The rapid growth in solar has meant that onsite energy managers are finding it difficult to manage their expanding onsite solar fleets, which often involve different types of equipment, installers, geographies, inverters and monitoring software. Collecting data from such diverse sources and translating it into actionable operations and management (O&M) commands can be time-consuming and expensive for even the most experienced facilities management teams. The rapid growth of solar installations has resulted in data sets that are much bigger and more complicated – as well as more actionable – than in the past, making data management a big business. Furthermore, since solar systems have a life cycle of 20 to 25 years or more, data is accumulating over time as well. Locus Energy is helping to solve these challenges by working with managers of residential, commercial and industrial and utility-scale solar fleets to analyze on-site energy production data in order to better understand the reasons for underperformance. REM talked to Adrian De Luca at Locus Energy to find out more.
What is the problem?
Solar photovoltaic (PV) systems produce energy for decades -- panels are typically warrantied for 20 to 25 years -- but generally do not exhibit clear signs alerting operators that performance is trending below expectations. Owners need to be confident that their systems will produce power efficiently over the entire course of their lifespans. Tracking underperforming systems in smaller fleets is manageable with current tools and processes, but for large fleets it becomes very difficult to know when systems are not performing up to expectations. That’s the problem we’re trying to solve. Solar managers need to keep track of hundreds or even thousands of systems across a wide geographic footprint, making it difficult to aggregate and analyze performance data. Ready access to data on energy production is critical in order to efficiently manage operations and maintenance (O&M) activities. Our software platform makes that possible.
What level of growth has the sector experienced in the last few years?
The U.S. solar market has shown remarkable growth over the last five years. The market for solar monitoring has outpaced the solar sector as a whole because it is playing catch-up: six to seven years ago, many solar PV systems were installed without monitoring. At that time, owners and operators were not necessarily thinking about how to manage solar assets over time and at scale. Now, in addition to all the new systems that are coming online, owners and operators want to retrofit monitoring for older systems as well in order to centralize monitoring functions and manage fleets as efficiently as possible.
What and how many different types of equipment do energy managers now have to grapple with?
Solar asset managers are dealing with a wide range of equipment types, which varies according to system size. In the residential sector, for example, there are typically one or more inverters, as well as a production meter. The data collected from these pieces of equipment is relatively manageable. But as more residential systems come online, the scale of the data grows immensely. When you get to the commercial, industrial and utility levels, the amount of equipment -- and thus the number of potential problems -- expands significantly. There are weather stations, DC and AC meters, and, in the larger systems, transformers and relays as well as specialized SCADA gear. All of this equipment generates data that must be managed by monitoring and analytics systems.
How long does it take to set all this up? And how long does it take to sift through all the data?
The commissioning time has decreased as the industry has become more attuned to monitoring systems’ electrical and IT requirements; however, it’s taking longer to sift through the data. With more data coming in from various sources, asking a specific question of the data set, such as “How are systems with central inverters installed in the northeast performing against expectations?”, requires significant time spent downloading data and wrangling it within a spreadsheet.
Locus has addressed this problem by designing software that can be customized to users’ needs in order to better organize incoming data. Locus’ platform allows users to strategically filter and visualize important data. The Excel Plug-in tool, part of our PVIQ Suite, allows the user to make customized data queries directly from a spreadsheet workbook, dramatically reducing the time required to prepare periodic performance reports. This alone can save customers tens of man-hours per month because it automates a manual and time-intensive reporting process.
Please tell me some more about Locus – when it was formed, what it does, how it can help?
Locus Energy was founded in 2007 and the company’s first product was commercialised in 2009. We spent a lot of time talking to solar asset managers about the problems they were facing when it came to managing fleets of solar systems before launching the product.
Since 2009, we’ve installed nearly 70,000 management systems, mostly in North America, with some clusters in the United Kingdom and Australia. Early on, we saw the opportunities created by a much more effective management system and so we expanded into the commercial and industrial sectors. Today, we have slightly over 1 gigawatt of assets under management, with our fleet being evenly spread across the residential, commercial and utility sectors.
What products does the company offer?
Our primary product is a web-based software application, SolarNOCTM, which brings all this data together, allowing users to easily manage fleet data. Because of its open architecture, our software can be used with our own data collection hardware or other data capturing systems. In cases where we deploy our own hardware, we offer a package of hardware and software to acquire, store and manage data. In other cases, a third-party solution captures the data and we connect to it and aggregate it. For example, we offer API integrations with various power electronics manufacturers who have proprietary data collection tools. Our respective back ends communicate via API, allowing users to aggregate and normalize the presentation of data within the SolarNOC. From the standpoint of our software, it doesn’t matter where the data is coming from – the presentation is standardized, offering operators a more streamlined workflow.
Additionally, the PVIQ Suite helps to answer the question of why a system or group of systems performed the way it did. One of the PVIQ tools is Virtual Irradiance, or VI, which uses public historical and real-time data from weather stations, satellite imagery, federal agencies and other sources to provide a ground-level estimate of how much sunlight is hitting the ground at a given location. This provides more visibility into the amount of fuel that is going into solar assets, allowing asset managers to more easily calculate efficiency. Without this, they are flying blind. This can also be accomplished through onsite sensors, but these can be prohibitively expensive for small systems. Also, in cases where sensors already exist VI helps to validate the sensor data, which can become skewed due to soiling or miscalibration. The second element of PVIQ is the Waterfall report, which allows asset managers to remotely determine why a system isn’t performing according to expectations, including factors such as weather uncertainty, snow downtime, shading, equipment downtime, equipment degradation and inverter problems. Waterfall’s prescriptive analysis enables a specific, detailed understanding of which factors are most affecting the performance of a solar PV system and how the causes of the underperformance can best be addressed. The third element is the Plug-in spreadsheet, which we have talked about.
How fast and how far is the data management sector likely to grow as renewable energy systems multiply?
Solar monitoring will grow just as fast as the market since it’s now widely viewed as an indispensable part of system installation. Analytics, however, have an even larger growth potential because they can be applied to legacy assets in addition to new installs. Analytic tools such as the PVIQ Suite can be broadly applied to almost any performance data set regardless of origin.
What will the sector look like in about 20 years time?
Solar monitoring and analytics will change from reactive to predictive. Right now, asset managers are surveying the data and applying the best lessons learned. In the future, we will get to a point where managers are using historical data to predict what is going to happen -- an inverter failure, for example. That way repair teams can be sent out before a system fails, providing much better protection for the overall returns on the assets.
Locus Energy is a software company that specializes in solar data management and analytics. Locus has amassed one of the largest performance data sets in the solar industry: a total of more than 35 billion data points to date, with 30 million more being added each day. Locus uses this data to provide cloud-based tools and analytics that help solar asset managers maximize electricity production, minimize costs and mitigate risk.