Published on March 30th, 2015 | by Jake Richardson0
Software For Solar: Locus Energy Interview
March 30th, 2015 by Jake Richardson
Locus Energy makes software and analytics for the management of large solar power systems. What follows is an interview with CEO and founder Michael Herzig.
1. You have over 60,000 systems installed. Could you give a few examples of how they function and what they manage?
Locus Energy has developed solar-specific smart meters that collect data every five minutes from solar PV (photovoltaic) arrays, including information about energy, power, amperage, voltage, power factor and frequency. The meters also collect information on inverters, including faults for remote diagnosis, as well as peripheral devices and meteorological sensors. This data is sent to the cloud in a compressed data format through 4G cellular communications, where it can be viewed by the owner or operator. Once this information is centralized in Locus’ database, our users access it via the SolarNOCTM (Network Operating Center) fleet management software. SolarNOCTM displays asset specific performance data, weather and other related data in a user-friendly interface that allows asset managers to optimize workflow, reporting, and other key aspects of managing their solar installations.
The display can be adjusted by altering the filters in the customized dashboard according to installer, geographical region, system size, equipment type, install date, finance partner and many other factors. SolarNOCTM has an open architecture, which enables the processing of data from a wide range of sources, including from Locus’ and third party monitoring hardware as well as from data sets in a variety of formats. This has made it particularly easy for Locus to collect data from legacy monitoring systems as customers consolidate their fleets onto our platform.
2. If there is an average system, what is the typical ROI?
Locus’ software drives value in a number of ways including optimizing asset performance, automating workflow, reducing direct operating costs, automating analysis, and reducing manual workflow errors. Robust fleet management software is critical to the workflow of an O&M team that is remotely managing solar PV assets. Locus’ SolarNOCTM software allows users to efficiently manage O&M activities across a wide geographic footprint. Locus’ PVIQTM analytics platform provides remote managers with deeper insight into performance issues, allowing them to make informed decisions about the value of taking corrective action.
The challenge in providing a universal answer to the ROI question is that systems vary tremendously. If we must quantify ROI, however, we can use industry-wide standards as a gauge. In well-built systems, top-quality O&M driven by software tools such as Locus’ PVIQ suite can drive savings of 1 percent to 5 percent of initial system installation cost. Also important to note is that these figures refer to day-to-day operational costs – not exceptional circumstances. If Locus’ fleet management and data analytics software prevent a system from going down, the savings could be tens of thousands per day, dramatically increasing ROI.
Yet another opportunity for savings is offered by the fact that Locus’ Virtual Irradiance (VI) tool (see below) eliminates the need for a costly on-site weather sensor. Furthermore, in cases where a sensor already exists, VI validates sensor data, which can become skewed due to issues in calibration, soiling and other factors.
Additionally, insights on system performance can drive installation best practices that further decrease the cost of solar through improved site selection, hardware vendor choice and warranty and insurance product structuring, as well as the optimization of financing. These insights allow solar installation originators to competitively price their services and increase their addressable market through a data feedback loop that decreases the overall levelized cost of electricity.
3. What are the main benefits to using your software?
Locus’ software allows asset managers to easily aggregate, organize and analyze solar data from a group of heterogeneous solar assets, leading to better decision-making, improved workflow and increased efficiency. As the size of solar fleets continues to grow, the need for efficient software to cohesively manage a large amount of data from systems spread over a wide geographical area – as opposed to the ad hoc management systems currently being used by many asset managers – becomes increasingly critical. Locus offers a number of ways of exporting data including an Excel plug-in that allows our users to automate reporting and analyses and to customize their outputs for different stakeholders. Our clients have reported that Plug-In has been invaluable in terms of time saved on these routine tasks.
On top of our core platform, Locus’ PVIQTM suite of analytics software provides additional layers of analysis and opportunities to optimize asset performance. Our Virtual Irradiance (VI) tool provides data on how much sunlight is hitting the ground at a particular time and location. When used with other modeling data, such as the type of panel or inverter, VI allows assets managers to determine if a system is performing up to expectations. Our Waterfall performance report identifies the reasons behind a system’s failure to perform. These may include factors such as weather uncertainty, snow downtime, shading, equipment downtime, equipment degradation and inverter problems. As the solar PV industry continues to expand, fleet owners, investors and utilities will increasingly demand actionable performance data such as that provided by PVIQTM.
