ITC finds ‘serious injury’ in solar trade case

solar trade case

It happened: In a clean sweep 4-0 decision, the International Trade Commission (ITC) found injury to the domestic crystalline silicon solar cell industry based on a petition brought by Suniva and SolarWorld. If you’d like a rehash of what this could mean, here are some links:

The Section 201 trade case ruling is this week, here’s a final update from SPI

Solar industry would lose 88,000 jobs if Suniva’s trade protections are imposed

With the “serious injury” being confirmed, the next step is a hearing on October 3 in Washington, D.C., in which the ITC will consider possible trade remedies. The petitioners are seeking duties of 40 cents per watt on imported cells and 78 cents per watt on modules.

Also, reminder, whatever the ITC recommends doesn’t really mean anything because Donald Trump gets to just make whatever unilateral decision he would like. Yes, this is real life.

Following is a statement from Abigail Ross Hopper, president and CEO of the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA):

“The ITC’s decision is disappointing for nearly 9,000 U.S. solar companies and the 260,000 Americans they employ. Foreign-owned companies that brought business failures on themselves are attempting to exploit American trade laws to gain a bailout for their bad investments.

“Analysts say Suniva’s remedy proposal will double the price of solar, destroy two-thirds of demand, erode billions of dollars in investment and unnecessarily force 88,000 Americans to lose their jobs in 2018.

“While we continue to believe that this is the wrong decision, based on Suniva and SolarWorld’s mismanagement, we respect the commission’s vote and we will continue to lead the effort to protect the solar industry from damaging trade relief. We expect to be front and center in the ITC remedy process, and in the administration’s consideration of this deeply-flawed case.

“As the remedy phase moves forward, I am determined to reach a conclusion that will protect the solar industry, our workers and the American public from what amounts to a shakedown by these two companies. An improper remedy will devastate the burgeoning American solar economy and ultimately harm America’s manufacturers and 36,000 people currently engaged in solar manufacturing that don’t make cells and panels.”

— Solar Builder magazine

SB Buzz Podcast: Standard Solar CEO talks trade case, Gaz Metro deal, new tech at SPI 2017

Standard Solar podcast

At Solar Power International 2017, we grabbed a few minutes of Standard Solar President and CEO Scott Wiater’s time (along with some beers) to chat about the general vibe at SPI this year. The solarcoaster makes sure that each and every SPI has its own weird vibe, but the contrast of the positive momentum in the industry with the looming Section 201 trade case decision made this one feel especially awkward. Scott and I delve into it, but also chat about Standard Solar’s growth under its new owner Gaz Métro, the challenges and opportunities he sees right now and also our (now irrelevant, but mostly correct) predictions for the Browns-Ravens game.

— Solar Builder magazine

Keep Watch: How the PV monitoring landscape is evolving

Cloud Computing

Monitoring systems have become an integral and ubiquitous component to any well-functioning PV project for years now. As the industry has matured, monitoring ecosystems have evolved from OEM-provided, HMI-style interfaces reminiscent of traditional Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) systems to modern web apps slinging the latest tech buzzwords.

However, much of the innovation in PV monitoring has been on the software side, with the data collection skeleton remaining largely unchanged. While many of the monitoring software platforms offered to the market have had numerous facelifts and new feature bundles released, the industry as a whole has not successfully utilized many of the new data collection (e.g. low-cost wireless sensors) and analysis techniques (e.g. machine learning) that have gained significant traction in other industries. This lack of true innovation has contributed to a negative perception of monitoring companies throughout the industry.

Equipment-direct

Solutions for monitoring PV systems sit on a spectrum. At one end, corresponding to low-cost and low-touch, is equipment-direct monitoring. Most inverter manufacturers and an increasing number of combiner box and meter manufacturers offer integrated monitoring platforms that consist of a web portal where equipment data is displayed. This is usually provided free of (additional) charge by the OEM, and may have basic features such as alarming, visualization and reporting.

The downside here is monitoring is not the primary goal of the manufacturer. Given the choice between spending a development budget on a better inverter or a top-tier inverter monitoring platform, the inverter manufacturer will usually work on their core technology. The burden to the end user when using these equipment-direct monitoring platforms can be significant. For example, it’s not unheard of to have multiple makes of inverters or combiner boxes at a single site, and it’s nearly impossible to find an operator who is responsible for a fleet of assets that use a single manufacturer. Having to log in to multiple platforms can quickly become unwieldy and does not scale well.

SCADA

On the opposite end of the spectrum from equipment-direct monitoring is a fully custom-built SCADA system. These systems are tailored to a particular plant (a single SCADA system is rarely used to monitor and control multiple plants), and the implementation for a given system is not repeatable for another system.

