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The Solar Software Challenge: Supporting a Carbon-Free Grid

Nov 9, 2021

“End-to-end digital platforms are yet to become a reality,” said analyst Daniel Liu in the recent Wood Mackenzie webinar Global O&M Trends & Impacts on Solar Operating Fleets. “Few operators are willing to take the performance of their solar portfolios to the next level.” Does such a soup-to-nuts solar O&M and asset management software platform exist? Is it possible? Would it yield performance gains? In episode #5 of Power Players by Origis, we speak to Power Factors EVP and Co-Founder Steve Hanawalt for an insider’s view of the solar software development challenge.

MEET THE PLAYERS

Steve Hanawalt is co-founder and executive vice president of Power Factors, a software-as-a-service (SaaS) company that helps asset owners and operators manage complex portfolios, optimize revenue and energy output, and reduce costs. Its mission-critical enterprise software spans the entire asset value chain, from asset performance and commercial asset management to workflow management and analytics. He brings decades of experience working at Calpine and SunPower to help clients maximize solar portfolio performance and profitability.

Michael Eyman is managing director of Origis Services, a best-in-class provider of Operations and Maintenance (O&M) and Asset Management Services for owners of large-scale solar facilities, portfolios, energy storage, and other renewable generating assets.

PHASE 1: CLEAN PERFORMANCE AND MAINTENANCE DATA

In Wood Mackenzie’s recent webinar “Global O&M Trends & Impacts on Solar Operating Fleets,” analyst Daniel Liu summarized the current state of operational software: “Operators are still trying to figure out how to deploy digital solutions. . . . End-to-end digital platforms are yet to become a reality.” Although he’s spent years building and improving a state-of-the-art software solution that serves 110 gigawatts of renewables, Power Factors Cofounder and EVP Steve Hanawalt agrees with the assessment.

“In each of these segments of the business there is a lot to the platform functionality that needs to be added in. The industry is strong in the performance analytics, the monitoring, the reporting. And I think especially Power Factors, if I can say that, in the integrated CMMS [computerized maintenance management system] solution and enterprise asset management system.”

This is no small accomplishment and serves, as Hanawalt describes it, as the foundational component upon which all subsequent operational software will be built. The challenge has been in cleaning and integrating two distinct data flows to create actionable insight:

“If you think about the operational performance data, and the CMMS data, they are two different data types. The operational performance data is time-series data. So, you get a value from a sensor with a timestamp, but the CMMS data is transactional data. So, they are not the same kind of data. So, what does that mean? To really tease out the reliability analytics, so that you can understand where your failure modes are and do something about them to do true root cause analysis, you have to mash up time-series and transactional data. And, really, the only way to do that is to have a common asset registry with a common failure taxonomy. Meaning, we categorize and name failures in a consistent way between the monitoring application and the maintenance application. That’s what we do at Power Factors.”

This capability is enough to maintain and optimize renewable assets with disparate configurations and technologies, but it is not enough to handle the future requirements of renewables as they support or replace traditional thermal generation. To accomplish this, Power Factors is investing in two additional phases.

PHASE 2: REAL-TIME MULTI-THREADED SYSTEM-AGNOSTIC INTEGRATION

“One of my observations of Power Factors’ product today is that it’s near real-time, but it’s not real-time data,” host Michael Eyman remarks. “I’m just going to put it out there, you know, there’s a need in the industry, to do all the things that you just talked about, you’ve got to get to real-time to meet the response criteria the grid is really requiring of these new assets. How do we get there? Because I’m not there yet, the industry is not there yet, Power Factors isn’t there yet. I don’t know who is.”

This is the next frontier for the industry, and one that Power Factors hopes to cross in 2022. The major constraint is network bandwidth at the asset site, with rising costs in T1 connections and other IT infrastructure creating a major obstacle. One solution that Hanawalt believes in is multi-threaded applications that ingest data at different time increments. In short, data required for real-time decisions will be sent every second or sub-second while other data points will be ingested in 15-minute, 5-minute, or other increments.

The data governance of this phase is a huge moving target, one that is developing as solutions, portfolios, contracts, and technologies grow more complex. Hanawalt does not mince words, “[M]aybe you’re going to ask this, so I’ll preempt it, that’s just the start. Now, we have to think about how far downstream do we want to play as an asset performance management platform. . . . To be honest, Michael, we are still sorting through those questions. We’re talking to customers like Origis and others about what do you see as the best solution.”

PHASE 3: OPTIONALITY, ARBITRAGE, AND SETTLEMENT

Once the data is clean and available, a complex layer of analytics, machine learning, and big data will be needed to address the complexities of renewables and the evolving demands that the grid requires.

Energy storage, as Hanawalt explains, is just one challenge that the industry has yet to master: “[B]atteries introduce this concept that traders call optionality. Meaning it gives them financial options that they did not have. And the biggest one, as you know, Michael, is arbitrage. Arbitrage is where I don’t have to make and deliver. I can make a store and wait until the right time price to deliver. That creates a much more complicated solution, because now we are having to really run optimization solutions in real-time, to understand what the best dispatch scenario is.  This becomes a very, very complex problem to solve.”

But that’s still just at the plant level. What happens across an entire portfolio? “Let’s say I have a portfolio in the ERCOT region. And that portfolio is made up of some wind plants, some solar plants, some hybrid plants, and maybe a gas peaker . . . which I can spool up quickly, right? When I have that entire portfolio of assets, each one has its own operational and performance characteristics: “If I feed it this much fuel, it can do this” — right? Fuel could be sun; it could be wind. In the traditional world of fossil generation, that’s called your unit commitment and economic dispatch program. That program is this thing I was talking about, the MILP [mixed-integer linear program], that is a very complex optimizer, and it knows what my generation assets can do at any given moment in time and what the cost of doing that is.” It is at this level, and beyond, that Power Factors and other software solutions must operate.

CONCLUSION

So how do we get to phase-three software capabilities?  To achieve generation that replicates thermal, we should look to thermal. Hanawalt admits it freely: “Well, you know, I hate to say this, but someone once said, there’s nothing new under the sun. And I think there’s a lot of lessons learned. Even for us renewable guys, it’s hard to humble ourselves [when it comes to learning] from the fossil guys. The fossil generation has been doing this for 125 years. They know a lot about unit commit, economic dispatch, trading, settlement. Look to the IPPs, like my old company, Calpine.”

Power Factors is on the right path, and Hanawalt did a great job explaining the steps to an end-to-end operational platform:

  1. PHASE 1: CLEAN PERFORMANCE AND MAINTENANCE DATA
  2. PHASE 2: REAL-TIME MULTI-THREADED SYSTEM-AGNOSTIC INTEGRATION
  3. PHASE 3: ARBITRAGE, SETTLEMENT, AND OPTIONALITY

Thank you to engineering and O&M expert Steve Hanawalt as well as host Michael Eyman for their far-thinking assessment of the solar software development roadmap.

RESOURCE LINKS

Four Case Studies on Integrating Asset Performance Management Software for Renewables

Overcoming Challenges Energy Storage Systems Pose for Owners, Assets Managers and Operators

The Growing Need for Advanced Solutions in Solar Performance Management – Power Factors White Paper

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