Overcoming the Challenge of Scale
This is the sixth article in an eight-part series about the top four challenges in solar performance monitoring and how to overcome these challenges.
The Scale Challenge
As we discussed in the second article in this series, the purpose of a solar monitoring software platform is to characterize the operational performance of the plant’s equipment so we can ensure the equipment is performing well.
Doing this for a few plants is one thing. Doing this for hundreds and thousands of plants — each with its own sensors, combiner boxes, strings and inverters — is another. This is the challenge of scale.
IT professionals define scalability as the hardware and software’s ability to expand to reliably support increasing workloads. We discussed in article two that if the monitoring software was not designed with a backend system that can consume and process millions of data points per minute, it will eventually fail.
Most solar industry monitoring software was designed to meet simple incentive program energy metering needs only. When the additional burden of providing asset performance management (APM) capabilities at scale was placed on this unstable foundation, these systems have failed.
Overcoming the Challenge of Scale
To process solar data at scale, the backend data system must be able to successfully consume a huge variety of high-volume data at a high velocity. The output of this data processing must be trustworthy events, analytics and reports that enable data-driven decision making. This is a tall order.
As I noted in article two of this series, the solar asset class generates more operational data per MW than the wind and fossil power asset class. Additionally, solar capacity is growing much faster than all other power generation assert classes. Finally, the market trend is that solar power owners’ portfolios are getting bigger and bigger.
The challenge of scale is difficult to solve today, and it will only get more challenging over time. Building a successful solar asset performance management solution requires building a platform from the ground up with these design considerations in mind.
Power Factors engineers and software developers built the Drive Pro asset performance management (APM) platform with current and future scaling issues as a key priority. Three principles guided the design and development of Drive Pro:
- Build on a sturdy foundation
- Partner with the world’s best infrastructure service providers
- Bring subject matter experts into the design process to ensure the platform solves real industry problems
Let’s get into what each of these means.
Build on a Sturdy Foundation
To build a mission-critical, scalable data platform, you need to build on a sturdy foundation. To do this, you really have three choices: buy, build or some combination of the two. Power Factors’ product team believed that partnering with the world’s best infrastructure and platform as a service (PaaS) providers was a better approach than attempting to build some of this capability from scratch.
As a result, Drive Pro is built on the world’s leading cloud hosting, PaaS and data historian services. These core data services provide a secure, robust, scalable and highly available environment to run Power Factors’ asset performance management software. This sturdy backend, coupled with the Drive Pro data curation and event processing engine, creates a bankable APM that is infinitely scalable.
Run it in the Cloud
Most modern software applications are running in the cloud. That is because the cost of infrastructure, processing and data resources from cloud services is so much better than traditional client/server, on-premise applications. Additionally, cloud hosting services provide flexibility and security that would be difficult to develop and maintain if hosted internally.
Though almost all software vendors provide cloud-based software applications as an option, many of these solutions were not designed as cloud applications. The Power Factors Drive platform was designed from the ground up as a software as a service (SaaS) cloud application and therefore can take advantage of the platform services available from modern platform as a service (PaaS) companies such as Microsoft and AWS.
For example, if a Power Factors customer adds more projects to their portfolio or wants to acquire data more frequently from their plants, additional Drive or Drive Pro resources will be demanded. In a cloud service environment, these processing and data storage resources are seamlessly scaled as demand increases so the user experiences no loss of system performance.
Know the Problem You’re Trying to Solve
The last of our guiding principles is to know the problem we are trying to solve. How does being a subject matter expert help with the problem of scale? When designing software applications that are solving industry-specific problems, it is very helpful to be able to “see around the corner” —anticipating industry needs so well that you’re designing tomorrow’s solution today.
For example, when the Power Factors team was designing Drive Pro, they knew that the solar asset class would participate more and more in power market operations. If renewables are going to displace traditional power generation assets on the grid, they will need to be able to create “shaped load” power products for utilities.
In other words, renewable electrical supply needs to match grid electrical demand. This calls for hybrid renewable plants that incorporate energy storage with solar and wind power assets. Adding energy storage to a wind or solar plant means that plant data acquisition frequencies will increase by a factor of ten or more in the next few years.
Power generation domain experts know this requirement is coming, but software generalists have no way of knowing this future requirement. When the Drive Pro team started designing the software a few years ago, these software specifications were designed into the system.
The future data scaling problem was added as a Drive Pro platform specification years before it became a reality. Why? If it hadn’t been considered, the data foundation would eventually need to be deconstructed and rebuilt to keep up with industry requirements. Industry subject matter experts must be involved every step of the way to ensure software solutions anticipate industry needs — rather than just responding to them.
If the data scale problem is not addressed properly, it will severely limit a solar power monitoring system. We believe the right approach is to work with best-in-class infrastructure service providers for reliability and scalability and incorporate renewable power subject matter experts early and often in the design process so tomorrow’s requirements can be designed into today’s product.
Want to learn more about how Power Factors’ Drive Pro asset performance management (APM) platform helps you overcome the challenge of scale?
Steve Hanawalt is EVP and Founder at Power Factors.