The Sun Won't Shine Brighter, but the Industrial Internet Could Help Harness More of its Power
Jun 01, 2016
Sergio Dominguez Ruiz

The sun’s power as far as humanity is concerned is only as relevant as the filter we put on it. From the biggest filter, which is the atmosphere, to those that we use everyday to transform it and to capture it, the way we see and the way we use it depends on the technology we can harness. It’s thanks to this that the immense power of the sun is something that has been revered throughout history. While ancient civilizations imagined solar deities ruling over the earth and sky, we’ve come to see the sun as an inexhaustible energy source that can power our homes.

Set to reach new peaks this year, solar power has become one of the pillars of our planetary sustainable energy mix. Take for example the U.S., where the industry is set to break all records with over 16 billion new watts of photovoltaic (PV) capacity.

As much as we crow about solar as the next energy Eldorado, solar power can often be limited by these same filters that make life possible on the planet, mostly inclement weather and night cycles. In fact, the limited conditions in which solar farms can operate optimally mean that solar projects have an average 20 percent capacity factor (percentage of a power plant's maximum potential that is actually achieved over time). As the periods of ideal weather conditions are so precious, it’s critical that unplanned downtime is avoided.

The scale of solar farms is growing rapidly, with the largest PV power station (Solar Star in the U.S.) capable of producing up to 579 megawatts of power. It also pushes their locations to more distant areas in relation to where the power is set to be used. This increased scale, combined with the fact that they are usually built in isolated locations, means operators are faced with a whole new range of challenges.

Take for instance if a problem occurs, depending on the issue, an engineer may need to leave and collect parts before returning to fix the issue. These journeys back and forth to a remotely located solar farm take time, in addition to the already time-consuming diagnose and repair work. All this is downtime and might take place on a sunny day when solar farms should be operating at its peak productivity.

The power of big data

Over recent years, data analysis has become a crucial method for organizations looking to gain insights into their operations, enabling them to spot inefficiencies and allowing them to make informed decisions, which can help to save costs and improve productivity. While this is true for a huge range of industries, adopting this data-led operating model and embracing the Industrial Internet could hold huge benefits for the solar industry in particular. By analyzing the vast data sets collected by Industrial Internet technologies, operators can unlock new insights into how they can run their plants more efficiently by picking up on inefficiencies and problems sooner, saving time and money.

A software model of a physical entity—at GE we call it the ”digital twin”—can be created. This model, together with massive streams of data generated by assets during normal operation is used to search for abnormalities. Therefore, operators are able to spot potential failures before they occur. They can then take action immediately, preparing parts or informing a service team to carry out the necessary repair work. As repairs can be made at night when the sun is down, there is no resulting downtime for the solar farm. These types of capabilities also allow for remote diagnostics, again saving service time.

Moreover, remote monitoring capabilities can also enable operators to monitor several solar farms from one central spot at real time.

A digitally enabled solar farm

GE’s Predix* platform is one of the technologies enabling this data-driven efficiency. The open, cloud-based platform powers Industrial Internet applications, and companies globally are using the platform to build custom applications which can, for example, store data securely, analyze and detect threats and enhance location data.  

GE’s Asset Performance Management (APM) is one of the applications that operates on the Predix platform. This is a suite of software and service solutions which uses data and analytics to reduce unplanned downtime, improve reliability, minimize the total cost of ownership and reduce operational risks through providing operators with the real-time operational data to enable better and faster decision-making.

For a solar farm, APM gives operators the ability to monitor remotely to help detect early failures of components such as inverters. The APM technology can be used to monitor equipment across multiple solar farms, and it can also be used with equipment made by any manufacturer, meaning no matter when the solar farm was built, or by whom, solar farm operators can still benefit from the real-time data insight it provides.

Solar power is now being adopted in many developing and mature economies as a significant part of the energy mix. By monitoring equipment and analyzing data, solar operators are further reducing costs and ensuring more accurate, efficient and reliable power generation to allow solar—and renewables—to continue to grow market share in the energy landscape.

* Indicates a trademark of the General Electric Company and/or its subsidiaries.

Sergio Dominguez Ruiz

Sergio Dominguez is the Remote Monitoring & Services Product Leader for GE Power Conversion. He started working in the Renewables Industry in 2002 doing research for Wind Turbine control. After that, Sergio worked for a Wind Turbine Control consultancy company before joining GE in 2011. Sergio worked in sales, business development and marketing before becoming Product Manager.