Geothermal, Hydropower, Monitoring, Solar, Wind Power

Independent System Monitoring: A Home Run for Renewable Energy

Matt Holliday, the star hitter for the Colorado Rockies baseball team, has a .341 batting average this year. Like all players, Holliday has to rely on the scoreboard to ensure that his hits are recorded as hits, and his runs as runs — after all, to a baseball player, a high batting average is something you can take to the bank. Literally.

So when Holliday or any other player looks up at the solar-powered scoreboard at Coors Field in Denver, they know that the numbers on the giant LED screen are accurate: runs, hits, errors, innings played—the scoreboard has information he can bank on.

There’s another aspect of the Rockies’ scoreboard, affectionately referred to as the “Rockpile,” that provides valuable information, though of a different variety. The solar panels that power the Rockpile—46 panels in all, rated at just under 10 kW—are connected to an Internet-enabled energy metering and monitoring system that shows the fans, in real time, how much power is being produced by the panels and how much pollution has been prevented through the use of this clean, renewable source of energy.

There are three principal benefits of keeping score for a solar electric power system, the most glamorous of which is the “wow” factor. As anyone in the energy industry can tell you, most people have no idea where their energy comes from. Just flick a switch and the light goes on, right? A web-based interface linked to a power system-whether it’s a solar panel system, small-scale wind or other clean energy source-helps remind energy consumers that their decision to purchase renewable energy is having an immediate and measurable impact.

The visibility that web-enabled monitoring systems provide to renewable energy is like the Toyota Prius dashboard of the clean energy industry: install a solar electric system and Web monitor in your home, school or business, and gain instant bragging rights at the water cooler. Or, as the case may be, in the dugout.

The second benefit of renewable energy monitoring services is data collection for service, maintenance and performance tuning. By capturing and storing real-time and historic information about energy production and consumption, system component health, and local environmental variables, an independent, web-based monitoring service can provide instant, data-rich answers to important questions: How much power is a system generating? Are the components functioning properly, or has there been a failure? What are the environmental conditions at the system site, and how can the system be further optimized for local conditions?

Real-time access to these types of data helps maximize system efficiency—you can’t improve the efficiency of a system for which you have no data. Monitoring helps notify system installers and distributed utilities instantly when something goes wrong, enabling quick and easy repair. A well-designed monitoring system can turn renewable energy system performance data into usable information that can be presented on the web or sent as an alert to a cell phone or e-mail account-a function that is particularly useful for installers and distributed utilities that service many remote sites and need to maximize the efficiency of their service teams.

Since system installers typically work with a variety of vendors and their multiple products, an independent monitoring service is also critical to their ability to manage the entire integrated energy system as a whole.

The data provided by the service also allows installers to compare system performance across the spectrum of available vendors and products, and make the most informed recommendations to their customers: Which system works best in low light? How is performance affected by severe shifts in weather and operating temperature? How do different equipment configurations stack up against each other? The data provided by an independent monitoring company offers a neutral answer to these questions, enabling system installers to choose the best products for their customers. System installers that regularly monitor their customers’ installations report faster sales, happier clients and greater profitability.

The third benefit offered by independent system monitoring is transparency. As the U.S. moves into a national regime of renewable energy standards and regulated carbon markets, system owners and operators will want to maximize the financial value of their investments in renewable generation. The best way to track a system’s real energy output to ensure accurate Performance Based Incentive payments, protect ratepayer investments in capacity-based or expected performance-based rebate programs, and to grow vibrant and trusted financial markets for Renewable Energy Credits and Carbon Credits, is through independent metering and monitoring.

While no one would question the good intentions of the clean energy community, financial markets do not run on good intentions. In fact, a fundamental economic tenet is that markets don’t function at all without meaningful, verifiable information that comes from trusted sources. If buyers and sellers are uncertain about the products they’re trading, or can’t reliably compare apples to apples and oranges to oranges, they have no way to accurately assign a value to those products.

History is rich with examples of market failures that grew from a lack of transparency and trusted information. Indeed, investors demand huge risk premiums for markets that lack trusted data and thus appear too risky. These risk premiums reduce both trading volume and pricing efficiency. The developing world’s stock markets are a good place to look for examples of such risks in action.

The independent verification model is already well established within the renewable energy and emerging carbon trading industries. Both compliance and voluntary REC markets across the country are increasingly requiring independent reporting and verification as a fundamental standard.

For example, on the East Coast, the State of Rhode Island recently required independent monitoring to ensure data integrity for customer-sited and off-grid generation facilities. Likewise, on the West Coast, the operating rules of the Western Renewable Energy Generation Information System (WREGIS) state that all production data from distributed generation systems over 360 kW must be reported by a Qualified Independent Party, and that self-reporting for units below that threshold and above 30kW will require annual verification.

Finally, in drafting the requirements of the California Solar Initiative (CSI), the California Public Utility Commission rightly determined that ratepayers, system owners and the solar industry as a whole would benefit from requiring independent metering and monitoring of all CSI funded systems.

The importance of independence and transparency shouldn’t be lost on the regulatory agencies and Public Utility Commissions that oversee Incentive Programs, Renewable Portfolio Standard compliance, Renewable Energy Credit markets and, of course, any future Carbon Credit markets. With independent metering and monitoring, these bodies can make sure ratepayers and system owners are only paying for real clean energy production and actual carbon offsets.

In the voluntary marketplace, independent metering and monitoring also gives consumers the added assurance that the Green Tags or Carbon Offsets they buy are, in fact, real. The same can be said for merchants and utilities who sell power to customers through Power Purchase Agreements: When both parties have to look to an independent umpire to check the score, there’s no question about production and consumption. All the relevant data is right there on the scoreboard, where everyone can see it.

After all, when the Rockies’ Matt Holliday adds another hit to his batting average, the other team doesn’t challenge the scoreboard. As renewable energy steps up to the plate to tackle the twin problems of energy consumption and global warming, independent metering and monitoring make sure that everyone in the game hits a home run.

Chris Beekhuis is the founder and president of Fat Spaniel Technologies. He has extensive software engineering and technology management experience. His achievements include: delivery of a real-time e-commerce transaction engine; hosted web applications; and shrink-wrapped, OEM and bundled applications. Beekhuis holds an MS degree in Engineering Management from Santa Clara University as well as a BA in Computer Science from Cornell University. He is LEED 2.0 accredited.