The combination of equipment required for a SCADA system is unique to a given plant, and the configuration and software to interface with the equipment is custom developed for each implementation. This often results in high costs due to the non-repeatability of the solution. Support for these systems can be limited as the business model is based on one-time integration and setup fees. But many SCADA integrators have years of proven success, and, while not unheard of, it’s rare that significant bugs exist in the delivered solution. The commissioning of a SCADA system is usually robust and thorough, which will catch any configuration errors in the process.

Depending on the size and locality of the PV project, SCADA may be required to allow a third-party (the local utility or reigning RTO, for instance) control over the equipment on site. There may be regulatory requirements to allow these third parties to send commands to the site, ordering inverters to lower their output, increase reactive power, or turn off should the grid require additional stability.

How to optimize performance and profit through O&M monitoring

Cloud-based Remote Monitoring

The space between a low-cost, low-touch, manufacturer-based monitoring system and a high-cost, high-touch SCADA system is inhabited by third-party remote monitoring systems. These are generally software-as-a-service products usually hosted in the cloud. Cloud-based remote monitoring has quite a few advantages over equipment-direct monitoring.

For one, it allows a single operator to monitor and respond to many projects concurrently. Another advantage is that providing monitoring solutions is the primary objective of these companies. If a monitoring company provides a subpar product, there’s little chance for success or repeat business.

There are advantages over traditional SCADA systems as well. Since the cost of development is spread across many customers, they are usually lower cost than SCADA, and many modern systems are now able to offer the same level of control that a SCADA system would.

Cloud-remote monitoring systems are also more flexible, updated more often, and are scalable across fleets of projects. There are concerns about security, however, which in many applications is of paramount importance. Few offtakers are comfortable with cloud-based control systems due to the perceived vulnerability from hackers. Many utilities have a mindset that is distrustful of unproven innovation, and are less likely to accept a solution that has not been proven for years or even decades.

Traditional Monitoring Challenges

In addition to the challenges each technology faces, there is a physical consideration as well. The majority of traditional solutions require hardwired connections to collect and transport data to either the point of consumption or a data backhaul. This adds additional cost to purchase the wires over which the data will be transmitted and adds in an additional possible breakpoint. The main barrier to adopting wireless communication networks has been reliability and security.

Another weakness of these traditional monitoring and management systems is the methods by which data is transferred. Most traditional monitoring systems use communications protocols that were intended for humans to communicate to one another via devices. Extraneous metadata is often included in these

data transfers, which inflates the size of the messages and thus the bandwidth requirements per datapoint sent. By moving to a machine-to-machine protocol, better efficiency can be achieved in data transfer, which helps to reduce operational costs of data collection. It can also assist in reducing latency of data and commands, which leads to a more responsive and safer site.

Modern Monitoring

All of those concerns have been major drivers of the adoption of Internet of Things (IoT) technologies across other industries. These lessons can be translated to the PV industry. Optimizing data transfer for PV plants is not a simple task though. Bandwidth requirements vary from project to project. If string data is being captured at a particular site, the amount of data being transferred can be orders of magnitude larger than a site where only inverters and meters are being monitored; if panel-level data is available (from microinverters, DC optimizers or other MLPEs), the amount of data can be orders of magnitude larger yet. To ameliorate these issues, many IoT platform providers utilize modern machine-to-machine communications protocols like MQTT that help to reduce the size of data packets allowing for more data to be sent over the same bandwidth.

Further complicating data transfer is both the location and the topology of the project. Many large-scale PV projects are located in remote areas, which may not have readily accessible ISP coverage or cell service. Local communications interference can also be a problem, whether this interference stems from electrical sources, such as the feedback coming from the inverters, or physical sources, such as being blocked by panels.

These concerns can be alleviated by using a combination of technologies within a single plant’s network topology. Such technologies can include WiFi, cellular 2G/3G/4G, Zigbee mesh networks, and even low power WAN technology such as LoRa. However, this concept contrasts with traditional monitoring providers, who generally only use a single communications technology across all of their customers regardless of plant topology and location; since these solutions are nontrivial to implement, it’s often only cost effective for these providers to choose the most applicable communications technique and stick to it.

IoT-based Solutions

Applying IoT concepts to PV monitoring can help alleviate some of the challenges that stem from traditional monitoring applications. Most IoT platforms give users the ability to deploy logic to edge devices — the inverters, meters and other equipment located on site. Granted, this isn’t a new development as many monitoring and SCADA providers are already deploying intelligence to the devices in the field, but in an IoT environment, rather than utilizing expensive dataloggers or industrial computers, edge intelligence can be provided via an inexpensive Raspberry Pi, Arduino, or similar small computing device.

