Solar panel monitoring systems imply different things depending on what scale of installation you have.
This is a guide to why you need a monitoring system, what to look for in this platform, the best brands to pick from, and the value of linking your monitoring system to a work order management software.
No matter what size system or monitoring type, it’s fundamental to select the best solar panel monitoring systems appropriate for your use-case, and ensure that energy generation remains optimized. Watchfulness quickly catches premature degradation or failure.
Silent failure is all too common—even with monitoring systems—which is why vigilance, attention, or a strategy to receive alerts and take action is critical. Luckily, technology is on your side.
Why Use a Solar Panel Monitoring System?
1. Solar Panel Monitoring for Residential and Commercial Sites Less Than 500 KW
The module—also known as a solar panel—is the single square unit mounted in series to compose a complete solar array. For most residential and commercial solar systems, the solar inverter monitors the solar generation at site.
The solar inverter aggregates the energy generation (in watts) from each module. For residential systems, this is likely sufficient given that most systems are 25 modules or less.
Module-level monitoring can save solar system service and monitoring companies a trip to a residential site, where the margins to correct issues or perform a physical preventative maintenance inspection are often too low, even for some scales of rooftop commercial solar.
Your service tech may charge an hourly rate and trip charge to show up and inspect your system.
If module-level monitoring is specified and included in your installation, then your installer may be able to troubleshoot remotely for a cheaper rate.
If a site visit is necessary, then module-level monitoring could ensure that the service tech knows enough about the problem prior to arrival, to bring the right tools, replacement parts, and make only a single site visit (therefore cheaper for the homeowner). The goal is more solar energy generation without interruption.
2. Solar Panel Monitoring for Sites Greater Than 500 KW
Typically, fleets of larger sites—from community solar to utility scale to industrial sites—demand more sophisticated solar panel monitoring software nested within a suite of other business software tools, including Enterprise Resource Planning (ERPs), financial for invoicing, project management and work order management.
Some tools have overlapping functionality. When reviewing data from your solar panel monitoring platform, compare estimated solar production against actual to detect trends, anomalies, or signs that corrective work is needed.
Estimated solar production is the quantity of kWh that PVSyst or disruptors like Daly Energy predict the site will generate (taking into account environmental characteristics, the size, location and type of generation asset). Every solar installation has unique factors, from insolation to adjacent agricultural activity, to suitable grazing for animals.
Actual solar production is the value produced as reported by the onsite meter—its real time monitoring. Comparing these numbers over a reasonable period illustrates clearer stories from the data: daily can be too frequent and annual is too isolated. Monthly is often considered the sweet spot.
Christopher McCleary, Asset Manager at SunShare (a community solar developer) says, “I like being able to find operational problems that are occurring on site and test different management practices, based on the data I collect.
“For instance, should I handle the vegetation maintenance at this site more aggressively? I like looking at how our site is producing in terms of KWh we can put on the grid versus what we estimated from a financial perspective.”
As a system owner, SunShare has a financial interest in using the best-in-class tools for solar panel monitoring, to ensure each site’s financial performance is optimized.
Here’s why your PV system will decrease its production over time, and why solar energy monitoring systems are important:
- Cracking, corrosion, delaminating (peeling) or other physical failure of the module due to weather, high ambient temperature, or even vandalism.
- Manufacturer defects, though rare at 1 per 5,000 units, must be considered.
- UV exposure which naturally leads to an average of 0.5% production loss per year, over time.
- Hot spots, or parts of a module that heat disproportionately to adjacent cells, and negatively affect the overall production—glass cracking, glass browning, solder melting, and general deterioration.
- Lack of cleaning: intense soiling from dust, urban air pollution, snow.
- Shading: neighboring vegetation can decrease module production.
The Top Solar Panel Monitoring Systems in 2023
Solar power monitoring systems, SCADA and or DAS: No matter what the name, here are the top systems.
Your options largely depend on the solar inverter your installer specifies for your installation. Ask the installer about the residential customer interface.
- Enphase Enlighten remains a top performer. We like that it includes an app that works well for iPhone and Android Users, incorporated module-level monitoring years ago, and has an intuitive user interface.
- MySolar Edge. With much of the same functionality as Enphase Enlighten, we like that MySolar Edge advertises its metrics for batteries, too, given the number of installations that couple solar and batteries today.You can download the app to test its functionality by reviewing the “Demo Sites” list even prior to having a SolarEdge login. Comparative production year-over-year is another good way for a homeowner to spot accelerated degradation and contact their installer if production dropped dramatically.
2. Large System SCADA
While the solar inverter will remain a primary source of truth for energy generation, the market for additional solar analytics yields more functionality today than ever before. We’ll turn our focus to market new-comers, since incumbents like AlsoEnergy, SMA’s Sunny Central UP and MVPS UP, Fronius, Huawei, and SunGrow can speak for themselves.
Enphase and Schneider have approached utility scale markets as the inverter of choice for fleets of residential and commercial systems—targeting the growing virtual power plant market—such that their tech for centralized utility-scale operations is not relevant to review further.
This summary looks at 5 solar panel monitoring platforms that give more than monitoring or control. Rather they bring AI, machine learning, or other innovation to their product. All are also CMMS friendly, given the importance of dispatching monitoring information to a work order management system.
- Quadrical AI :The compelling offering behind Quadrical’s approach is proven. In an industry where increasing margins by even 1% matters, the technology promises up to 4% increase in solar generation.
Incorporating an actionable digital twin built on Machine Learning models helps operators glean insights from their solar panel monitoring SCADA and learn performance patterns. Quadrical offers an analytics-first innovation to solar power monitoring. Hardware not necessary at site.
