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.
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.