Turning Data into Action for Solar Power Plant Owners

By on March 6, 2018

We are awash in a sea of data. Sometimes it seems like we’re drowning in it. Terms like “big data” and “artificial intelligence” conjure up a massive presence, something imposing and forbidding. Yet data has immense value, a value that does not reside in its raw form, but in how we make it useful, glean meaning from it, and harness it so we can better understand and interact with the world around us.

As my colleague Allan Daly, VP of Software Engineering, so aptly put it in a previous blog, “What our customers may not know is our vision to leverage this powerful cloud-based data platform by adding in new applications and intelligence to make solar power plants manageable and optimized, no matter how large they become.”

At NEXTracker, we collect gigabytes of tracker data every day. Each of our installed tracker rows around the globe has its own Self-Powered Controller (SPC) that communicates bidirectionally with a central, onsite Network Control Unit (NCU). In addition to robust tracker control functionality, this architecture enables extremely fine-grained collection of real-time operational data from each row. With operating installations now totaling 9 GW (with another 3 GW under fulfillment), we’re polling hundreds of thousands of SPCs on a minute-by-minute basis.

This is where the data story starts to get really interesting. We’ve recently discussed NEXTracker’s efforts to maximize data security. (You can check out a recent Solar Plaza cybersecurity webinar we participated in here.) All data is being communicated securely via an Ethernet link—and when we say securely, we mean NERC-CIP compliant and cybersecure—to the plant operator and owner asset management systems. But we have now added a critical link in this chain of data custody, transmission, analysis and action—NX Data Hub.

The NX Data Hub acts like a SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition) system, allowing customers to collect the data from our trackers and bring it together in one central place, making the job of integrating all that data into their own plant SCADA much simpler. NX Data Hub provides a modern, easy-to-use interface that lets customers interact with our tracker systems and visualize the data in a secure environment.

NX Data Hub is being deployed right now at some of the largest installations we’ve ever done, including the 754 MW (DC) Villanueva solar project in Mexico, which will be the largest—and smartest—solar PV plant in the Western Hemisphere when it’s completed. Watch this brief video by Enel Green Power to grasp just how immense this plant really is.

NX Data Hub incorporates an unprecedented suite of advanced data and software-driven digital services for both tracker and energy storage systems that can dramatically improve asset management efficiency and lower operating costs. Using machine learning, predictive modeling and other technologies, our purpose-built data platform continuously monitors the health and performance of the individual tracker components and overall system operations via our secure communications network. With this information, we can help our customers maximize system uptime, reduce O&M cost, optimize power generation, and increase profits.

NX Data Hub collects a wealth of granular data from the arrays and uses advanced diagnostic capabilities such as our Digital O&MTM  software to turn that data into actionable information. For example, by sifting through the data, we can identify possible tracker installation issues that could impact future system performance and assist the onsite teams to take corrective steps before any power loss occurs.

We are also working to be able to schedule service calls in a smart predictive way rather than the reactive manner that has often been the norm in the services world. We can use analytics to ensure that the field tech has all the information he needs before he goes onsite to perform any scheduled or unscheduled maintenance. In many cases, thanks to the NX Data Hub, issues can be dealt with from a remote operator’s computer, without rolling a truck at all.

In the coming months, I will be posting blogs about the importance of connectivity as well as how advanced data and software-driven digital services enhance security, improve asset management efficiency, ensure overall asset value, and lower the operating costs of our trackers and storage systems.

If you happen to be in San Francisco on March 13–14, I encourage you to attend Solar Plaza’s Solar Asset Management North America conference, where I will be participating on a Day 2 panel discussing the application of pattern matching in diagnostics, machine learning’s current state, and future possibilities, learning from O&M data points, and human-computer cooperation at the crossroads of analytics and intuition.