Solar for Business- Step 4. Solar System Monitoring Software

One of the major advantages of solar PV is the minimal maintenance and upkeep of the system post-project implementation. But things still can go wrong so there are a few things one should be aware of and track. In this article, we dive a bit deeper into monitoring the solar PV system.

In the past, monitoring of solar PV performance was more of an afterthought and only used for marketing to the general public. But these days, data monitoring is increasingly becoming a necessity for reporting purposes. Not only for investors and company shareholders, but increasingly complex regulatory reporting requirements are needed for utility-sized projects and even commercial-grade projects.

Another important service data monitoring has added is early warning systems for system component failures. A performance monitoring system is able to assist where failures have occurred and in certain instances even send out communication alerts via SMS or email.

The complexity of these performance monitoring systems is becoming ever greater, more creative and ingenious in terms of what they can offer. The number of commercial solar PV monitoring solutions and providers is also increasing.

Advantages of a Solar PV Monitoring System

A solar PV monitoring system serves two main objectives for a commercial installation.

  • Assure company CFO’s and/or investors are getting what they paid for.
  • Form part of an O&M strategy to ensure maximum uptime and production.

A solar PV system is a company asset that is an investment. So it’s logical that the company would want to maximise the return on their investment as much as possible.

Constantly measuring actual power production against expected power production will allow the business to take remedial action a lot more quickly should power production not be meeting its expected value.

Solar PV performance monitoring is a vital component for investors who work with PPA agreements, as monitoring systems offer accurate and timely billing services to customers. Some systems are even able to track and display performance at a distributed solar PV portfolio level.

Another major advantage is that solar PV monitoring systems can now include weather forecast data as an input, so it is possible to forecast the yield of the system for the coming days.

This data has enormous value for a business that is energy intensive. Why? Well if the forecast for energy production is lower due to the expected poor weather conditions, the business can shift energy-intensive operations to periods when the energy yield is forecast to be higher. Or they could shift the energy-intensive operation to an off-peak period if the business is on a TOU utility tariff rate.

Should a system component fail then the Operation and Maintenance (O&M) service provider can be notified and replace the failed component as soon as possible, thereby limiting system downtime and getting the system producing power again as quickly as possible.

Solar PV monitoring systems are becoming ever more creative in how the energy performance data is graphically displayed. Much of the data processing happens in the cloud. This is a major advantage as it limits the amount of computer processing power required onsite. It also gives the asset owner the ability to publish the live data anywhere.

This has enormous value in showcasing a solar PV system that is usually not seen by the public. Energy performance graphs can be shown on large flat screen TV sets in office reception areas, showcasing to clients and suppliers the company's commitment to greenhouse gas emission reductions.

Solar PV installers no longer just install solar PV systems but also provide O&M services and are responsible for honouring product warranties.

Although solar PV plants have no moving parts and are relatively maintenance free, sometimes things still go wrong. Many solar PV installers also offer their clients guaranteed performance contracts as well as operations and maintenance services. A solar PV monitoring system would be able to alert the O&M team to any system failure. The O&M team would then be able to take immediate action to fix it and avoid one angry customer! Thus, attesting to the long-term benefits in terms of time and money savings for O&M services by installing a solar PV monitoring system.

O&M efficiencies can be increased depending on the level of monitoring. Monitoring at the string or even Solar PV module level will allow the O&M provider to remotely troubleshoot the system, locating the specific area or even component that is faulty.

Selecting the Right System and Implementation

A mistake many businesses make when installing a Solar PV system is that they leave the decision on what type of solar PV monitoring system they need, too late in the game. In theory, there is some planning involved here and proper selection of the right solution should happen upfront when the Solar PV system is being designed.

This will avoid unnecessary costs by ensuring a more efficient system design.

Selecting the appropriate solution needn’t be a complicated affair and it all depends on how granular you want to get in terms of the data collected. One should strike a balance between the level of detail required for an accurate evaluation and the associated costs relative to the overall energy generation value.

Solar PV installers or solar PV monitoring companies normally provide the system owner with a site survey questionnaire. The data collected in this survey is used for selecting the correct equipment, optimizing the system design and providing an estimated price for the goods and services.

Some of the questions that this survey should include are the following:

  1. What data do you need to collect?
  2. Will you be accessing the data in the cloud and how?
  3. Is there internet access at the site?
  4. Is power available for dedicated monitoring system components?
  5. What are the conduit and cable requirements?
  6. Where will major monitoring system components be located?

If the solar PV system installer is not the same supplier to install the O&M monitoring system, it’s probably a good idea to have the monitoring supplier liaise with the installer concerning the layout of the system and the type inverters that will be used.

What to Monitor?

At a basic level one should measure the dc volts, amps and power on the input side of the inverter, and ac volts, amps, power and energy harvest on the ac side of the inverter. This data is usually displayed in bar chart graphs through a graphical interface.

Monitoring the building’s energy demand and energy consumption will also allow one to compare the ac energy consumption at the facility against the PV array production.

Monitoring solar PV modules at the unit level can turn out to be costly, so monitoring at a string level might be the preferred option. This will at least assist in locating specific faults down to the string level.

Selecting the Appropriate Graphical Interface

It’s a good idea to request a demo of the graphical user interface as you want to ensure the software will be easy to use and easy on the eye. The graphical interface should be easy to navigate and provide sufficient details.

Another thing to consider is how easy is it to customise the web portal in case you want to add in your company logo or change the colours. Any monitoring solution should be sensitive to your business branding requirements.

Conclusion

A solar PV monitoring system is often an afterthought when it comes to implementing a solar PV system. Yet a monitoring system has many benefits, especially in commercial installations. These include advantages such as performance monitoring, providing assurance that what you paid for in terms of the yield is what you are getting in reality.

A monitoring system also assists in identifying any faults that may happen so quick action can be taken to get the system up and running optimally as soon as possible. It forms a vital component of any O&M team as the data is used to assist them in delivering essential operations and maintenance services to their clients. Monitoring systems also enable solar PV leasing companies to bill their clients accurately and on time for energy used.

It’s vital to select a monitoring system that will meet your needs and the solar PV installer or monitoring system supplier should identify the right solution for what your business requires. It’s worth requesting a demo to get an idea on whether the graphical interface is easy to navigate or not. Also, ensure the user interface is customisable so it can support your business branding requirements.

Next Step

If you want to see how much solar or battery storage could save you over the next 5 years, then take our solar saving calculator quiz below!

Or talk to an Instyle Solar expert about the best solutions for home energy storage or PV-panels.

Otherwise, head back to the solar blog to find even more great educational content.

Photo credit: Depositphotos

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