In Q3 2016, the U.S. installed 4,143 megawatts of solar photovoltaic (PV) generation, bringing the total installed capacity of PV generation to 35.8 gigawatts – enough to power 6.5 million American homes. This is according to GTM Research and the Solar Energy Industries Association’s (SEIA) Q4 2016 U.S. Solar Market Insight report, which predicts that the industry is poised to nearly double year-over-year.
The solar industry is experiencing unprecedented growth. As the industry heats up, technology is trying to keep up. Today, technologies measure solar production, track energy usage and predict demand – but they do so in silos. To harness the full potential of solar generation and limit waste, advanced monitoring technologies with edge computing power are needed to control distributed devices, monitor the health of PV installations and give operators visibility into performance and generation output. Intelligent dynamic systems are needed to balance on-premise generation with demand. If the two aren’t correlated, excess capacity is simply put onto the grid, which isn’t the best use for the consumer and can lead to grid reliability issues.
What’s needed is a solution that collects data from and communicates with generation assets, the on-premise utility meter, and in-home appliances; is aware of weather forecasts; and knows the local utility’s rate structures. The solution could analyze the data for PV performance, and learn how to optimize PV generation by understanding weather influences, utilities pricing structure at the give time, and premise usage patterns. Then it could use machine-learning algorithms to redirect generation accordingly.
Known as a “gateway”, this technology greatly increases PV efficiency. The gateway is a standalone device that talks to the inverter, collecting a wide range of data that reveals the health and efficiency of the solar panel to ensure that generation is optimized. It can also act as an intermediary between on-premise solar generation, electricity demand and electricity storage, as well as the electric grid.
The universally accepted gateways can capture power, current, voltage, frequency, temperature and more. They tell operators how the panels are functioning and if they are working to full capacity. A gateway provides information to operators so they can quickly and easily identify issues with the solar system and dispatch the appropriate technician with the right equipment to repair the problem. For example, if it appears that something is interfering with the panels or limiting their production (the PV panels may require cleaning or a tree branch to be removed) having this information will help minimize field visits, ensure proper maintenance, and optimize costs.
Gateways also offer revenue-grade metrology for solar leasing companies to accurately measure and monitor PV generation. The system captures key inverter data that enables an operator to remotely diagnose inverter issues and ensure the distributed assets are performing to their optimal limit.
With embedded machine learning, gateways also dynamically direct the flow of electricity between generation, demand, and on premise storage. Leveraging customer usage patterns, weather and utility pricing structures, the application on the gateway determines if PV generation meets current demand or if access energy can charge an energy storage unit. It also calculates if current demand is met by PV generation, storage or from the grid. Monitoring and directing premise electricity from various generation sources is enabling a new level of energy optimization within the home.
By correlating on-premise generation with demand, consumers can optimize their energy usage with no manual interaction. Imagine a hot summer evening when the demand for electricity is approaching the grid capacity. The utility would push hourly or day-ahead price information to the application running on the gateway, indicating a higher price of energy in a given period of the evening. The application running in the gateway would calculate and optimize the energy based on the price signal either by pre-cooling the house, charging an EV, or feeding the energy to the grid. As opposed to a traditional demand response program, the consumer would not need to suffer through hot temperatures, yet would still receive comfort and financial savings while reducing the exposure of disruption on the grid.
As the solar industry continues to heat up, gateways will play an important role in ensuring that these assets are optimized. Performance monitoring brings greater efficiencies and operational precision to PV installations.
Dr. Roberto Aiello is the managing director of the Itron Idea Labs and responsible for new business innovation at Itron, including Internet of Things. His previous experience includes managing wireless research at Interval Research, Paul Allen’s technology incubator and technology transfer at Disney Research. He is an advisor to Google Advanced Technology and Projects (ATAP) and is a Lean Startup expert who serves as a mentor at the Cleantech Open and Startup Weekend. Dr. Aiello also founded two venture-funded, wireless semiconductor companies and one web/mobile startup. Dr. Aiello worked as a physicist at Stanford Linear Accelerator Center and Superconducting Super Collider.
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