Podcast Solar Operations Data: Convergence or Collision?

July 01, 2016

Welcome to the Solar O&M Insider, the first podcast series dedicated to solar PV operations, maintenance and asset management.  This series is brought to you by Alectris, a global solar asset care innovation firm. The series is hosted by Glenna Wiseman of Identity3.

On July 12th the SunSpec Alliance will host its 6th Solar Asset Symposium at Intersolar North America in San Francisco.  The Symposium will cover many solar PV operations, maintenance and asset management topics.  Our guest in this episode will speak at the event to this topic: Driving Return with Operations Data Technology and IT: Convergence or Collision?

Laks Sampath, country manager for the US and Latin America for Alectris is a return guest to the show.  Laks brings over a decade of solar PV experience on sites ranging in size from 2KW to 20MW, in the U.S., Mexico and Italy.

Solar Operations Data: Convergence or Collision? covers:

  • Solar PV Management Data Trends
  • Convergence or Collision?
  • The Increasing Role of Solar Analytics
  • Solar Monitoring vs. Solar ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning)
  • The Role of Solar Operations Data in Driving Revenue Generation
  • Opportunities at the SunSpec Solar Asset Symposi

Full Transcript

Alectris Solar OM Insider June 2016 tWelcome to the Solar O&M Insider, the first podcast series dedicated to solar PV operations, maintenance and asset management.  This series is brought to you by Alectris, a global solar asset care innovation firm.  I’m Glenna Wiseman of Identity3 your host.

On July 12th the SunSpec Alliance will host its 6th Solar Asset Symposium at Intersolar North America in San Francisco.  The Symposium will cover many solar PV operations, maintenance and asset management topics.  Our guest today will speak at the event to this topic: One of Driving Return with Operations Data Technology and IT: Convergence or Collision?

Laks Sampath, country manager for the US and Latin America for Alectris is a return guest to the show.  Laks brings over a decade of solar PV experience on sites ranging in size from 2KW to 20MW, in the U.S., Mexico and Italy.

Welcome back to the show, Laks!

Laks: Thank you, Glenna, for this opportunity. This is an excellent and timely topic to discuss.

Solar PV Management Data Trends
Glenna: Absolutely because we’ve got the SunSpec Alliance event coming up just here in another couple of weeks. And here’s the update from the SunSpec team: “The U.S.-installed base of solar assets has grown beyond 25 gigawatts. Much of the solar industry focus is now shifting from the gold rush stage of new assets to the development of strategies to optimize the installed base of solar assets and maximize return on those investments.”

Laks, your participation in the event is to discuss the data side of solar maintenance. What trends do you see in solar PV management data?

Laks: Data has been the main thing that we’ve all been gathering. There’s sufficient data in place right now. We’ve all been doing a lot of learning over the years on how to interpret the data.

Now is the time to translate that learning into machine language, meaning analytics. These analytics will help us actually automate these plants on how they alert us and how we maintain them.

Solar Operations Data: Convergence or Collision?
Glenna: Excellent, so why do you think the event organizers would posture or use the title “Convergence or Collision” when it comes to the industry’s solar PV asset operational data?

Laks: That’s an interesting choice of words, convergence and collision. In my opinion, it is really one of cognizance. The awareness of what the data represent and what we can do with the learning that has already happened will help us better operate these power plants.

Glenna: So speaking of operating the power plants and all of the growth in both the solar PV industry in terms of built projects, and the monitoring of those projects, the recent GTM SoliChamba PV Monitoring report just came out. It predicted the global PV monitoring market will reach 242 gigawatts worldwide in 2016. So I’m just going to read a little statement here about how they see monitoring so we can talk about that, Laks?

Laks: Okay.

The Increasing Role of Solar Analytics
Glenna: The report said, “Monitoring is business critical for the technical, commercial and financial operation of PV assets and investors are now considering bankability as an important factor when selecting a provider, especially after seeing large players in all the vendor categories go through financial turmoil, including bankruptcies.”

The report defined solar PV monitoring software, and this is really important for us to understand how the industry sees this, in my opinion, it describes it as “software allowing stakeholders to track the output of a solar PV system, assess its performance, detect system issues and create reports on these same topics.”

Do you interpret solar monitoring as being the same as they have defined it? And if not, how do you, being a solar PV expert and someone who’s responsible for multi-megawatts of solar performance in the U.S., how do you see the segmentation of the solar software market as it applies to operations and maintenance?

Laks: Glenna, I’m really happy to see the way Cedric has presented the monitoring and its related activities. Until recently, the industry has been all about data gathering, right? So we have tons of data. Monitoring companies have essentially been about data acquisition and little about data intelligence. The intelligence or the analytics has been dependent on people like me interpreting the data. These are the operations folks that look at the data and are able to interpret it and then do the necessary things to take care of the plant.