Another benefit of Locus’ software is its open architecture, which allows it to be easily integrated with other software, such as specialized sales and O&M software, allowing users to customize it to their needs and collect all solar-related data into one platform.
4. What stage are we in currently when it comes to solar power analytics, and where do you see the field going in the next five years?
Solar is growing at a rapid rate, specifically a worldwide rate of more than 41 percent per year since 2007, according to CleanTechnica. If that growth rate continues through 2022, solar will become the world’s foremost source of power, offering a huge opportunity for innovative analytics to help manage, evaluate and predict solar performance. While the focus in the early days of the solar industry was on getting systems up and running, the shift to a focus on improving performance and cutting costs is driving demand for sophisticated analytics. At the same time, the extraordinary level of growth is constantly adding more data to Locus’ data bank — already the most diverse in the industry — allowing us to continually refine our sophisticated algorithms.
With approximately 60,000 monitored installations, Locus collects more than 30 million data points daily, with a cumulative total of more than 35 billion data points collected to date. In addition to the O&M applications and design best practices that have been discussed, our data set has other applications across the solar value chain. One of the main applications we foresee in the coming years is in solar financing, specifically in providing risk-adjusted analyses for investors, insurance companies and rating agencies. As the securitization of solar takes off over the next few years, we expect our data analytics to play an important part in assessing the value of solar portfolios on the basis of performance. Decisions based on accurate predictions of energy output – and therefore of financial value – that are drawn from the analysis of millions of data points are likely to be viewed as more sound than those based on educated guesses. And because investors are more likely to invest their money in an asset with a predictable return, the access to accurate performance data will help speed the adoption of solar PV by increasing access to low-cost capital.
Furthermore, as the level of solar penetration grows, utilities will need to solve the problem of how to integrate solar into the grid. Eventually, the predictive capabilities offered by Locus’ data gathering and analytics capabilities will allow utility managers to enhance grid stability through advance knowledge of, for instance, when to switch to alternate sources of power when cloud cover diminishes the output from grid-tied solar systems.
5. What direction will your company take over the same time period?
Locus Energy is building out its enterprise-level fleet management and analytics offerings, targeting asset managers who are responsible for large, heterogeneous solar fleets across broad geographic areas. In the next five years, the company expects to expand this functionality, incorporating new features and partnering with other companies on software integration, especially for O&M applications. Additionally, as the trend toward solar securitization accelerates, we expect it to drive demand from the financial sector for Locus’ data. As mentioned, with the increased penetration of solar, we also anticipate a growing demand from the utility sector for predictive weather data to help better integrate solar into the grid.
6. What key metrics does your analytics package track and how would someone in a management position utilize them?
Locus provides tracking for any and all pieces of data that are created on a solar installation as well as additional data from weather sensors including both ground sensors and satellite based solutions. At the management level, many of Locus’ PVIQ reports provide simple, comprehensive overviews of system or fleet health that allow managers to get a quick snapshot of what areas of their operations require more attention and where they are able to fine-tune estimates to drive increasing value from their assets.
The VI tool draws on private and public historical and real-time data from weather stations, satellite imagery, federal agencies such as NASA and NOAA and other sources to provide ground-level irradiance data on a one-square-kilometer resolution. VI provides irradiance data on a 15-minute basis, which is close to real time. When used with other types of data, such as the type of panel or inverter, VI allows asset managers to determine if a system is performing up to expectations. The second element of PVIQTM, the Waterfall report, is unique in the industry in its ability to inform asset managers why a system isn’t meeting performance expectations. The report analyzes historical data from a fleet of systems and automatically categorize underperformance by specific loss factors such as downtime, snow cover, shading, etc.
7. In one of your white papers, you wrote, “The use of satellite imagery to estimate solar irradiance at ground level represents a reliable and cost- effective alternative to physical measurements of solar radiation. Modeled irradiance is particularly important for performance analysis of residential PV installations.” What advantages are there when using satellite imagery to estimate solar irradiance?
The advantages of using of satellite imagery as opposed to ground-based sensor are cost and accuracy. Physical weather sensors are prohibitively expensive for small commercial and residential systems. Without ground-level irradiance data, it is impossible to track system efficiency at a granular time interval. The use of a tool such as Virtual Irradiance provides a much lower cost alternative to an on site sensor and allows fleet operators to more proactively manage distributed assets. In addition, the data delivered by Virtual Irradiance is generally more accurate than class 1 irradiance sensors.
Image Credit: Locus Energy
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