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Un-analytics: How Google Went Solar

Google loves talking about the world before analytics — when web owners knew almost nothing about their sites. Nothing useful, anyway. That all changed when a new technology came along that allowed web owners to monitor their sites as much as they wanted, any time they wanted. Web sites suddenly became a business proposition, and not just an enthusiasm for a few hobbyists.

Flash forward from the introduction of Google Analytics up to 2007. Google entered the solar business and opened a 1.65-megawatt (MW) photovoltaic power array — the largest commercial system in the world at the time. And just like Web sites before analytics, Google would soon learn how little it actually knew about its solar array.

After its panels were up for 15 months, Google cleaned them and documented its efforts in a report called Getting the most energy out of Google’s solar panels.

On several sections of its array, solar energy output doubled after the cleaning. Eight months later, energy output went up 37 percent after another cleaning. But here comes the money graph: It would be difficult to detect manufacturer defects or accidental damage by data analysis alone, unless the damage impacts more than about 20 percent of the solar panels in that building. For example, there have been few occasions when some of the solar panels were damaged by delivery trucks accidentally hitting the support beams that hold up the solar panels. Since these accidents did not damage a sizable portion of the solar panels, the damage went undetected for a while. 

Losing 50 percent of your power is real money, even for Google.

“Just like the web prior to analytics, Google had to admit it really did not know what was happening in its array because it had no way to monitor when good panels went bad,” said Mark Yarbrourgh, a city councilman in Perris, California who pioneered the use of solar in public buildings. “But neither does anyone else. Arrays malfunction and no one knows because they do not use monitors at the panel level.”

Undetected, solar panels go bad in all sorts of ways. Panels degrade anywhere from 0.5 percent to 9.5 percent a year, depending on the manufacturer, says Sandia Laboratories in a study for the Department of Energy

How will you know what your panels will do? Warranty Week Magazine says you won’t, not really: And yes, it really is guesswork.”

Dirt creates even more havoc — if not dirt, a bird dropping, or a baseball, or a golfball, or a rock, or a squirrel chewing a wire, or a Texas oak thick with pollen, or heat on the roof, or poor soldering. Even a shadow can be worse than you think, says the National Renewable Energy Laboratories: The reduction in power from shading half of one cell is equivalent to removing a cell active area 36 times the shadow’s actual size.”

“One bird, one truck of dirt, one flowering tree can destroy your solar production, and you would not know for a long time,” Yarbrough said. “Welcome to the Christmas Tree Effect: Hurt the panel a little, hurt production a lot. It is amazing how many people put up solar for great reasons, but really do not watch their systems. As a result, a lot of people lose a lot of money because many, many systems are not producing the power its owners were promised. And few know.” Maybe because knowing it is not that useful.  

“If your solar array produces a megawatt of power, that means it is composed of 3000 to 5000 panels,” said Ray Burgess, CEO of Solar Power Technologies. “If some panels go bad, you need panel level monitoring to find the bad panels. Most systems monitor power at the system level, but as Google found out, that is useful for detecting catastrophic failure and not much else.” 

Thus the need for small wireless monitors throughout the array.

“Now that we have cost effective monitors from a company in Austin, that is going to change the world, just like Google Analytics.” 

Leading the solar monitor business is Burgess and Solar Power Technologies of Austin, Texas. The company is introducing monitors and other devices to give solar array owners unprecedented control over their panels. If you have 3500 panels and a few start breaking, you better have something better than “guesswork” to optimize your array.

“As we travel the country talking to panel owners about their systems, we are constantly amazed at how many systems that are producing power far below their capacity, and some not producing power at all. Monitors on the panels can change that and let you know what is really happening with your system. And where it is happening. Saving system owners thousands of dollars a month.”

Just like Google Analytics.

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