How technology can optimise solar efficiency and operations

The relentless advance of technology presents countless opportunities for businesses to optimise efficiency and operations. At the same time, ongoing technological developments force companies to try and identify future scenarios and possibilities to make their business as future-proof as possible, explains Christian Hürlimann, Renewables CEO of MET Group.

Gone are the days when artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning were a favourite of sci-fi scriptwriters in Hollywood. The business community is relying increasingly on AI-driven solutions to stay competitive. The energy industry and renewables are no exception to the rule. The sector is embracing digitalisation and technological developments to drive efficiency and spur the energy transition.

Forward-looking energy companies are leveraging the latest technological solutions along the entire value chain of renewables projects (development, construction, operation and maintenance, asset management) with a special focus on photovoltaics. At its core, successfully developing and operating a power plant hinges on presenting a viable business case to investors while reaching the lowest levelised cost of energy. The goal is to attain the lowest generation cost for injecting power into the grid utilising the available technology in the market.

The renewable sector abounds in digitised solutions and products designed to aid companies in doing this. From cloud-based software that finds suitable surfaces for solar parks by analysing a range of factors, such as the distance to the grid or substations, topography, soil depth, and solar radiation, to ultra-efficient solar cells, solar panel integration in roof tiles, facades elements and transparent glass windows, or solar panels that collect energy at night through thermoelectric generation, the advance in solar energy development seems unstoppable. High-powered panels and new plant designs are contributing to drastically increasing capacity at PV projects as the evolution of solar modules leads to higher outputs.

To keep pace with the drive within the renewables sector of boosting project yields, wherever possible based on topographical and cost-efficiency considerations, MET Group has opted to install single-axis solar trackers, which follow the sun’s position by adjusting the position of the panels on the axis. In addition, bifacial solar modules are applied to benefit from the reflected surface solar radiation, known also as albedo effect, using the solar panel’s backside, and increasing the yield even more.

Agrovoltaics have their moment in the sun

Driving efficiency can also come from the smart use of land. Scientific research published by Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems proves that combining solar generation with agricultural activity is now not only viable at lower costs, but it significantly raises land use efficiency and may be particularly suitable for arid regions. While higher sunlight radiation leads to an increase in solar power production, solar irradiation under the PV panels can be significantly lower, thus certain cultivation can benefit from greater yields due to reduced dryness and reduced solar irradiation in the case of shade-loving cultures and contributing to an uptick in land use efficiency.

Combining agriculture and solar energy production is the natural next step for the industry. In addition to allowing and aiding agriculture production, this technology can also protect the water supply and guard arable areas against wind erosion with solar fences. Several countries have recognised the added benefits of agrovoltaics and some national regulators have even made the model compulsory. By making the land dual-purpose, developers can also secure land for such projects more easily, removing considerable barriers to their expansion. In addition, these installations can be decommissioned after their lifetime expires without leaving any environmental impact.

Innovations in PV construction and operation

Construction of solar installations can also benefit from the latest technological developments. Advancements in robotics allow novel solutions to become widespread in the construction of solar installations. Developments such as artificial intelligence-based robots developed by specialised companies can meaningfully accelerate solar installations as a complement to existing construction programs.

Robots can now perform ‘heavy lifting’ including the placing and attachment of solar panels, leading to more rapid, precise, and cheaper installation as well as the ability to install larger panels, along with increased worker safety. Robots can complement members of the current solar workforce, easing the strain of labor shortages worldwide as the number of solar projects predicted to come online is set to rise steeply. Other innovations to enhance solar system construction, operations, and maintenance are also in the pipeline. Prefabricated modular systems are being developed that can be shipped to sites ready for rapid deployment with very minimal labor requirements.

Even when a PV project reaches the operational phase, there are multiple options to optimise the plant for higher efficiency. Operators can rely on digital solutions to manage operation and maintenance, and power dispatching into the grid in an increasingly cost-effective manner. Supported by machine learning and AI, these solutions make faster and more reliable decisions to help operate such assets. Ranging from maintenance scheduling to making sure that the modules are aligned or precisely predicting the expected amount of energy that can be injected into the grid, as well as intelligent diagnostics of performance degradation in solar plants, the possibilities are almost endless for optimisation. There are considerable advances in developing drone solutions for solar panel cleaning, anti-soiling solutions and coating for solar modules, which can considerably improve power yield.

Given that PV projects are highly standardised, AI-driven solutions can help operators benchmark the different projects within the portfolio with respect to operational efficiency and optimise the entire fleet of power plants. MET experts and consortium partners are working on training an algorithm to learn what the company considers to be a healthy operational state of a given power plant, and the next phase is to have the algorithm learn by itself to identify what the healthy status is and compare it to actual operations.

As technological advancement constantly reshapes the renewables industry, innovative energy companies seek to constantly optimise and even refurbish existing projects to bolster efficiency, or potentially replace existing project components with a more efficient one by applying the latest technology with the aim of reaching and maintaining the lowest levelised cost of energy. Long-term cost predictability is the key to a higher level of stability and an unbeatable value proposition for commercial partners. As regulatory support becomes less substantial for renewable projects, monitoring and optimising the efficiency of assets throughout their lifetime has become indispensable. 

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