As the cost of implementing solar panels drops, more organizations are looking to deploy solar energy solutions. Experts predict a rise in solar investment in coming years. Monitoring and analyzing data from field sensors is a fundamental part of successful solar, and wind, energy businesses. Real-time, or up to date information about the energy used and created helps businesses respond better to changes in supply, identity potential problems and manage communication throughout supply and delivery chains.
Yet data collection for even small operators can be time consuming and cumbersome often including manual tasks that can result in loss of information, inaccuracies or simply inefficient processes. Configuring the potentially large number of heterogenous devices can be daunting; a lack of standardized hardware and software mean that off the shelf solutions can be inflexible and unable to manage the type of data or unique business process, such as a need to include management of multiple pricing lines. With IT resources already stretched, taking on projects of such proportions are often simply not feasible to start, let alone the resources it takes to monitor and guarantee the new endpoints.
Horan and Bird, the 5th largest solar panel installer in Australia, recently overcame these obstacles with a custom-built solution to automate sensor data collection and monitoring process. The solution includes a management console that now serves as the basis for customer and partner engagement, marketing, business analytics and basic operations as well as presenting new lines of possible revenue.
Automating a Collection and Scaling Storage Systems
The first step toward building the solution was to evaluate internet-enabled power monitoring gateways. The Sailwider Energy Gateway was selected over other options because of its ability to connect to the internet via WiFi and connect to the power sensors wirelessly. This allowed flexibility in terms of where the monitor could be physically placed at the customer site. Solar panel data is collected in the gateway, which communicates directly with sensor terminals. The Sailwider gateway was programed to send power measurements of all the sensors in an XML format to the Amazon Web Services EC2 cloud backend over a persistent TCP connection.
When the data reaches the cloud, it is processed using an asynchronous backend program written in Python. This means data processing can be continuous and runs independently of other activities, helping to optimize performance. In order to meet projected growth and accommodate for the fluctuating demands common to solar energy production, the compute capacity and the database needed to be highly scalable.
During processing, the data is time-stamped and saved into a NoSQL Cassandra database to allow for quick retrieval of data, further helping to improve scalability. The database was built so that each solar panel installer has their own relationships within the database, essentially a data group that is associated with their application for better isolation and increased security. This is called a keyspace in a NoSQL database and is similar to a schema in a traditional database.
Being able to track data back to the individual sensor it was received from via a time-stamp is critical factor to being able to verify from which panel a particular unit of energy was produced for accurate billing estimates.
Business Analytics Engine
Because there are a wide number of types of panel circuits in use, the number of sensors in use varies from customer to customer. This variation meant a number of formulas needed to be used and an off-the shelf analytics engine couldn’t be used.
A custom-built analytics engine was created to review the power logs weekly and provide business and operational intelligence that helps Horan and Bird to manage their business down to a single unique customer.
A weekly report is automatically created that captures performance analytics for individual uses. The report is sent to customers weekly using the Amazon Simple Email Service (SES), at a time chosen by the administrator. By sharing these statistics, Horan and Bird increases the transparency of their business, building customer engagement and trust. Customers can see the impact of their solar panels and are more likely to invest in further panels or recommend their use to friends.
As data builds, it can be used to predict production and usage trends and help the company better plan for events.
Dashboard for Easy Administration
To further ease administration, a dashboard view let’s Horan and Bird add new solar panel providers and create their unique admin dashboards. Users from different providers can log into their dashboard and customize the look including logo and email preferences. Data is kept separate and secure using a built-in container technology; no tenant has the ability to access or push data to another tenant’s data store.
The dashboard can also be used to monitor and control local sensor terminals to manage solar panel output or even disconnect customers who are defunct on their lease payments.
Customer analytics can be analyzed regularly by the business division to support operations decisions.
Horan and Bird has seen substantial improvements in operational efficiencies from automating data collection and establishing an easy way to monitor and analyze key business metrics. Sales and marketing have benefited as well. Through the new solution, customer engagement has increased and a direct channel has been opened by which the company can market new products and services. An exhaustive view of all customers’ power usage helps to quickly identify potential sales opportunities. Higher collection rates are being achieved on defunct payments.
Additionally, without monitoring, solar customers would have no way of knowing that their panel has stopped working. The first indication will be higher bill from the utility company end of month, sometimes not realized for several months if a bill is on auto-pay. By improving customer engagement, Horan and Bird can improve customer retention by avoiding surprises.
Lead image: Solar panels via Shutterstock