Benefits, challenges of IoT for solar energy

As the U.S. solar energy industry experiences unprecedented growth, the need for firms operating in this space to upgrade their IT networks and further utilize proactive monitoring tools grows.

As the solar energy industry in the United States experiences unprecedented growth, the need for firms operating in this space to upgrade their IT networks and further utilize proactive monitoring tools grows.

Thanks in part to a number of key variables, including rising consumer interest in clean energy, newly available tax incentives and declining commodity prices, the U.S. is now one of the largest markets in the world for solar photovoltaic electricity and that demand shows no signs of abating.

According to the latest statistics from the Solar Energy Industries Association, more than 1,500 PV installations came online during the first six months of this year. In comparison, approximately 644 new systems were installed during the same period in 2011. This is also likely not the industry’s zenith, as the SEIA predicted more growth for the industry in the months and years ahead.

“America’s solar energy industry remains on course to have another record-shattering year,” said SEIA President and CEO Rhone Resch. “Today, there’s more than 9,370 megawatts (MW) of total solar electric capacity across the U.S. – enough to power more than 1.5 million American homes, including the White House.”

Managing solar growth with proactive monitoring
As the industry grows to new heights, some firms are presented with an entirely new challenge: sprawl. More installations means more endpoints to monitor and guarantee. For example, a California-based PV firm is now just as likely to have installations in states such as Massachusetts and New Jersey as it is to operate sites located down the road from corporate headquarters. While solar energy firms could previously have relied upon manual processes to keep tabs on everything, this approach is no longer feasible due to the sector’s scale and spread.

To address this issue, solar energy companies can embrace the Internet of Things, also known as the Internet of Everything. Loosely defined as the creation of more Internet-connected endpoints designed with machine-to-machine interactivity, IoT has the potential to dramatically transform energy companies, according to Cisco. For example, a solar energy company can install sensors on panels to monitor their performance and provide real-time insight to site management teams.

“The IoE asserts that 99 [percent] of things in this world are unconnected and considers what might be possible if we were to intelligently link all of it,” Cisco Canada President Nitin Kawale wrote in a June blog post. “That would be truly amazing! Just think about how dynamically our world has already changed for the better during the past 10 or 20 years by simply connecting less than 1 [percent] of things.”

In addition, Kawale asserted that one of the IoT’s biggest contributions to energy industry firms is in the realm of predictive analytics and big data. Since these sensors collect vast amounts of data, companies can use those information streams to gain more granular oversight over their installations. Plus, data analysis tools can give organizations the opportunity to use data from the past and present to more accurately predict future outcomes.

While these trends may be boons for C-level executives at solar energy firms, IoT and predictive analytics may not be welcomed by IT teams that are suddenly tasked with managing more mission-critical assets. More sensors equals more distributed endpoints to oversee, and the rise of predictive analytics ensures that other departments place more pressure on IT systems to perform.

To deal with these dual threats, network oversight professionals should leverage proactive monitoring tools equipped with out-of-band access. With these kinds of solutions in place, IT professionals working at solar energy firms can more easily and effectively keep tabs on all endpoints and ensure that every distributed network endpoint is functioning properly. IoT and predictive data analysis can provide enormous growth opportunities, but no initiative can expect to lead to positive results unless it is properly governed and maintained.