Moving diagnostics to the edge provides additional benefits when used in conjunction with an IoT-based monitoring application. For instance, there are a subset of faults that will always require a site to be disconnected from the grid. By moving to an IoT-based solution using lower-cost edge computer hardware, the latency between fault occurrence and shutdown can be reduced relative to that achieved with a high-cost SCADA system. When edge computing is coupled with machine-learning and cloud-based analytics, PV monitoring systems can become more autonomous, allowing not only automated investigation to the root cause and failure area of fault events, but actions such as technician dispatch or site-level disconnect.

The trend of monitoring system evolution over the past 10 years has been to bring prices down, resulting in a commoditized solution that favors innovations in flashy software features rather than a rethinking of the framework around which a monitoring system is built. By looking to emerging technologies, monitoring providers can challenge these assumptions yielding a lower-cost yet higher-functioning monitoring solution. Such an evolutionary step is now coming to the market in the form of IoT-based solutions, which will enable better efficiencies and lower operational costs in monitoring and managing a PV project.

Beau Blumberg is solution director swiftPV, infiswift.

— Solar Builder magazine

Solar FlexRack selected for Superfund solar site in Vermont

Elizabeth Mine Superfund Project Installed with Solar FlexRack_082017

The Elizabeth Mine Solar Project on the Superfund site in Strafford and Thetford, Vermont, selected Solar FlexRack’s FlexRack Series B3P-X fixed tilt system to support the 7-MWdc PV plant. The project is being developed by Greenwood Energy, Brightfields Development and Wolfe Energy and installed by Conti Solar (the turnkey EPC contractor). This is the finishing touch on a major remediation project (that is nominated for a Project of the Year) that transformed unused landfill to a renewable energy generation site delivering enough electricity to power 1,200 homes.

“We are honored to have been selected for a Superfund Project that has restored a healthy balance to an environmentally challenged site and transformed it to a productive renewable energy power plant,” said Steve Daniel, EVP, Solar FlexRack. “Congratulations to Greenwood Energy and to all who worked on the successful Elizabeth Mine Superfund Project.”

Work on the Elizabeth Mine Solar Project included the upgrade of the regional substation and power lines to the town of Strafford resulting in an improved electrical system that upgraded the reliability of the entire system benefitting the residents of the community. The Superfund project transformed the region to a healthier environment and turned unused landfill into a sustainable solar power generation plant.

— Solar Builder magazine

New stuff from Tigo: three Duo covers, partnership with SMA

Tigo, a pioneer of the smart modular Flex MLPE platform, is always announcing new products and partnerships. Here are the latest:

Three new Duo covers

Tigo MLPE

These three new “Duo” covers are  add-on / retrofit solutions for its TS4 platform:

  • TS4-R-O-Duo (Optimization),
  • TS4-R-S-Duo (Safety), and
  • TS4-R-M-Duo (Monitoring).

The TS4-R-X-Duo brings smart module functionality to standard PV modules, adds smart features to new PV installations and upgrades underperforming PV assets. With UHD-Core technology and expanded specifications, the Duo supports two PV modules connected in series with a combined power of up to 700W and a combined voltage of up to 90V.

With a universal base and a range of covers containing flexible module-level power electronics (Flex MLPE), Tigo’s Duo increases freedom of choice when selecting features for a particular project and budget. All three Duo covers work with any inverter and any module within its electrical specifications.

Partnership with SMA

Tigo and SMA are joining forces to deliver total compliance with the newly released SunSpec Alliance specifications regarding Rapid Shutdown adoption for PV plants. SunSpec Alliance, certifier of PV components and communication standards, has defined the specifications of the powerline-based PV transmitter signal covering varying installation types and regions.

Tigo and SMA’s partnership brings the first transmitter and receiver offering that represents interoperability between the inverter and the PV module’s MLPE. SMA’s full line of US string inverters will be supporting the new SunSpec standard to fulfill the tightened module-level requirements in National Electric Code (NEC) 2017, becoming mandatory in January 2019. Tigo will expand its current offering to include a SunSpec Rapid Shutdown and add this capability to its TS4 Flex MLPE product line. The new addition is 100% compatible and certified by about 40 PV module suppliers currently using the TS4 platform – including Trina Solar, Itek, and Sunpreme. The new offering is also available for add-on or retrofit applications.

2017 Solar Inverter Buyer’s Guide

 

— Solar Builder magazine