Three Things Solar is Doing Right, Right NOW

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This post first appeared on LinkedIn Pulse. Follow CEO Michael Maulick on LinkedIn for future Pulse content.

There is an enormous opportunity to revolutionize the trillion dollar energy sector with energy technology (EnTech) convergence solutions that bring the best technology to bear on energy’s biggest challenges. Right now, the solar industry’s top innovators are leveraging three EnTech trends to accelerate the upward trajectories of both their own businesses and the sector, at large. 

1) Harnessing the power of artificial intelligence and IoT to create the next generation of solar solutions
Artificial intelligence (AI) machine learning – using algorithms to enable machines to mimic brain activity and “learn” things for themselves – is driving tech innovation across industries, including solar. Today, companies like SunLink are using IoT technology to transform the components on a solar installation into a physical “network” by embedding them with electronics, software, sensors and network connectivity. The components are collecting and exchanging real-time data, feeding the AI algorithms. This data is first and foremost revolutionizing R&D. No longer are the most innovative solar companies basing their product designs and project solutions on laboratory outcomes and static modeling. Instead, AI is informing a new generation of structural analysis with real-time wind, harmonics and snow load, forces, system performance and other data collected from live projects. This is an essential step forward in designing more dynamic and lower cost product solutions. We are pioneering the solar industry’s use of machine learning to create dynamic lower cost systems where our solar hardware actually becomes able to troubleshoot and anticipate stress without human involvement. For example, by analyzing all the data collected by the sensors over time, a tracker system might recognize a pattern that when a wind speed of a certain mph hits the system at a certain degree tilt, the system is stressed. Moving forward, any time the tracker sensors picked up on the fact that the wind was approaching that mph, they could then trigger the array to change tilt angle to avoid the stress. When the wind speed drops back down, the system will react by moving back into optimal tilt. There might even be a certain time of the day that a stress condition occurs on a regular basis and with predictability because of precursor events. With our systems able to react on their own to stressors and avoid extreme loads, we will have the ability to pull costs out of the system by reducing the metal required, because it will no longer be necessary to design for the max code-level event. Artificial intelligence is going to figure as prominently in the EnTech-enabled future of solar as it does for every other industry. Smarter solar “machines” are on the way.

2) Moving to open standards to foster innovation and improve industry operations
Historically, the solar industry has been guided by the philosophy that proprietary communication protocols and data privacy will protect market share and limit the growth of new competitors. In contrast, the tech sector has proven that exposing data to the creativity of others via open platforms is a more effective path to advance both company and industry growth as greater numbers of developers drive advancement and new capabilities through collective input, suggestions and requirements. As a result, the energy sector is beginning to make the shift to open application programming interfaces (APIs). SunLink’s VERTEX project intelligence platform is helping to encourage the move toward open platform adoption in energy. Developed using a RESTful API, VERTEX allows the development of other applications on top of its platform, eliminating software redundancies and the inefficiencies associated with the industry’s legacy single-purpose, proprietary solutions. VERTEX’s core functionality is to provide secure, mobile-controlled SCADA (Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition) and performance monitoring capabilities that connect grid operators and project stakeholders with real-time project performance intelligence. Beyond that, however, SunLink envisions a broad spectrum of apps that push the boundaries of energy analytics, make asset management and O&M teams more efficient through tie-in project management tools, incorporate project financial performance and accounting capabilities, and leverage an expanding base of energy assets to inform or directly participate in power markets. SunLink even intends to release its own Salesforce integration — tying project performance, alarms, and events to CRM. While SunLink intends to build some of these capabilities in-house, the potential for other industry innovators to seize the opportunity and build out their own applications is unlimited. Moving to open standard APIs invites more brain power to look at energy challenges to rapidly define new solutions that will accelerate the downward cost curve for solar and expand its global adoption.

3) Solar’s cybersecurity solutions are helping increase its share of the energy mix by solving grid security challenges not solved by legacy energy players
The energy industry is focused on securing grid assets ranging from power plants and substations to smart-metered customers. Solar is the optimal participant in the energy mix to steer the introduction of cybersecurity technologies because, when it comes to new annual capacity, solar and wind are driving the addition of new assets to the grid. Nearly 30 percent of all new energy sources added to the grid are solar, and we see this trend continuing. As a result, solar is driving innovation which has the potential to revolutionize the entire energy ecosystem — such as embedding in our technology with secure tokenized protocols to prevent hackers from gaining access to the grid. Our intent is to embed the necessary hardware in all our solutions so that those that are seeking cybersecurity protections are easily able to take advantage of its functionality. It is our belief that as the new sources come online, we will reach a tipping point which will accelerate the adoption of open and secure solar platforms that will quickly expand to all forms of energy generation control. The challenge in this and other industries is getting security mechanisms implemented ubiquitously. Look how long it is taking the FinTech industry to adopt EMV, the little chip on the credit card that creates multi-factor authentication. With so much at stake, it’s incumbent upon energy to move much more quickly. SunLink has introduced a modified two-factor authentication protocol in its VERTEX project intelligence platform. In SunLink’s approach, the first factor is a password which is all that exists today for the existing SCADA system. The second factor could be any one in a range of options, including biometric scan, Google Authenticator, secondary password generated via SMS or a phone-based authenticator. Finally, VERTEX layers on a third factor for even greater security. Options include giving the user or operator access to control an asset only after a second person has validated the initial request, machine learning to detect typical user patters and an audit trail of system interactions​. The move to embed  such cybersecurity protocols as highlighted above within energy technology has begun to dramatically impact the solar business landscape – for the better. What started as an industry built upon mechanical and structural engineering expertise, has now an equally robust software engineering component tasked with making hardware more intelligent, connected and secure. This is a challenge, but even more so, it is an opportunity to advance universal solar power adoption worldwide.

It is clear that EnTech will play a vital role in the future scalability of solar. These three trends have already begun to usher in a new generation of essential solar industry solutions that will soon be widely adopted across the entire energy value chain. Welcome to the next era in global energy! For a preview of the tip of the iceberg go the App Store and search on Vertex Sunlink. Download it and keep an eye on a real functioning solar farm at Arizona State University.