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Utility-Scale Solar Farms Of The Future Are IoT Enabled

The Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) defines a solar project as utility-scale only when it generates over 1 megawatt (MW) of solar energy, while the National Renewable Energy Laboratory uses a 5 MW threshold to qualify utility-scale solar projects. Over the last two years, according to Energy Information Administration, renewable energy resources have been the nation’s fastest growing electricity generation source. With nearly 12,000 major solar projects, representing more than 160 GW of capacity, nearly 47 GW of major solar projects are currently in operations--leaving more than 115 GW of large-scale solar projects either under construction or under development, according to SEIA.

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Leading the nation’s solar electricity production, California has over 21,000 megawatts of installed solar capacity–enough to power 5.4 million homes! Using thin-film technology, a 1MW plant requires an average of five acres of land. The increased adoption of utility-scale solar has led to a wide-scale adoption of storage and increased reliance on clean electricity. But before integrating solar panels across solar farms, management of these vast areas requires an infrastructure–and a power grid to adapt and efficiently maintain load balance.

Given the nature of solar farm projects and their associated operations, typically they need to be able to scale quickly. This requires utility managers to integrate flexible and adaptable operations and management solutions that are dependable yet customizable to meet evolving needs. These solutions must maintain cost-efficiency and operational continuity, while offering real-time business insight and intelligence to sustain energy production, often with few ‘boots on the ground’.

Gone are the days when engineers walked miles and miles of solar farm operations with a clipboard in hand, checking equipment. Even the notion of ‘reporting’ whereby a technician sifts through reports to determine what to look at is an antiquated methodology. The digitized world has replaced manual operations and management of energy/utility-scale infrastructure with cloud-based solutions offering automated and real-time operations and triage to mitigate risks involved with downtime.

This automation allows problems at hand to be identified immediately from a far, mediating risks before they turn into major disasters. The capability to triage problems remotely with no on-site staff is commonplace. Beyond this, these solutions can use the same data to identify potential problems before they happen based on learnings of the past, allowing for a more streamlined maintenance program to be established. With solar plants expanding in size and complexity, turnkey monitoring portals for utility-scale solar installations are a must.

IoT Entrenched Utility-Scale Solar Farms

To meet these needs, IoT Platforms have become the market’s cost-effective solutions for aggregating, organizing, and harnessing real-time insightful intelligence from the grid edge. IoT platforms can take data from existing solar infrastructure and collect, analyze, and store this telemetry from every single connected solar panel, battery storage device, subsystem, or just about anything in the field that is communicating.  This data can then be used from within the IoT platform to drive a range of outcome based real-time and historical insight; asset management, production insights, customized reporting and alerting, including digital operations and maintenance services.

Establishing digital twins of the entire asset portfolio provides real-time state awareness. It allows all the geographically distributed infrastructure to be fully controlled, managed and secured—whether hundreds or thousands of sites are monitored across a region, state or the nation. IoT platforms scale with ease, allowing management of assets from a multi-display operations center dashboard. Managers, operators, or staff can remotely access, operate, and manage their sites without the need for constant on-site staff.

IoT platforms provide solar farm operators with:

  • Real-time data scan–faults for any values exceeding normal operating thresholds trigger an automated alert, allowing operators to encrypt aggregated data transmission securely or share with utility companies via uninterrupted cell connection. Informed with updates on conditions of PV sites, utility companies receive alerts on solar site weather problems as wind effects, panel and ambient temperatures that can alter solar panels.
  • Forecast of energy productions–enabling operators to make adjustments for increased generation under weather forecast data, easily altering for increased and as needed generation.
  • Individual device measurements–from transformers, to substations, grid metering to storage and more.
  • Equipment management capabilities–offering holistic views across all equipment capabilities and sensors–including conditioners, inverters, weather instruments so they can easily perform on-demand or scheduled software updates or reboots.
  • Meteorological measurements–to monitor solar irradiation, back up module temp, wind speed, rain, and ambient temperature.
  • Overall production monitoring–historical representation of actual solar generation vs expected, allows for key performance indicators analysis.

With full control of their geographically distributed smart metering infrastructure from a central command station, managers can remotely manage and operate every aspect of their business. Gone are the days of on-site staff, day-long, cumbersome walk-throughs across vast solar farms, or unnecessary truck rolls to first diagnose problems, and then often a second truck roll to fix it.

IoT and IoT platform technology stands as the heart of making alternative energy of all models a reality at scale. We are at a unique time where communications, I.T. and alternative energy all can come together to aid each other to help decrease our carbon footprint and diversify our energy mix to a greener tomorrow.

Michael Skurla's picture
Thank Michael for the Post!
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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Apr 5, 2021

Are such IoT solutions able to help triage after a period of storms that may have left equipment damaged, as well? 

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