Monitoring solar installations

In a recent newsletter I suggested that somebody wishing to monitor the health of their solar PV installations could do so using ‘back-to-back’ comparisons between them. Reader Ben Whittle knows a lot more about these matters and wrote to put me right. His emails are reproduced here:

I would point out that whilst it may possibly be interesting to compare solar installations and account for cloud cover, personally I wouldn’t bother!

  1. variable cloud cover is variable – you can’t control it and generally it is fair to say that annual variation in the UK rarely deviates +/- 5% annually
  2. if you have a monitoring system, it will be capable of telling you when there is a fault immediately by email rather than waiting to do analysis

In the case of inverter  manufacturers’ own monitoring systems they will directly report faults immediately , usually based on

  1. an actual fault code being generated by the inverter – typically either being switched off and failing to report at all, string insulation resistance faults or other major failures
  2. output not matching other inverters in the same installation or sometimes against a base case / prediction based on yield expected due to weather forecasts
  3. possibly against a self defined target, and a failure to meet it

Third-party monitoring manufacturers will typically do the same as inverter manufacturer monitoring (with the exception of not reporting actual fault codes), but they have the advantage of being able to report on installations with mixed inverter manufacturers being used (possibly new + historic installations in one location or a portfolio of installations from different installers)

One classic mistake made with solar monitoring information is having no clear idea of what and how you are going to deal with all the information! It is time consuming to do and takes a bit of experience to make sense of it all.

So I asked Ben if there was a cost attached and this was his reply:

Most inverter manufacturers provide a solution. Three of the biggest brands (SMA, Fronius, SolarEdge) all have very competent systems, which are hosted for free, but you can get additional services by paying extra.

A typical domestic setup (which could cover any installation to any size in theory) would have basic info on annual, monthly and daily yield, and may also display self consumption rates assuming you have bought the requisite sub meter. Other info can include energy sent to a battery if you have one. It would also notify you if you lost grid connection, or communication faults. Communication is typically managed over wifi for domestic set ups and ethernet in commercial set ups. Remote solar farms do all this over 3g or 4g if there is no nearby telephone infrastructure.

Where you would pay money for a service is for an enterprise solution: this would allow you to also compare multiple installations and give you more detailed performance info, possibly also automating equipment replacement or engineer visits if malfunctions were being detected. (You would only get this from the major manufacturers with a dedicated team in this country, or an O&M service provider who was being paid to keep an eye on performance).

Third party systems typically only work using generation meter and export meter info, but a surprising amount of knowledge can be gleaned from this – you are after all only trying to find anomalies and once you have defined the expected performance initially this is quite straightforward. The advantage of this is that if you are managing lots of different installations with different inverters then you can pull the data all into one database. Big O&M companies may insist on this being added where a service level is being defined – such as 98% availability or emergencies responded to  in under 24 hours. The service will also include additional data points such as pryanometer info and other weather data, depending on the scale of the installation.

The companies who operate big solar farms are often hedge funds and they don’t like leaving systems down and not running for any length of time given the income from feed in tariffs. Though they quite often don’t manage the farms as well as they could do…

Ben Whittle (07977 218473, ) is with the  Welsh Government Energy Service