Tapping Analytics to Advance Solar Power's Use

In comments to my previous posts, All Analytics readers have expressed interest in renewable energy sources like solar, wind, and geothermal -- and, naturally, how analytics can help hasten their deployment on today's grids. So let's take a closer look at how analytics can help advance solar energy use.

The amount of energy the sun produces is phenomenal and virtually pollution-free, with zero input costs. The challenge, of course, has been in converting light rays into electricity we can use. The five major obstacles to conversion are cost as compared to fossil fuel plants, site suitability for direct sun, the input costs to make solar panels, the materials needed to create solar panels, and the part-time reliability factor of sunshine hours/seasons.

Analytics can and are playing a role in overcoming this latter obstacle, reliability, by which experts mean that the sun shines only about 12 hours or less each day (depending on where you live and the time of year) and that clouds can at times obscure the sunshine. Because of the sun's nature, solar can only be an additive source of power to fossil or other renewable sources a utility company uses to power its grid.

For reliability, light intensity factor (or irradiance) is the largest stumbling block for utilities right now. In simple terms, irradiance is a function of the wavelengths of light and the ability to convert those wavelengths into meaningful power. Irradiance is difficult to calculate due to the intermittency of solar power -- but calculate utilities it must because they have to blend solar power's intensity, or lack thereof, into their daily planning for generating electricity from other power sources like windmills, coal, or gas plants. And actually, utilities must blend their expectations for solar power intensity into their planning, not just the real-time intensity.

Imagine the enormity of this challenge, with all the related tasks of trying to balance your grid system with mixed solar, gas, coal, and wind sources. Utilities must operate under a sword of Damocles, with the non-compromising expectation that the power they provide is reliable and always available, no matter the time of day or night. Simplified to our solar narrative, that means the utility trying to integrate solar power must always have a gas or coal plant ready to run if a cloudy thunderstorm pops up out of nowhere.

Consider what that means at a utility trying to increase its solar and wind generation.

To help you visualize this, the Solar Electric Power Association (SEPA) offers a fantastic mapping tool showing where current solar investments are occurring. You can get an interactive version online, but note below the large number of utility projects popping up and dominating the map in sunny, cloud-free southern California and Arizona. As great as the weather may usually be in these areas, even they're susceptible to the cloudy day.

To overcome the variable irradiancy problems, utilities deploying solar in these regions are factoring all sorts of calculations into their real-time run management: yesterday's forecast, today's cloud cover, and light intensity, all in real-time, to integrate and simultaneously project the solar arrays' input into the grid operation. They have to, but obviously it's no simple task. In her speech to the Solar Power International 2012 general session, for example, SEPA president and CEO Julia Hamm drew attention to performance monitoring, metering equipment, and forecasting software as technological issues that are still adding substantial uncertainty to the advance of solar power.

Many companies are already trying to rise to the challenge of providing the analytics that can overcome this basic problem clouding solar power's use. But if you talk with anybody in charge of overcoming the challenges at a utility, you'll get an earful. The complexity that's caused by the second-to-second uncertainty of sun power is a daunting hurdle to them.

Joe Gimenez, Freelance Writer, Oil/Gas/Utility Industries

Joe Gimenez is a freelance writer on issues important to the oil, gas, and utility industries. His familiarity with the capabilities and value of analytics and business intelligence in those industries has developed through his work with IT and management consultancy Capgemini, ETRM solutions provider RiskAdvisory, and analytics software solutions provider SAS. His writing has been noted for its unique observations and insights based on his own analysis of available facts. And his clients retain his services for his ability to describe the intersections of data with practical knowledge in a business context. Gimenez has honed his writing skills as a journalist and editor at various publications. His 2008 article, "On the $100/barrel Highway: The Energy Industry's Roadmap to the Future," in Business Baylor Review was prescient on the role that new technology and discoveries would play in the future of the oil industry and the retreat of the Peak Oil theory, especially with an influx of a new, nascent workforce thinking across disciplines.

