March 1, 2021 — Product News
How can solar fix its data gaps?
Bad and non-existent data is a scourge of operators in the fast-growing solar sector – but it can be fixed. In this article, our director of product management Eliane Pohl explains the changes we are making to Greenbyte Platform to fill these gaps.
Director of Product Management, Greenbyte
To lose one set of data may be regarded as a misfortune. To lose more than one set of data looks like carelessness.
It isn’t often that a renewable energy software provider starts an article by butchering an Oscar Wilde witticism. We believe it’s an industry first! But it’s a quote that comes to mind when we think about how much performance data is lost from solar projects.
These losses happen all the time. They represent a major financial risk for owners of solar farms. But why are they happening? And how can we all work to fix them?
We will tackle both of those questions in this article.
Utility-scale solar is now the engine room of the global energy transition. Bloomberg New Energy Finance reported in January that the world saw the biggest ever annual buildout of solar projects in 2020, with 132GW completed. That is 59GW higher than the 73GW of wind projects completed last year.
Overall, investments in solar projects rose 12% annually to $148.6bn in 2020, with sizeable projects reaching financial close including the 2GW $1.1bn Al Dhafrah solar array in the United Arab Emirates. Jon Moore, chief executive of BNEF, said growth in wind and solar had been “robust” despite the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.
But while growth has been robust, we cannot say the same of solar project data.
Operating data generated by the world’s solar assets is famously unreliable. Owners often face long periods where they have no data coming in from their solar inverters.
This can often be attributed to faulty equipment and the difficulties of moving energy over long distances from remote solar arrays, as well as the highly fragmented solar manufacturing and construction market that makes it difficult to drive improvements.
We must also remember that utility-scale solar is a relative newcomer to the energy transition, compared to wind. In the early 2010s, solar was all about rooftop arrays. Wind operators have had time to fix the data issues that solar now confronts.
The result is that owners have little faith in the data coming from their solar assets, and so cannot know whether projects are hitting their key performance indicators or not. Bad data has become a convenient scapegoat whenever something goes awry. But this cannot continue. Owners are increasingly getting involved in both wind and solar, and they will demand that solar farms produce data as reliable as wind farms.
That’s why we are working hard to help operators fill these gaps.
Trustworthy solar data
In 2020, we made a series of improvements to the Greenbyte Platform to enable our customers to get a better idea of how their solar farms are performing. These include monitoring improvements; more KPIs to ensure your solar farms are producing at the level they need to; and deeper analysis of which failures are costing you the most.
Yet one of the most exciting additions is a feature called Cascading Irradiance.
Irradiance refers to how much power is received from the sun by your solar farm. If you have gaps in this data, Cascading Irradiance helps you to fill them by going through a set of sources – from most reliable to least – to find the best estimate possible.
For example, if the inverters cannot provide production data themselves then we will look at irradiance data from pyranometer nearby. If those aren’t available, we can get data from a neighboring site. We can even get satellite data. We carry on the process by going right down to global heatmaps that estimate what your assets should have produced. For your KPIs, some data is better than no data.
Or in other words, we go through the other available data sources to help you build a full record of the most reliable data available. This is vital in how owners understand and manage their assets, and how they report on performance to their investors.
So, will this fix solar’s longstanding problems with data?
In the short term, no. The obstacles identified above are still huge.
However, we believe that Cascading Irradiance is an important step forward. If we get rid of data gaps that make it impossible for operators to do KPI calculations, we will put the industry on the right track for improvements.
In the longer term, we believe putting more operating data through the Greenbyte Platform will help the industry. This will help to expose poor-quality data sources and direct companies towards better alternatives. This enables us to use the wealth of knowledge we have learnt in the wind sector to improving solar farms too.
And ultimately, this will help companies to boost profits from their solar projects, and then reinvest in new developments. Over time, this will make poor and non-existent data less of a problem, and give further impetus to solar in the energy transition.
Building 132GW of solar in 2020 is just one step. Now it must be managed well.