Solar Operations Data: Convergence or Collision?

July 01, 2016

Solar operations and asset managers will head to Intersolar North America in July to take part in the SunSpec Solar Asset Symposium.  The SunSpec event, now in its 6th year, puts one of the industry’s hottest topics, solar monitoring and analytical data, front and center with several panel discussions.  One of those panels, “Driving Return with Operations Data Technology and IT: Convergence or Collision?” highlights recurring themes in the industry.

To get an insider’s view on the solar O&M and asset management data landscape we talked with veteran solar industry professional, Laks Sampath of Alectris, who will be on this SunSpec panel dedicated to solar PV operational data.

Solar operations data Alectris TWith millions of bits of solar operational data being generated by the world’s solar assets, how do we avoid data collision and create convergence?

The Increasing Role of Solar Analytics
According to the SunSpec Alliance, “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.”

The trend lines are moving away from pure monitoring to monitoring + analytics to realize cost effective energy performance.

“There’s sufficient data in place right now,” explains Laks Sampath, U.S. and Latin America Country Manager for Alectris.  “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.”

The recent GTM Research / SoliChamba PV Monitoring report predicted the global PV monitoring market will reach 242 gigawatts worldwide in 2016.

The report stated: “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 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.”

GTM Research Solichamba“We as an industry 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,” said Sampath.

“I question 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 the domain of control system manufacturers like Schweitzer. In general, we are at a stage 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 attention,” explains Sampath in reference to the GTM Research monitoring report.

Solar Operations Data: Convergence or Collison?
Data, millions of streams of it, hit the desks of solar operators and asset managers every day around the world 24/7/365.  If that data is not brought into a solar Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) or other analytical “one login” platform then hundreds of untold man hours are spent “converging” the data into actionable information and reports.

If data is being assembled into spreadsheets, as is the case for many in the industry, or needs human interaction to integrate into one platform, then the man hours are multiplied.

When monitoring a portfolio of assets, with multiple and different monitoring platforms, how can data convergence be realized?

Solar Monitoring vs. Solar ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning)
Once you’ve monitored and gotten the data and done the analytics, what’s the real connection between monitoring and the related functions discussed in the GTM Research monitoring report?

ACTIS video screenshot Web“Herein lies the importance of a solar ERP. Monitoring is the collection of data in order to manage the plants appropriately. The Alectris ACTIS platform integrates these two functions, the monitoring and the analytics to help customers reduce costs by having everything on one single platform,” explains Sampath.

“Other vendor monitoring systems must be integrated with a CRM platform like Salesforce, SAP or Oracle but with ACTIS, it’s in all in one spot. 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.”

“The nice thing about a solar is everything boils down to volts, amps, watts, watt hours, kilowatt hours, and irradiance, temperature and so on,” says Sampath. “All these streams of data are put into 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.”

“The key here is trying to put them all together, right? It’s big data analytics. The first step is to get all the data into one manageable form.  This alone represents a huge challenge. However, this is where the 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, which means 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, if you have a plant which has a control system with the Schweitzer labs equipment, we can talk to the Schweitzer labs equipment and get the data. 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,” explains Sampath.

This integration of multiple streams of monitoring data into the seamless Solar ERP, ACTIS, avoids collision and creates solar operational data convergence.