Solar IT Helps Utilities Build a Sustainable Future
The CEO of the world’s largest power company, Chairman Liu Zhenya of China’s State Grid Corporation, wants to launch a global electrical grid fueled by solar and wind energy. He claims it will halt climate change, employ millions of workers and ensure world peace by 2050.
Liu envisions linked power generation stations and solar IT projects, from photovoltaic panels in Africa’s deserts to wind turbines at the North Pole, according to Bloomberg. Doing away with a central power distribution authority, Liu’s grid would be managed by intelligent software responding to global demand fluctuations.
But Liu’s big idea comes with a $50 trillion price tag, and it’s hard to see nations across the globe joining hands to make it happen. But the technology that underpins Liu’s idea is already taking shape. By 2030, Bloomberg predicts solar will grow sixfold, producing 8 to 13 percent of the world’s energy.
Solar Power Generation
It’s not easy to deploy solar power generation at scale. Solar energy is generated in locations all over the globe, from residential rooftops to large-scale industrial solar panel arrays, rather than at one central facility. Because customers use power from the grid and sell power back to utilities, it requires two-way power flow.
Solar-producing customers also shift costs for maintaining the grid onto nonsolar customers. This decentralized power generation and distribution model, along with shifting costs, requires both new infrastructure and new ways of thinking.
In addition, solar energy production can be intermittent and unpredictable. Excess power produced on sunny days has to be stored to prevent power interruption, and battery technology remains expensive. Plus, voltage spikes from a sudden solar power influx can endanger both utility workers and equipment. To protect employees and infrastructure, utilities have to manage power distribution in real time.
Solar IT is rising to the challenge by providing tools to meet these requirements and equip utilities to reform their business models through new hardware and software solutions.
Solar IT: A Conceptual Framework
Greentech Media divides the power distribution network into layers, drawing from the Open Systems Interconnection model that governs communication systems. Utilities have their own systems, including their own distributed energy resource management systems and demand response management systems. These networks are controlled by supervisory control and data acquisition software that collects information from devices within power plants and out in the field to help operators manage the grid. As signals proceed from the utility to the customer and back, they’re supported by four network layers:
1. Physical Assets
The first layer consists of devices connected to a physical transmission medium. Customers may have devices like photovoltaic panels, fuel cells and combined heat and power systems. At the grid edge, the physical layer consists of smart meters, switches, voltage regulators and value at risk management devices, along with devices that monitor the health of grid assets.
2. Network and Control
Network and control devices orchestrate what happens on the grid. Advanced inverters remotely operate distributed power generation nodes, like managing a network of miniature power plants using IP-based communications. Solar IT also controls communications between remote sensors and utility systems, relying on backhaul networks and wide area network interfaces.
The application layer collects data from devices to optimize physical asset and network functionality. Applications may manage residential power storage or provide large-scale photovoltaic fleet management. At the grid edge, they perform load balancing, monitor transformers and measure grid conditions.
In addition to gathering real-time intelligence about solar generation and distribution, analytics helps utilities predict grid conditions such as peak usage and adjust power allocation on the grid. Analytics also help utilities implement demand pricing, rewarding customers who refrain from using power during peak times and automate stored power distribution when solar generation is low.
Chairman Liu might not get his worldwide grid anytime soon, but that hasn’t stopped utilities from moving forward with solar. Combined asset management and analytics can make transitioning to solar easier and unleash the efficiencies that come with renewable energy.