Welcome to the solar revolution - Part 2

Innovation in the solar sector is alive and well, with the coming couple of years presenting the opportunity for rapid development.

This is the final part of a two-part feature. Part one can be found here.

Measurement, data and mobiles

The devil being in the detail, we found ourselves compelled to consider and research a number of issues surrounding data collection, management and access when we looked at the various market applications and niches.

Some interesting facts and scenarios emerged. Firstly, it’s worth noting some statistics around smart devices. In 2012 around 500 million smart phones were sold. Apple alone (which only holds around 20 per cent market share), sold 47 million iPhones in the last quarter of 2012 and nearly 23 million more iPads. Depending on which country you are in, around 15-55 per cent of mobile subscribers now use smartphones (around one billion globally) and with only 14 per cent penetration into the global mobile market, growth has only just started. And another billion or so are using tablets, laptops and desktops. Make no mistake, we are connected and growing.

No matter which smart device it is, the relevance to our industry is the data capture, processing and display capability of these devices. Personally, I never want to buy another display/screen/controller for any device in my home; I have enough!

I have one (my smartphone) that I’ll inevitably upgrade in a year or so to the latest version, so just give me access, an app, streaming data and I’ll take control of everything from a single device – thank you very much. Converge me!

Of course, smart meters should – and may in the future – do this for us, but for the moment, with a few small exceptions, penetration rates and privacy (or corporate monopolisation) issues prevent them from being nationally effective. It varies, but in many states smart meters only represent around 5 or 10 per cent of all meters and many, although capable, aren’t configured to readily export data. It’s a bloody travesty.

The number of devices and support services hitting the market that will enable us to use existing smart devices to monitor and control energy is simply staggering (e.g. openenergy, meterplug, electricimp, steplight). I predict they will be ubiquitously and cheaply available within this year and will offer a staggering variety of capability for our industry.

This has numerous ramifications but the most immediate one is the ability to capture energy demand profiles at a residential level at an affordable price. As export tariffs wane, accurately predicting demand versus generation profiles becomes increasingly important if accurate economic assessments are to be conducted for potential PV customers, but doing this cost effectively has not been possible. Until now.

As the energy audit customer said to the iPhone enabled solar designer: “Is that a revolution in your pocket or are you just glad to see me?”

Intelligent solar design

And what of the commercial solar market? Once again, a huge focus in our report and several trends emerged.

Firstly, it’s happening slower than we all hoped. Data from last year suggest that substantially less than 10 per cent of the entire local market was commercial, although anecdotal evidence demonstrates that systems are increasingly being installed. In the right place, with the right client, at the right tariff, with the right distributor, the proposition has good sound legs; but it’s far from universal across our diverse energy market.

The commercial PV market (despite is promise) is a bit like a new teenage girlfriend; unrealistically demanding, a little naïve, but so full of promise. And skulking in the background is the old man (electricity networks) wielding a very big and effective bat. He can effectively stop the whole fantasy at a whim and without consulting anyone, if he feels so inclined.

At the moment, my intuition (and the data) suggests that the satisfaction we are getting is mostly from sneaking in through the bedroom window at night, rather than a fully sanctioned relationship with the old man’s blessing.

Once again data and intelligent design become crucial in this space and some absolute revelations are bubbling to the surface, demonstrating just what our future PV markets will look like. Take for example the great pilot about to take place in Alice Springs under the watchful eyes of the Centre for Appropriate Technology and the NT’s Power and Water Corporation (not to mention similar projects going on with Australian Energy Market Operator and the Bureau of Meteorology).

For large commercial PV to take off, project developers need to engage in energy markets and this includes the need for energy forecasting, which requires data and predictive analysis so networks know when and how to react to events, such as cloud cover.

The project in Alice Springs will install a set of high accuracy pyrometers around the township to monitor the impact and duration of cloud events with the aim being to understand the probability of statistically significant variation in output from PV. The findings will include such things as what is the ideal geographic dispersion of PV to minimise significant events on the network, potentially overcoming the issues previously mentioned around escalating residential penetration rates.

If, for example, certain sub stations or transformers would benefit, under a carefully controlled geographic dispersion of PV, then we could open up markets to much higher penetration rates that would otherwise be possible.

This also provides the foundation work for national, real time solar energy forecast modelling such as is already the case in some more advanced countries around the world. Within two years I expect we will be able to log on somewhere and watch cloud events travelling across our continent and PV energy flows increasing and decreasing in various network areas.

A great US study demonstrated that there is an important and definable correlation between geographic dispersion, system size and energy smoothing that has very real impacts on how we should be accounting for the costs and benefits of PV. Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory researchers recently modelled the smoothing effect of distributed solar power, finding that “the relative aggregate variability of PV systems decreases with increased geographic diversity”.

That study showed that “aggregate variability over a 15-minute period is one-sixth of the variability of a single PV system, and over a one-hour period, it is one third of the variability of a single PV system.”

The interrelationship and importance of this issue to the future market uptake is increasingly obvious. Right now, we are a pain the backside for distributors who are increasing barriers to uptake, particularly at large scale. However, as we mutually learn more about ideal dispersion and confidence levels around PV generation events, the floodgates for commercial PV could be progressively opened up in an orderly fashion with huge benefits.

At the large scale multi MW end of the market, this kind of learning is essential, and will leap forward this year into a whole new world – in Australia at least. Take for example, some more modelling done by the Centre for Appropriate Technology at a 10MW site recently. A proposal for 1MW of PV to be deployed was analysed; minute-by-minute over an entire year and some advanced statistics and probability analysis conducted to provide some comfort for the utility around the risk of significant events. (Understandably, they just shudder at the prospect of 10 per cent extra demand suddenly appearing because a cloud passes over an array).

The findings demonstrate what probability analysis can do for intelligent PV design.

For example, in the cooler months when demand and the potential variation in solar output were both lower, it could be statistically proven with a 99.5 per cent confidence level that solar output would vary by a maximum of /-135kVa. Perhaps most interestingly, in the summer months when variation jumped to /-270kVa at a 97 per cent confidence level, capping PV output at certain times, on certain days, was found to deliver only 5 per cent less annual energy but get back to a 99.5 per cent confidence level. Brilliant, logical and statistically valid design.

This type of detailed information is crucial in large PV projects where penalties are one of the biggest issues that affect risk and economics. Logically of course, the data and energy management technologies previously mentioned also play a critical role – back to convergence again!

What does it all mean?

Assuming Warwick and I are right with our forecasts this year, the PV market will contract and continue to evolve. Some markets will strengthen, others will weaken. The timing of these changes varies and we can already predict when some more future changes are likely. Tuning into these issues is vital for business success and survival.

Data, innovation and targeting opportunities carefully with highly efficient processes should be a key part of strategic and tactical plans. I don’t think storage or large scale solar is quite there yet, but by gosh it’s close and we are likely to see some big steps forward this year.

As Aung San Suu Kyi said “Revolution simply means radical change”.

Compared to where Australia was with PV just a few short years ago we are undoubtedly in the midst of a revolution, getting to the next level is going to mean radical change in how we do PV.

Welcome to the revolution.

Nigel Morris is the Director of Solar Business Services.

This article was originally published by SolarBusinessServices. Republished with permission.