The only thing I’m not too sure about the way this is segmented is about including very high level SCADA data control systems that utilities use for curtailment and regulating what goes on the grid. Those activities are not generally in the domain of monitoring vendors. These are more domain of control system manufacturers like Schweitzer. I’m not so sure about that. But in general, we are at a stage where in order to maintain these plants and do the related functions and systems, that one little box that is called analytics, trending and fault prediction, that is the biggest chunk that needs to be paid attention to.

Glenna: And for our listeners, Laks is talking about a graph in the GTM / Cedric’s SoliChamba report (see below) We’ll have it up on the blog post for Alectris as well in alignment with this podcast. And I agree with you, Laks, because as we’ve been working together in the industry the past few years and we’ve watched this monitoring report evolve, that box for analytics, which now is showing up under the auspices of monitoring, I mean I’d have to go back and check, but I bet you it wasn’t even there a while ago.

Laks: That was left to the human being interpreting the data.

GTM Research SolichambaSolar Monitoring vs. Solar ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning)
Glenna: Now we’re looking at more sophisticated monitoring, what’s being put under the umbrella of monitoring, but really, as it has defined it, aren’t we moving in to the solar ERP or enterprise resource planning, sort of, environment?

Laks: That’s a very interesting way of putting it, Glenna. You’re absolutely right. The question is once you’ve monitored and gotten the data and you’d done the analytics, what’s the real connection between monitoring and the related functions that Cedric is talking about? That’s the key difference, for example, with a platform like Alectris and any other monitoring vendor. Monitoring to us is something that we have to do and collect the data in order to be able to actually manage the plants appropriately. Alectris, the ACTIS platform, integrates these two functions, which is essentially the monitoring and the analytics part that is in the monitoring, and also the other related functions seamlessly, and help customers reduce costs by having everything on one single platform.

Other vendor monitoring systems need to be integrated with other CRM platforms like Salesforce or an SAP, or an Oracle. Whereas with ACTIS, it’s in all in one spot. And any alerts can now be automatically tied into work orders. That way, the field operations people that are out there, the boots on the ground, can quickly identify the issue and address it.

Glenna: Well, it’s interesting because when I look at data acquisition versus analytics, there is in the heart of the SunSpec title, “Convergence or Collision,” right?

Laks: Right.

Glenna: I will hereby be quite transparent and say I am not a programmer, you know I never was a programmer, I probably won’t ever be, I’m a marketing person so, when I look at this title of “Convergence versus Collision,” I see is the data all colliding so that the human factor has to come in in order to make it, as you said, coherent, or is it coming together and converging into a platform that is something that is easy to use, helps us to use it more effectively instead of hours wasted with spreadsheets kind of thing?

Laks: The spreadsheets, that’s the old way of doing things. What happens with monitoring is when you have a portfolio of assets, if you have multiple different monitoring platforms, then you need to have convergence of all this data. Everybody characterize them differently. The nice thing about a solar is that everything boils down to volts, amps, watts, watt hours, kilowatt hours, and irradiance, temperature, so on and so forth. But they’re all, as I call them, they’re all put in different “buckets,” and as long as you can read all of those “buckets,” you can bring them all into a secondary platform, like a CRM platform, for example Salesforce, SAP or Oracle.

But the key here is trying to put them all together, right? It’s big data analytics. First step is to get all the data into one manageable form. That’s where the challenges are. Whereas, this is where an ACTIS platform is a really nice platform to have, simply because all that challenge is taken out of the picture. It’s completely built on Microsoft Dynamics CRM, so which means that you don’t have to worry about the proprietary nature of the software. You don’t have to worry about the scalability of the software, so we can manage any number of these different data gathering points and bring them into our system.

For example, a simple thing like a plant which has a control system with the Schweitzer labs equipment, we can just talk to the Schweitzer labs equipment and get all the data from there. We don’t need additional monitoring hardware out in the field in order to collect all the data. That data is already there. So we read the Modbus registers and we’re able to put them in our own little buckets and we can do the analytics, so it’s all very seamless.

Glenna: So the collision part that’s being referred to by TJ and Tom Tansy over at SunSpec and related to this panel on July 12 is another way of looking at all these different streams of monitoring data coming in from one solar PV plant, and depending on the granularity in which you’re monitoring, that can all collide into one format so you can understand what you’ve got and you can pull predictive information out of it, is that correct?

Laks: In a sense the convergence happens because everybody’s talking the same language, which is what SunSpec is trying to do. The collision happens when people talk different languages and we don’t know what they’re saying. And then the data becomes garbage. There’s not much there that we can discern from that in order to be able to do the necessary analytics to maintain these plants.

