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Updated: August 6, 2011 14:42 IST

Role of IT in the solar power sector

D. Murali
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It was at a two-day solar PV (photovoltaic) training workshop – recently organised in the city by iPLON GmbH, Germany, and supported by Energy Alternatives India, Chennai – that I met Sebastian Dürr, Director of iPLON (http://bit.ly/F4TSebastianD). Sebastian’s presentation to the assembled entrepreneurs and senior executives from the solar industry was about engineering and design aspects, during which there was an elaborate discussion also of the many IT aspects relevant to the solar power sector. And that became the theme of my subsequent interaction with Sebastian, over the email.

Excerpts from the interview.

What role does information technology play in the solar sector?

First of all, I think that the role of IT in the solar business is very much underestimated. Without high quality software the whole process of a ‘solar PV revolution’ in India wouldn’t be possible at all.

And, to answer this question, one has to understand the different roles and tasks that software tools must handle in the solar business. In the very beginning of every solar PV project there will be an EPC (Engineering, Procurement and Construction) company. A first design of the PV system has to be made. This is the point, where domain-specific software applications start to play an important role.

Later on, there will be the project rollout with all the different tasks to handle. Therefore, you need some kind of task management or project management software. Finally, you will have to do the maintenance and remote control of the solar PV system somewhere in a remote area. Therefore, you need some tools that enable you to do so, and give you the opportunity to store all the information for at least the next 20 years of operation.

To give a summary on this, I would say that there are at least three different levels or kinds of software: First, the very domain-specific design tools. Second level will be the more generic project management or task management tools; and finally all the hidden software applications that are essential but most of the time completely underestimated.

What are the opportunities for Indian IT companies in this sector?

I guess the greatest opportunity for Indian IT companies is a fast ‘time-to-market’ in the development of new applications or add-ons to existing applications. It could be interesting to see specific design tools for the Indian solar PV market developed by Indian companies. These tools could include so many features, like different financing models, different feed-in tariffs, etc., that we do not have right now in all the ‘international’ tools that are available on the market.

If I could add some more things on the wish-list, then it would be the integration of specific Indian climate models. There might be also a certain demand for generic workflow software that meets the requirements of EPCs on support and documentation for project planning, rollout and deployment. These could be either standalone software solutions or could be integrated into typical project management tools as an add-on.

In general, the procurement process for a large-scale solar PV project is a huge effort. An integrated software solution on this would be quite helpful and could save a lot of time and money.

Right now, the lifecycle management of solar PV projects is quite underestimated. These software solutions should be highly interoperable. From my point of view, there are way too many barriers among the different software solutions today and these reduce the usability of the software tools a lot. Using web-based systems or the ‘cloud’ could be one idea; using web-services could be another idea, to solve this problem.

What are the learnings from the German (and, generally, the mature market) experience with solar and IT?

There are some really good tools for the design of PV systems and there are some tools for project management – but not with this strong focus on solar PV systems. Most companies seem to have developed their own solutions for that; but, unfortunately, most of them are in no way interoperable. Therefore, the procurement process takes longer than needed. From an RFP document to the quote seems to be a long way to go. In Germany the widely-used eCl@ss standards or other standards help to improve this.

For the design of a solar PV system there are three to five really great tools that are easy to handle but with the limitation that these tools have a strong focus on Germany or Europe in terms of feed-in tariffs or financing models. As said earlier, such tools should be adapted to the Indian solar market and the regulations and feed-in tariffs in India.

Would you like to discuss the importance of IT in the security of solar installations?

Security and safety features are nowadays integrated services. Therefore you can access these safety and security features also with your IT. I would, therefore, suggest the use of an IT system for managing all the other sub-systems, and these may include also safety and security features.

For instance, if you have a sophisticated monitoring and control system, it will always give you the opportunity to show when a certain error happened. With this information a refund can be claimed from the insurance company. On the other side, an EPC will have to prove that the solar PV system reached a certain performance ratio. Without software tools that integrate many data points and do all the calculations, it is not possible to do so. Also an automatically-generated report on performance ratio has much more creditability than a ‘handwritten’ one.

On how IT and technology make a difference to the bottom line of the customers.

There are three main parts within every project: design, deployment, and finally operations and maintenance. Without a good design software I would never start do design a PV system since the amount of time needed to do this “by hand” is way too high. A good software tool also gives you the flexibility to compare and simulate different approaches to find the best solution for the customer.

During deployment, there is a huge demand for sophisticated and hopefully real-time or nearly real-time task management. Tasks from different domains have to be coordinated. If someone has a good system to support all these actions, it will be very helpful. We offer IT solutions for the operations and maintenance part. From our point of view, the three most important things in this context are: Using open standards, using community-driven tools, and providing a vendor-independent solution.

But also from the point of view of the utility company there is a certain kind of potential to save money. Right now, there are only a few solar PV systems in India. In the long run, there will be thousands and millions. A utility company will have to handle a good portion of these installations in terms of feed-in tariffs and refunds. Therefore, I would suggest all possible tools for automatic metering through smart meters.

Any other relevant details.

A monitoring system always has to tackle two aspects: There is hardware, such as all the sensors and meters; and there is software that reads the information from the hardware, stores them, processes them, and gives reports and warnings to the customer. I would always suggest that you go for open, community-driven standards. This is especially true if you think about the next 20 years of operation and if you think about retrofitting of monitoring systems as well, if it is about integrating PV installations from different vendors. If you can manage to keep your system vendor-independent, you will always have this as the USP.

**

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