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

Infiswift wants to update solar performance management with swiftPV IoT solution

 

At Solar Power International, infiswift, an enterprise Internet of Things (IoT) platform leader, is launching swiftPV, which leverages IoT technology to change how the solar industry uses data to optimize the performance of PV systems. The suite of products and services allows PV power plant owners and operators to connect diverse PV assets and distill insights from the data, ultimately increasing solar plant performance.

infiswift pv

“Solar owners and operators currently rely on third party monitoring and SCADA systems to provide data on the operation and performance of plants, but these systems are very costly, inflexible and limit data access,” said Arup Barat, Co-CEO and Chief Commercial Officer at infiswift. “With over 85 years of team experience in the industry, we understand these pain points and the need to modernize PV management solutions with storage, frequency regulation, edge analytics and more in mind. In swiftPV, we have built a cutting-edge, customizable and cost-effective data solution for the future of PV.”

Infiswift will be demonstrating swiftPV and the underlying IoT technology at booth 6610 at Solar Power International in Las Vegas on September 10-13. 

The swiftPV suite of products and services includes ‘blocks’ that can be used to build a solution – each customer selects what’s right for them.

The current swiftPV blocks include:

– Data ingest: This core block is built on the infiswift IoT platform, which connects and manages all field devices and cloud feeds regardless of vendor. This highly scalable platform ensures your data is properly routed from origination to destination in near real-time.
– Apps: SwiftPV apps use custom mobile and web visual interfaces for each stakeholder on the team.
– Cloud Historian: This is a private database with open data access and flexible setup to cover all data needs.
– Reports: SwiftPV produces reports with tailored recommendations and data that can be updated and customized for delivery when needed.
– PV Performance Services (PVPS): Professional engineering support is available to monitor, analyze and interpret complex data.

infiswift pv

“Connecting several different inverter brands, a weather forecast feed and grid pricing in one place and presenting it in an accessible, usable way is a challenge that hasn’t been properly solved until now,” said Sarva Thulasingam, Co-CEO and CTO at infiswift. “Our hybrid IoT architecture makes this approach to performance solutions unique and ensures we’re delivering a truly interoperable infrastructure that will serve OEMs, operators and other stakeholders into the future. SwiftPV can connect any device from any manufacturer, bring in third party data feeds and perform analyses before ever reaching the cloud, allowing customers to centralize data for a full PV portfolio.”

Infiswift is currently working with several customers to roll out full scale implementations. One way swiftPV will be implemented is with an owner-operator of a portfolio of utility-scale PV systems who may want to bring data from each site together with data from a Financial Asset Management suite and WOMS system. SCADA systems can’t support this very cost-effectively, so there’s generally a more fragmented approach to gathering data for each plant. By using the data ingest, apps, reports and historian blocks from swiftPV, the owner-operator can visualize and access data in a central location from multiple inverter vendors, streamline analysis and make significant operational improvements.

For another plant, the swiftPV team was engaged for a PVPS project to validate and analyze inverter and other plant data for a multi-MW site. Without any site visits, the team identified misaligned sensors and underperforming strings. With more accurate data, the customer was able to improve system performance without hiring several additional analysts.

Transparent utility data key factor in grid modernization, says new SEIA paper

— Solar Builder magazine

DOE prioritizes solar power plant performance with Power Factors funding

sunshot initiative financing

Power Factors, a provider for monitoring, managing, and optimizing renewable energy assets, was selected as the recipient of an award by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) SunShot Initiative. Power Factors will leverage these funds to accelerate its research and development in producing actionable insights through the characterization of PV power plant performance deviations from predictive model production.

“PV data analysis has advanced rapidly, but the ability to effectively characterize differences between production estimates and actual performance has remained elusive. With this funding we expect to provide a powerful new tool for developers, owners, operators, and O&M providers,” said Steve Voss, Power Factors’ Principal Data Scientist.

Power Factors will incorporate this advanced functionality into its existing SaaS-based IoT platform that currently supports over 7,500 MW of PV capacity. Power Factors is well-positioned to deliver due to its existing 250+ years of subject matter expertise and its proven track record of handling big data and data quality issues generated by solar PV systems.