Glenna: And this is an issue, you know, that we heard from in terms of Satya Kumar in India, where he’s talking to and working with developers that are trying to take the Oracle and the SAP platforms and customize them, no inexpensive little process there. So the effectiveness of the ACTIS software in order to be able to do this without having that level of expense. So it’s kind of, I see this as a worldwide sort of issue, not just the U.S.

Laks: Absolutely. Data is a worldwide issue and there’s no question about it and Satya is actually right, I mean, you know, when you start dealing with SAP, Oracle or Salesforce, which I’ve dealt with quite a bit, that development effort is quite large.

The Role of Solar Operations Data in Driving Revenue Generation
Glenna: So we’re talking about the money spent here in terms of developers trying to use their existing ERPs to now monitor and maintain, and report out for their solar PV plants, let’s talk about the revenue side. Let’s talk about the revenue size. In what ways is solar operation data driving revenue generation or return as the SunSpec event organizers have said?

Laks: So if you look at the word return, it’s more or less, return on investment. So if you could not do another Capex just to do all the integration, that’s extra money spent. As a solar power plant, it’s now all about energy delivered. Every kilowatt hour makes a difference. One needs to ensure the system is performing optimally but at the lowest cost of plant maintenance, right? This can only be achieved through efficient data analytics, expedient effective intervention, both predictive or corrective in nature, and that’s the only way you’re going to get the most production out of these systems. If you’re already going to spend more money on data integration, now that’s going to add to the burden of that return that you’re expecting. So that’s where the difference is between doing your own integration and putting everything together in an ERP system that you probably have, versus what you can do with Microsoft Dynamics CRM and the ACTIS platform.

Glenna: As you’re talking I’m reminded of the webinar and the global data that we gathered last year around how our developers handling the data and what kinds of cost are involved in that, and we found that a great deal, 30% plus of developer’s asset owners didn’t even know how much time was being spent in generating the reports that were needed to run all of the different functionality and all of the reporting that was necessary for all the stakeholders who had an interest in the plant. So it’s interesting to me when you’re talking about revenue generation because it isn’t just the revenue from the sold energy electricity that needs to be held in integrity, right? It’s also the cost of all of the reporting.

Laks: A lot of times the cost of this reporting is buried under overhead and people generally don’t see it as part of the expense. And that’s not how should be viewed. At least the finance folks are starting to realize that. There’s a lot of expense involved in plant operations. Plant operations is a very large portion or expense, and if that is done properly, the plant maintenance costs can be reduced drastically.

Opportunities at the SunSpec Solar Asset Symposium

Glenna: This area of data and monitoring versus analytics, or monitoring leading to analytics, is such an exciting area to be involved with in the industry, and I think the Solar Asset Symposium coming up here on July 12 in San Francisco is just an example. This event is becoming increasingly sold out and the agenda this year is just packed. We understand Alectris is sponsoring the event. Why does the company feel this is an important event to sponsor, Laks, and what are you looking for, we know that you’re on the panel, what are you looking for in terms of trends and industry updates?

Laks: This is very small industry and everyone knows everyone. There’s so much to learn from each other, especially true for asset managers and plant operators like myself. The more important thing for me also is to help shape the industry standards by developing ones that everybody’s going to adopt. So for example, SunSpec Alliance is working on O&M standards. There is also NABCEP is actually starting an O&M curriculum. So these are all new trends in the industry. We want to keep our pulse on the industry. We want to make sure we meet the requirements, or new ones that are being placed on the industry by the finance folks.

Glenna: These kinds of guidelines are emerging across the globe. And just last week, as we record this, the SolarPower Europe announced their O&M guidelines, the first ever. Alectris was on the task force. This is the kind of thing that you’re seeing and participating in in the U.S. as well?

Laks: That is exactly correct. SunSpec also has an O&M cost model that they’ve been working on. I’ve been looking at that quite in detail. So these are all things that’ll help actually, not just plant operators like me to manage these plants better, but also the finance folks to be able to better allocate their funds for ongoing plant maintenance and plant operations.

Glenna: I wholeheartedly agree with you, and I think also the transparency and the understanding of the true cost of these areas will become much more clear as these kinds of guidelines and costing analysis are made available to the financial community and solar developers and owners,

Laks: No question about it, you’re exactly right.

Glenna: Okay. Well, Laks, how can our listeners get in touch with you and your team?

Laks: The information is on our website, alectris.com, A-L-E-C-T-R-I-S dot com. Or they can also call us at +1 888 717 8123. Again, the number is 888 717 8123 and its toll free.

Glenna: Excellent. We look forward to the SunSpec Solar Asset Symposium on July 12 in San Francisco at Intersolar North America. Intersolar is celebrating its 25th anniversary so it’s going to be a great event. And we look forward to hearing your insights to this topic: “Driving Return with Operations Data Technology and IT: Convergence or Collision?”

I’m Glenna Wiseman with Identity3. The Solar O&M Insider podcast series is brought to you by Alectris at Alectris.com.