The solar sector must accelerate digitalization to support industry expansion

Jul 7, 2020 | Articles

Solar is one of the most rapidly growing forms of power generation, renewable or otherwise, increasing by 22% in 2019 according to the International Energy Agency. However, while the deployment of solar technology has significantly increased in size and scale, the sector has subsequently struggled to keep pace with the opportunities available from digitalization, and new digital needs specific to the solar industry have arisen as a result.

 

For example, since the end of subsidies in more mature markets, the growth in both the size and number of industrial-scale solar portfolios has led to project operators needing operations and maintenance (O&M) software which can incorporate multiple monitoring systems. But multiple data collection methods and industry standards have made this a substantial headache for data managers.

 

Data standardization

This is a more significant challenge than most realize. The lack of regulatory control during the early development of digital systems in the solar market has resulted in different solar technologies producing incomparable data. With over 900 inverter component manufacturers alone, this presents a significant challenge to solar owners looking to expand their portfolio whilst optimising efficiency.

 

This challenge also extends beyond just asset performance monitoring. Without digital systems able to compare ‘cross-project’ data, solar asset owners will struggle to optimise their financial and operational systems and identify macro-trends that enable them to make optimal portfolio-wide decisions.

 

Developing technology-agnostic software platforms that can provide full connectivity between O&M, financial and operational systems is a significant opportunity for O&M firms to fill this gap in the market. By using Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) software, solar portfolio owners can transform data from multiple business functionalities into one comparable format – generating synergies between projects and enhancing the overall competitiveness of the organisation.

 

solar digitalization expansion

 

Resource intermittency

Unlike many other forms of electricity generation, the solar industry is reliant upon an intermittent resource, the sun. Both the technical and economic stakes, such as grid stability and cost of procuring alternative electricity respectively, are considerable.

 

Indeed, this is an area where digital technologies have a vital role to play. Whilst the sun may be intermittent, it does have a more predictable generation pattern which can be taken advantage of compared to other energy sources such as wind.

 

Digitalization can make it possible and simpler to harmonize energy production when the sun is available and more effectively balance the electricity demand/consumption curve. Through complex algorithms, digital systems such as forecasting and storage can make solar projects more reliable and maximize output – avoiding the need for additional fossil fuel-based power generation when irradiance levels are low.

 

Residential and Commercial deployment

Whilst historical fossil fuel-based systems have been based on large, centralized power stations, the reverse is true for solar. It is only in more recent years as costs have fallen that industrial-scale solar farms have become a reality. With the solar sector now encompassing industrial, commercial and residential deployment, there is a broad range of opportunities for the development of bespoke digital technology.

 

We have seen examples of these ranging from automation of technical functions, remote monitoring applications, managing localised energy flows and flexible energy services. It’s not surprising then a number of players including mobile and blockchain firms have been attracted to growth of the sector and we expect to see a rapid expansion of digital software as the sector continues to evolve.

 

Indeed, as we have argued before, the acceleration of digital technology innovation in the solar industry is in fact essential if the sector is to successfully continue growing. Opportunities abound for digital approaches to enhance the sophistication of the solar space and optimise asset productivity, and the sector must continue investing in developers of digital platforms to ensure that future market needs are able to be effectively catered for.

ACTIS - Renewables’ Enterprise Resources Planning Platform