management activities. Early detection of faults and underperformance conditions, remote diagnosis and troubleshooting, and streamlining of processes are paramount as solar portfolios grow in size and O&M market prices continue to come down.”

The audience represented a mix of self-identified solar industry players predominately EPC/installation firms.

chart1Big Problem #1 – Report Generation
The first big problem with solar PV “big data” came in answer to this question, “What kinds of challenges do you face related to data to manage your solar assets?”

Attendees were given these multiple choice options 1) Data is not congruent,  2) I don’t get the kind of data I need,  3) Takes too much time to generate reports, 4)Data does not help me manage some aspects  and 5) The Data is too expensive.

Nearly half of the attendees answered “it takes too much time to generate the reports” they need to maintain and manage their PV assets.  The second most popular response at 38% was the “data does not help me manage some aspect.”

chart2Big Problem #2 – Wasted Time
Next participants were asked “Approximately how many hours does your team spend on monthly reports for each solar PV plant?”

Here the answer was a single choice with the options being 1)Less than 1 hour, 2) 1-10 hours, 3) 10-20 hours, 4) 20+ hours or 5) Don’t know or other.

The top answer was “Don’t know or other” followed by 1-10 hours per PV site per month.

The conclusion:  we as an industry are spending a lot of human hours generating reports on each PV site or even more alarming, we don’t know how many “man hours” we are spending to amass, validate, analyze and communicate the necessary information to maintain and manage our PV portfolios.

chart3Big Problem #3 – Spreadsheet Hell
The third “big problem” revealed itself in answer to this poll question, “What type of data platform or software do you use now to manage your solar PV plants?”

The multiple choice answer possibilities for this question included 1) Manufacturer provided monitoring, 2) Software developed in house, 3) Purchased Software, 4) Spreadsheets and 5) Other or None.

The top answer “spreadsheets” leads one to understand why the first and second biggest challenges to managing PV asset care information relate to report generation and the time intensive nature of the task.

One could also draw the conclusion that “spreadsheet hell” leads to software opportunity, which explains the number of players who have jumped into this aspect of the market in the last year from a wide range of industry and non-industry firms.

chart4Big Problem #4 – The O&M, AM Disconnect
In response to the question, “Where do you feel the industry needs to do a better job in terms of solar ‘big data?’” the answer highlighted the disconnect between information tracking operations and maintenance (O&M) and asset management (AM) activities.

Participants were given these multiple choice answer options 1) Streamlining O&M in field efficiency 2) Integrating monitoring into overall reporting, 3) Integrating O&M reporting with asset management, 4) Asset Management related and 5) Other.

67% answered “integrating O&M reporting with asset management” as the biggest area the industry as a whole needs to address on the analytics side.

Data Challenges
Bringing to bear his experience with over 1,500 MW of solar and wind energy, Ken Kostok of Alectris highlighted the wide variety of inputs realized in a data solution.

Inputs into system analysis include high and low frequency, performance maintenance and cost factors. In addition to the hundreds if not thousands of inputs, task management portfolio wide represents another significant challenge.

A full asset management and O&M package requires about 100 single (simple) tasks to be performed (excluding accounting).  Multiplied over a 40 PV plant geographically distributed portfolio result results in 40×100=4,000 such tasks, by which one starts to see the spreadsheet time consuming morass of such an endeavor.

Reducing Solar PV OPEX – The Difference Between Monitoring and a Solar ERP
A solid line can be drawn between the importance of actionable information to reduce the risk of solar PV investment and deliver returns to the investors and the critical nature of holistic, powerful data solutions.

“OPEX reduction and reliability improvements of solar PV plants through the use of sophisticated IT platforms” was outlined as a critical end result in this space by Vassilis Papaeconomou of Alectris.

Aspects of solar PV OPEX which can be addressed effectively with a more holistic approach to data generation and reporting include:

  • Spare parts
  • Preventative maintenance labor
  • Corrective maintenance labor
  • Software Costs (Monitoring & Management platforms)
  • Asset Management cost and/or internal labor

The promise of effective management through Solar ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) Systems is realized because the Solar ERP integrates all the monitoring, operational data and asset management requirements of a plant or portfolio into a seamless suite of actionable intelligence.  Alectris launched the world’s first Solar ERP, ACTIS, in 2013.  This platform has gone on to win the “Facilities Management” award in Europe.

What is the difference between a monitoring system and a Solar ERP?  A monitoring system passively captures the outcome versus a management platform which actively helps manage efforts to improve the outcome.

The Solar ERP closes the loop between measuring results and the actions to influence these results. It is a transactional system with defined processes and workflows, adjusted to the organization’s needs for internal and external operations, together with an enhanced reporting interface.  Functionality covers monitoring, technical and financial aspects of the plant and portfolio.

Case Study – Resurrecting Italy Based Portfolio
Alectris team member, Emanuele Tacchino, walked the audience through a case study involving a distressed solar PV portfolio based in Italy.  The site, constructed between 2009 and 2010, consisted of 7 1-MWp sites of biaxial trackers.

This portfolio suffered from bad initial system design, lack of proper maintenance, a complete absence of proper monitoring and underperformance issues related to the lack of remedy for root cause malfunctions.  The result was a performance level up to 25% below base case scenario.

The case study, along with remedial steps including the installation of ACTIS can be found here.  Pictured below is the tracker energy generation pattern now aligned (right image) properly to the sun’s radiation.

alectisgraphOverall results from these remedial steps including adoption of the Solar ERP within the first year included a yield increase: +27%-33% achievable and a compressed payback time of 2 months for the remedial investment.

The Presenters
The team from Alectris who conducted the webinar represent the following industry perspectives:

  • Vassilis Papaeconomou – experienced European based solar PV engineer, project developer and solar industry business leader.
  • Ken Kostok – U.S. based solar professional who has managed the development and asset management of over 1500 MW’s of solar and wind clean energy generation in the U.S. and Canada. Ken is on the NREL Solar PV O&M Committee, a joint Sandia National Labs/EPRI.
  • Emanuele Tacchino – Italy based business development expert with over a decade of experience in solar PV project management.

Software Providers at Solar Asset Management North AmericaSAMNA Event logo 21 Jan
One can see why next week’s Solar Asset Management event in San Francisco has drawn a host of software providers including Alectris.

Use discount code SAMNA15-ALECTRISREL if you have not registered yet for this Solarplaza event, the second U.S. event for this organizer on the exploding solar O&M and asset management sector.  Ken Kostok will address Maintenance Best Practices on day 1 of the event.

“Drowning in Solar Data, but Starving for Knowledge?” Webinar Resources
You can view the agenda and webinar video here.  Slides from the event are available here.

Glenna Wiseman has been a solar marketing executive since 2007 and is the founding partner of Identity3, a leading woman-owned communication firm in the clean energy space. Her expertise includes work with companies along the solar supply chain from manufacturers to installers, financing entities to solar O&M providers and across continents to international firms making a U.S. market entry. Twitter: @GlennaWiseman; @Identity3Co.  Email [email protected]