- Apollo Energy Analytics: Apollo’s product is comprehensive and built by solar asset managers for solar asset managers. Our favorite is their approach to data visualization—from heat maps to depict incidents across your site, to indicators of soiling in certain locations on the plant.
Apollo is CMMS friendly. The company prioritizes analytics and AI in addition to SCADA reporting. Hardware not necessary at site.
- Solar SCADA: We value solarSCADA’s customer support, ease of install, ability to scale to various project sizes, ability to export a variety of data formats, and clear depth of domain expertise, and diverse team. They were selected to compete in NREL’s American Made Solar Prize Round 5 in 2021.
- Spark Cognition: We love the AI-driven approach. Since many products can’t yet benefit from a Chief Data Scientist, Spark’s AI-focused product development for many markets, including a host of energy types, leverages Machine Learning models and best-in-class data science to deliver a solution that will detect anomalies in generation faster than your NOC personnel.The downside is that the product is not renewables-first. The domain expertise behind the prior companies may spell a stronger commitment to this market and ability to serve customers.
6 Features to Look for in your Solar Panel Monitoring System
For commercial and utility-scale assets, a solar panel monitoring system, also known as a Data Acquisition System (DAS), hinges on 5 specific features. The solar monitoring system price will be a coordinate function of how feature-rich the solution is. Look for:
1. Telemetry/SCADA: for large commercial and utility-scale sites, you’ll have a range of sensed data points to track. From the inverters to the on-site Meteorological Station (Met Station) to irradiance monitors, to module level monitoring to the Battery Management System for on-site storage—it’s hard to find a single platform that will aggregate each of these feeds onto 1 screen.An employee may be a “tab jockey” with multiple browser windows open, to track alerts from each hardware vendor at a site, or across your fleet. Single-site residential customers can rely simply on the monitoring from their inverter.
2. Tools: From Flir thermal cameras to drone-thermography, you need specific ways to pinpoint module degradation.
3. Open protocols: You will need to move data from your monitoring system to a range of other work platforms in your office. You may also need to pull data from your monitoring system into your Computerized Maintenance Management System software (CMMS).Does the monitoring system provide an open API? What is the charge to use it? Does the firm have personnel to support integrations with your other technologies?
4. Multi-vendor and multiple points of access: Today’s O&M teams rely on a network of subcontractors, specialists, and project stakeholders. All need access to the monitoring data. Thus, licensing costs and access should be available, shareable with permissions, and cost-effective.In terms of ease-of-access, is there a mobile app, or simply a cloud-based dashboard?
5. Offline or cloud-dependent?: How does the software manage off-line, intermittent, or latent communications at site? As solar projects are installed in increasingly remote parts of the country, where land is more affordable, it’s important to take into account latent, spotty coverage. Much of the country does not yet have 5G service.
Even in urban areas communication can be challenging if monitoring sits atop the customer’s wifi service.
For example, the site may appear to be offline simply because a benign password change took place. A monitoring platform that comes with a dedicated SIM card or service within the hardware is one route to resilient communications. Alternatively, the solution can upload content when connectivity is re-established.
Improve your solar operations and maintenance with these blogs:
How CMMS Improve Solar Panel Monitoring
What good is an alert of generation degradation without an efficient system to fix it?
The most efficient service businesses unite their solar energy monitoring software with their maintenance software.
A Computerized Maintenance Management System software (CMMS) is the work order management tool that turns alarms/alerts from your DAS system into actionable work orders for technicians. A robust CMMS will also schedule preventive maintenance like annual site visits.
What’s most functional is a CMMS specifically designed for Distributed Energy Resources. A tool like 60Hertz Energy unites solar system monitoring to a work order tool.
The winning strategy is to unite data aggregation from SCADA and solar panel monitoring software with work order management. The best solutions put all of this functionality under one roof. With the right Monitoring and CMMS combination, you can drive more revenue generation from solar services.
Run your Service Company like a Network Operations Center:
While utility companies or utility-scale power producers run a 24-7, multi-screen, secure operations center, even small service providers can replicate the functionality of these centers, at an appropriately smaller scale, by linking 5 distinct operational software:
- Project management
Relying on a single employee to flip between the tabs of multiple monitoring platforms and periodically catch alerts will not make for a successful, reliable, or reputation-building approach. The more streamlined the tools, the more efficiently service revenue can grow.
All the Monitoring in the World Can’t Replace the Human
Importantly, solar energy is not optimized by SCADA or monitoring systems alone. The human field technician and site visit is indispensable. It’s critical to schedule, prompt and document visual inspections on an at-least-annual basis for every scale and class of systems.
Damage, presence of vermin, dust, failed conduit, sign of fire damage or vandalism are but a few of the most common items that preventative maintenance visits can bring to light. A field data collection tool within a CMMS should also work offline, since strong comms and large solar energy production sites are not always likely to be in the same place.
Improving Your Solar Monitoring Systems Experience
The increase in solar technologies for all segments of residential, commercial and utility-scale applications for solar are increasing. Investors are yet-more bullish about solar tech following the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 which floods public capital to solar power production.
Investments in solar tech companies deliver functionality and innovation for homeowners, installers and professional service companies.
More than 68 GW of utility-scale solar operates in the US today. The technology innovations this market demands create efficiency through the solar sector, wherein tools and technology that industry leaders like Solv Energy, Borrego, Origis Services, or Lightsource BP invest in and evolve will benefit all segments of the solar service market.
Level Up Your Solar Array’s Performance With 60Hertz Energy
Keeping on top of O&M stressing you out? Work orders piling up? As the CMMS of choice for the renewables market, 60Hertz aggregates operations and systems data and streamlines your operations and maintenance.
Interested? Book a demo today.
Featured image source: On Visme