How BI Becomes Analytics at a Utility

Utilities can answer a lot of forward-looking questions with their backward-looking data.

Analytics Key for Electricity Rate Relief

Watch for pricing transformation in the 26 states where public utility commissions monitor and set electricity rates.

Re: Solar Impulse
  • 12/15/2012 11:34:17 PM

@ Noreen

You have a point. The airlines, as far as I know, have a strong understanding among themselves on what to compete and what not to compete. It will take effort if regulatory bodies want to force airlines to cut prices down. They will never do it themselves unless there is too much competition between themselves.

Re: Solar Impulse
  • 12/10/2012 2:30:45 PM

You are an optimist Wagas. I bet airlines would still keep travel costs at today's level -- even if their operational costs were lowered by  solar-powered or hybrid flights become operational.

Re: Solar Impulse
  • 12/10/2012 1:18:50 PM

@ Beth

For me, hybrid power airplanes are not so difficult to imagine i.e. planes that fly partly on the supply of fuel and partly on the sun rays refined for power generation for the engine. I can imagine air travel costs going down significantly in the long run if such solar-powered or hybrid flights become operational.

Re: Solar Impulse
  • 12/10/2012 10:25:00 AM

@WaqasAltaf, I find it hard to fathom the idea of solar-powered commercial flight in my lifetime! That these guys will be able to fly around the world solo in a solar-powered airplane is unbelievable enough! 

Solar power reality check
  • 12/8/2012 11:06:12 PM


Joe writes

Many companies are already trying to rise to the challenge of providing the analytics that can overcome this basic problem clouding solar power's use. But if you talk with anybody in charge of overcoming the challenges at a utility, you'll get an earful. The complexity that's caused by the second-to-second uncertainty of sun power is a daunting hurdle to them.


Joe, thanks for bringing your expertise to bear on this issue, and producing what I think is an excellent Reality Check on the potential of solar energy for the electric power utility industry.  I found particularly interesting the perspective you provide on the viewpoint of the power industry.

Currently there are serious limitations with solar power, and the poor efficiency in converting light into electric power is certainly one of the worst.  Another is the spatial requirements of solar, and the consequential environmental impact.

Where I think solar electrical generation currently might have a significant role is in utilizing structural roofs — roofs of houses, skyscrapers, commercial buildings, maintenance facilities, bus stops, train stations, etc. — as solar panel installations to supplement power from the general grid.  (Quite an expensive proposition, by the way...)

I don't see a way that this could benefit the electric power industry, unless a power utility for some reason wants to reduce local demand for power.  This actually is the case here in Austin — the publicly owned utility Austin Energy has been encouraging solar power installations.  However, I'd think that's an anomaly within the industry.


Re: Solar Impulse
  • 12/8/2012 9:50:59 PM

@ Beth

Solar plane is an amazing development and a very risky product by manufacturers atleast on the outside. Unlike solar power for the utility companies, the airline industry can suffer damage to lives of human beings if a flight crashes due to technology inexperience. 

Complex analytics
  • 12/8/2012 9:47:18 PM

I am pleased to get know how of the solar power and utility companies' perspective.  Surely this data, about intensity of sun rays and data on probability of the duration for which sun will supply input to the solar power-production industry, is complex to work out and not every analytics can work on it. Only specialized firms connected with the utility sector can help draw useful analytics that are reliable for planning and budgeting purposes.

Solar Impulse
  • 12/7/2012 1:05:10 PM

@Joe, I know this has nothing to do with analytics, but I think the solar industry can learn a lot from the solar plane set to fly around the world. If you haven't seen or heard of this project, it's worth a look. Truly fascinating. I just watched a 60 Minutes program on it and was completely enthralled. 

Re: solar power
  • 12/7/2012 8:35:04 AM

Everytime I think about solar, I just think about Solendra!

solar power
  • 12/7/2012 8:04:13 AM

That's a great applicaton of analytics.  I was wondering, given the role of climate, if there are any pursuits of solar power in places that tend to have more cloudy days, like Seattle and London.