“We are honored to be selected by the DOE for this award,” said Power Factors EVP Steve Scales. “This grant will accelerate Power Factors’ ability to drive solar photovoltaic systems’ energy yields, reliability, and bankability. The DOE’s continued focus on strengthening and assuring our nation’s supply of clean electricity is vital,” added Scales.

— Solar Builder magazine

SMA and Cypress Creek enter into 10-year Master Service Agreement

SMA America recently signed a 10-year Master Services agreement with Cypress Creek Renewables, under which it will perform inverter preventive maintenance services for a portfolio of projects, primarily located in North Carolina.

SMA O&M services

Cypress Creek is a leading solar development company. Working in close partnership with local communities, Cypress Creek develops, builds, finances and operates local solar farms across the country. Cypress Creek has operating facilities in eight states and is actively developing projects in more than a dozen states.

“We are thrilled to enter into this agreement with Cypress Creek and begin a long-term collaboration,” said Chuck Smith, executive vice president of Service for SMA. “The SMA Inverter Preventative Maintenance program goes above and beyond the manufacturer’s recommended maintenances, and proactively addresses potential inverter issues that could result in unnecessary downtime.”

Cypress Creek has grown its portfolio of solar projects while managing operation and maintenance tasks in-house. To maximize the value of its projects, Cypress Creek has selected SMA to lend its expertise in inverter technologies to manage inverter risk. This will allow SMA and Cypress Creek to leverage each other’s core competencies to maximize plant life and profitability.

SMA Service currently has more than 2.5 GW of solar assets under operation and maintenance (O&M) agreements, which are monitored from SMA’s NERC compliant Solar Monitoring Centers located in California and Germany.

Keys to inverter service: Data granularity, remote updates, customer relations

— Solar Builder magazine

New commercial PV monitoring gateway: AlsoEnergy Powerlogger 1000

AlsoEnergy introduced a new standard gateway for their Commercial PV Monitoring Solution: the PowerLogger 1000. This interactive datalogger introduces a range of practical and time-saving benefits relative to other gateway devices in the PV marketplace.

AlsoEnergy PV monitoring

The PowerLogger 1000 adds a rugged interactive touch screen LCD display. This innovation allows workers to commission, bus test and troubleshoot without the need to interface with a laptop computer or mobile device. This feature, along with an automated configuration process, will enable field workers to cut commissioning and maintenance time by more than half. The simple ability to get immediate status feedback from the LCD display can be a tremendous time saver. And many device diagnostics and configurations can be executed remotely with the AlsoEnergy Commercial Monitoring Solution, eliminating the need for some field visits altogether.

The PowerLogger 1000 comes with practical upgrades as well. This device more than doubles the processing speed of the previous standard gateway from AlsoEnergy enabling new applications. The PowerLogger 1000 has a wider operational temperature range than previous gateway models, and lower power consumption enables a longer UPS backup window.

How to optimize performance and profit through O&M monitoring

“Our team has already deployed the PowerLogger 1000 in the field” says Dennis W. Odden, President of Bay4 Energy Services. “Our field engineers save time with the convenience of the touch screen display and the simple process for network configuration and testing. This device is a big step forward for site hardware solutions.”

“We continue to invest in engineering to stay on the cutting edge of hardware technology” says AlsoEnergy CEO Robert Schaefer. “The PowerLogger 1000 is our latest effort to simplify the installation and maintenance of commercial PV monitoring systems for our clients.”

The PowerLogger 1000 records data in real time from various field devices including weather stations, inverters, trackers, and meters. Data is retained in the PowerLogger in the event of a network interruption and forwarded to AlsoEnergy data servers when the connection is re-established. AlsoEnergy integrated hardware solutions are extensively tested, rated to UL standards, and come with a standard 5-year warranty.

The PowerLogger is typically mounted in an ETL-listed NEMA4 enclosure and combined with components such as power supply, cellular modem, network switch, and a revenue grade meter. Hardware is integrated with AlsoEnergy’s PowerTrack™ software platform and combined with professional services to make a complete commercial PV monitoring solution.

 

— Solar Builder magazine