No other renewable source of energy looks better positioned for long-term success than solar power. In 2020, solar provided 3.3% of the US’s total electricity, which is up from 2.3% in 2018 and 0.1% in 2008. This signals that solar energy is growing at a rate comparable to that of EVs and gearing up to go mainstream.
Look up to the rooftops of Californian homes or drive out into the sprawling Mojave Desert, and it becomes clear how ubiquitous solar power is among large utilities, businesses and small suburban families. Several states are doubling down on this trend and spurring on through policy and regulations, establishing bold targets, and providing companies and consumers compelling incentives to go solar.
It would be fair to say that the increasing popularity of solar and its role in making energy greener, affordable, and accessible has resulted in the rise of newer and cooler technologies like EVs and batteries; but it is important to note that the future of these technologies is closely knit to the success of solar power.
Solar Needs a Digital Energy Orchestrator
There are two primary variables in the equation of solar technology. The first is the infrastructure around solar energy generation, like solar panels and cells, inverters, and integrated storage solutions. The second is the orchestration software and hardware that enables solar to power a sustainable and readily scalable ecosystem.
Solar power isn’t without its challenges. For instance, energy generation drops even if it is slightly overcast. Thankfully, efficiency of photovoltaics has gone up from ~4% during the early 2000s to ~25% today (inside labs). The focus now is on storage solutions like lithium-ion, vanadium redox flow battery (VRFB), and solid-state batteries that can store and transmit power when required. However, cost-effective options for providers and individuals are yet to work out.
To bridge the gap between continuous access to power and affordable storage solutions, we must turn to smart energy and asset management technologies to make generation more efficient and enable smarter operation, management, and maintenance of solar power plants. In other words, a Digital Energy Orchestrator. This is a compelling requirement in a post-Covid world, as industry players prepare to invest big in remote operations and management capabilities for solar farms. Indeed, it is important that while the industry works on physical energy systems — their enablers, and infrastructure — it is crucial to create a smart digital ecosystem to run this system of systems efficiently.
A Digital Backbone Will Keep the Industry Upright
Picture 300 acres of solar panels coated in dust. The panels function at reduced capacity, and a team is needed to step out into the field to address the situation. Until that happens, the generation company loses money alongside energy. In this all-too-common scenario, a solution is to have a drone spot the issue and send out a robot to clean the panels without human staff entering the field.
Creating a “digital twin” and using simulations for predictive analytics can make maintenance proactive instead of reactive. AI/ML-based algorithms and analytics platforms can crunch the petabytes of data from the solar farm and inform everything from the generation to distribution of solar power. In a sense, this digital backbone can not only address technical performance but unlock new levels of real-time financial performance too.
Why Consumers Are Becoming Prosumers
Over the past decade, solar technology has become affordable and attractive to individuals who want to generate greener power. This has given rise to a distributed grid, where power is not just generated at a commercial scale but on rooftops of homes and buildings such as malls and community centers. Here, power flow is bi-directional, and excess power from prosumers fills the shortage on the grid.
California achieved its plan to reach one million solar rooftops by the end of 2020, in late 2019. Multiple companies have also started offering 2-5 kWh solar installations to power everything from your home to EVs, and this is a huge opportunity for prosumers to intervene.
How Prosumers Can Serve Consumers
EVs are becoming the symbol of a greener tomorrow. But we need equally green energy powering them today. Solar is the only clean energy option that is as easy to set up at home as in a large parking lot or a gas station. In addition, while the initial investment may seem high, the energy proves to be sustainable and cost-effective in the long run. Prosumers can power the EV in their garage and earn from their clean energy efforts. Income from a charging service can help prosumers break even on their investment faster!
Furthermore, as governments start modernizing the grid, selling excess power back to utilities will become common, providing people with an incentive to go solar. With the right technology like implementation of Virtual Power Plants (VPPs), a smart grid that integrates data from prosumers will transform the core of power generation and distribution. And, as more solar sources plug into the grid, a robust smart grid platform can balance the load in real time. This smart platform will allow for communication between the various stakeholders producing and transmitting energy. It will automate decision-making and simplify energy management, be it from the traditional grid or prosumers. With the right technology, a smarter, responsive, and greener future is closer than ever.
By Ashiss Kumar Dash, SVP and Global Head – Services, Utilities, Resources and Energy, Infosys