Automating Assets: Digitalisation of renewable energy

Digitalisation of renewable energy

The use of smart and digital techno­logies in the renewable energy spa­ce is aimed at ensuring optimum plant performance and maintaining the quality of assets. These digital technologies include a gamut of wide-ranging inno­va­tions such as embedded internet of th­in­gs (IoT), artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML), sensors, block­chain, distributed cloud computing and robotics. These technologies have a pa­no­ply of applications in increasing the efficiency of operations and revenue ac­cretion, reducing operation and ma­in­tenance costs, and identifying problems in real time.

Growth drivers

The solar power segment is rapidly moving towards automation and digitalisation, which help in attaining optimum solar plant performance and maintaining the health of solar assets. With solar tariffs hitting rock bottom at sub-Rs 2.50 per unit, affecting project revenues, the developers cannot afford to compromi­se on energy generation and run the risk of becoming unprofitable. Solar project developers are undertaking automation and digitalisation of operations through the use of drones, robotics, AI-enabled monitoring and analysis, advanced fault diagnostics techniques and intelligent re­mote monitoring software. This shou­ld result in direct cost saving from redu­ced manpower requirements and en­su­re high precision and quality of delivered services – module cleaning, inspection, data collection, analysis or even fault diagnostics.

In the wind energy segment, digital te­ch­nologies can create new opportunities for operators and owners, helping them plan their development strategies. Digitalisation in the wind power space is at a nascent stage, and so there is a huge untapped potential for the deployment of digital tools for better operations and maintenance (O&M) of wind power pl­an­ts. Digital transformation in the wind power segment is largely driven by the increasing economic pressures on wind power owners owing to technology ad­van­cements and intense competition. Digitalisation can help bring improvements in cost efficiencies.

Digitalisation of power plants is also gaining traction with the increasing co­mmercial viability of digital technologies and the emergence of software distribution models such as software-as-a-service (SaaS). Utilities incorporating SaaS-based systems transfer the res­po­n­­sibility of handling the software side of their business to companies that specia­li­se in effective use of software and digital technologies. The introduction of 5G internet and proliferation of IoT-based technologies will promote the adoption of digital solutions amongst utilities by helping them rapidly adapt to changes and modulate their services accordingly to maximise revenue. This phenomena is also expected to help developers res­pond to regulatory and market changes promptly, as well as enable data-driven decision-making.

Technologies and use cases

Drones and robots: With the increasing size and scale of solar projects, the use of drones for inspection activities has em­erged as a popular alternative to ma­­nual inspection. Drones can be equipped with thermal cameras to capture infra­red signatures and detect defects, dirt and soiling on panels. Dro-nes can provide more granular details than ground cre­ws, and can detect malfunctioning mo­dules, specifically hot­spots, which re­duce electricity generation. They can also point out faulty strings with greater ac­curacy and reliability. Apart from this, developers are adopting robotic technologies for solar panel cleaning activities and sensors for identifying the optimal angle for maximum yield.

Performance monitoring: Automation and digitalisation can be effectively put to use in fault detection and rectification. Remote monitoring systems with real-time updates can help in predicting faults, diagnosing their causes and taking corrective action to prevent equipment or project downtime. Renewable energy developers are also focusing on setting up advanced monitoring systems to avoid paying penalties for over- or under-generation, according to the relevant scheduling, forecasting and deviation settlement regulations. Thus, ad­van­ced asset management software with AI-enabled monitoring platforms is increasingly being used for predictive O&M, as it helps developers and O&M service providers analyse data from a nu­­mber of projects and take corrective action accordingly.

Creating digital twin and virtual power plant: A technology with immense scope in O&M activities is AI-based digital twins. It involves the creation of a di­gital replica of an actual physical ass­et, to be used as a benchmark for id­en­tifying faul­ts through data anomalies. This virtual asset receives data through sensors, and uses AI- and ML-based advanced digital tools to carry out predictive and prescriptive analytics. The real data parameters are used by the digital twin to help carry out the day-to-day O&M of its physical twin by predicting energy generation, id­entifying faul­ts, improving reliability and defining the maintenance strategy.

To conclude, digitalisation and automation of solar and wind assets through the adoption of predictive maintenance, big data analy­ti­cs, digital twins, drones and robotics has become essential, especially for developers and operators with mul­tiple assets. The capital cost of digitalisation may seem high, but long-term gains in ge­neration, downtime and revenues compensate for the costs.