The future of solar as a viable energy source depends on its ability to reach grid parity, making it cost competitive with fossils and other sources. Government incentives have helped to bring solar closer to this goal, but to sustainably achieve the holy grail of grid parity, more improvements need to be made. Along these lines, the main focus of the solar industry has traditionally been on improving cell efficiencies for solar modules. The rationale has been that improved efficiencies will enable improved energy generation, as well as result in lowered costs in order to increase ROI for all stake-holders involved.
However, although solar cell efficiency is important in augmenting energy harvest, it is also costly. Incremental improvements through R&D in various solar technologies and increasing cell efficiencies might cost hundreds of millions of dollars, which defeats the goal of cost-savings.
In response, there has been a shift toward addressing degrading performance and efficiencies under real-world conditions through the integration of IT into solar systems, as well as by improving the balance of system components with distributed electronics such as micro-inverters or power-optimizers. Together with performance management tools that enhance efficiency and result in reduced risk, this new approach marks an important milestone in the maturity of the solar industry, where energy and IT now squarely intersect.
Because of this IT / Energy intersection, we now see increasingly complicated system hierarchies of distributed electronics in solar system arrays, and it is clear that traditional passive monitoring is no longer enough, as it adds no intrinsic value to a portfolio. Developers are also realizing that in addition to the need for more sophisticated performance management beyond monitoring, complexities are inherent in each stage of the solar portfolio lifecycle, from planning to design and deployment.
At present, solar developers only have recourse to imperfect measurement and analytical tools that typically have an error rate of +-20%. Because of inaccuracies that are inherent from inception, plant management becomes increasingly fraught with compounding uncertainties and inefficiencies that result in reduced ROI for stakeholders.
Lifecycle management, a keystone SaaS offering from Fat Spaniel, is quickly being recognized as a crucial solution for ensuring optimized system performance, increasing asset value and reducing the financial risk so often associated with typical solar and renewable energy portfolios.
Moreover, as solar continues its path to grid parity, it cannot remain a fragmented resource for utilities. As the world turns its attention to the possibility of a smart grid involving renewable energy generation from consumers as well as utilities, new efforts also need to be made in tandem to smooth the transition for renewables to be fully integrated into the grid.
This is a large undertaking that can only be fully realized with partnerships between traditionally disparate industries (utility/home automation/solar) and a deep understanding of the relationship between energy generation, conservation, consumption and demand response. Lifecycle management will ensure a clean transition, minimizing down-time and maximizing returns.
In short, if the solar industry is to realize its full potential in the race toward grid parity, we have to look beyond simplistic system monitoring: Lifecycle and performance management solutions need to be conceptualized at the site and built in from the ground up to optimize system performance, manage risk and increase ROI, paving the way for a wave of renewables to enter the grid.
Such end-to-end solutions will help us overcome the challenges of integration and management, and more importantly, will also allow us to focus on accelerating widespread adoption of solar in the US, and beyond.
Matt Powell is CEO of Fat Spaniel Technologies, Inc., a provider of Lifecycle Management services for the renewable energy industry. With over 20 years of leadership experience and a record of success in high-growth technology markets, Matt was most recently CEO at Q-layer, a pioneering cloud computing software start-up which was acquired by Sun Microsystems in January, 2009. Before Q-layer, Matt was president and CEO at Determina, Vernier Networks, and Siliquent Technologies. He has an extensive track record of growing revenues, forging partnerships with industry leaders, and building highly effective global teams at companies such as Cisco Systems, StrataCom, and Netro Corporation. Matt has an MBA from the Wharton School and a B.A. cum laude from Tulane University.