Shedding New Light on Industrial Solar Power System Performance

It’s not easy to write about solar energy without getting carried away with metaphors. In a world facing a worsening climate crisis, solar power—as a renewable energy source—represents a ray of hope, a bright spot, a beacon of light.

Many diverse industries are putting their money into solar power. But, in many cases, it’s not a sense of urgency about “going green” that drives them. In industries operating in far-flung, remote locations, the use of solar power is usually driven by pure necessity—there’s simply no other viable power source.

While there’s excitement around the promise of solar energy, conversations with industry leaders often center on problems associated with remote solar power systems, including a lack of visibility around solar-powered battery performance. Since battery failure can cause safety hazards and even halt production, operators take extreme—and expensive—measures to prevent it. 

Eliminating the guesswork around solar-powered battery performance 

While solar-powered devices reliably monitor field operations as a whole, a lack of visibility around the performance of the solar-powered batteries themselves is a huge blind spot and cost driver

Oil and gas, wastewater management, and utilities are among the major industries that rely on solar power, principally to operate remote sensors and devices that send critical information to a centrally located Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) system. This data tells the SCADA operator what’s going on in the field. 

Solar Power Systsem Performance

For example, oil and gas personnel are alerted if equipment goes down or if various pressures and temperatures reach unsafe levels. Powering the devices that relay this information depends on reliable battery performance, which, in turn, depends on the availability of sunlight to power the batteries. 

Touting the pros of solar power, Elon Musk famously said the sun “shows up every day” and “just works.” In reality, the sun doesn’t always shine sufficiently to fully charge solar batteries, and, as we all know, it clocks out every night without fail.

Operators have tried to optimize battery performance by doing calculations to determine the amount of current needed to power the devices, including an estimate of autonomy time—the number of days that a battery charge will last should the solar panels stop absorbing sunlight.

While these calculations initially suggest which sizes and configurations of solar panel and battery systems are needed to produce the required current, they don’t take into account equipment deterioration over time or the power requirements of any equipment added down the line. 

Hours of autonomy, so painstakingly calculated in what amounts to a paper exercise, are also affected by extreme ambient temperatures and other conditions. To avoid power disruptions and production downtime, oil and gas producers have taken to replacing all of the batteries every six months, regardless of need or individual battery performance.

It’s not uncommon for a major producer to have several thousand remote, solar-powered sites, so battery storage and replacement are substantial budget items. One major producer mentioned it spends $1.4 million annually on batteries.

Callouts and lockups are also expensive—and less predictable. A callout occurs when a system goes offline and stops sending SCADA communications, triggering a truck roll to the site to determine the cause. Equipment lockups require technicians to drive to the site to power-cycle the affected assets no matter where that site is, all for a process that takes 20 seconds to perform, sandwiched between hours of drive time. 

Considering that each and every truck roll costs as much as $2,400, eliminating set-schedule battery replacements, manual power cycling, and most service calls could easily save millions of dollars.

Industries that deploy remote solar power systems often remain in the dark as to how those systems are functioning. But there is a new technology that can be added to their existing infrastructure, offering complete visibility of solar-powered field operations.

For example, FreeWave’s patent-pending remote solar power system manager was developed to slash maintenance costs and reduce risk factors by providing critical data on remote solar power system performance. Currently in beta testing, the company is seeking more users for the system.

As more industries embrace solar power for remote field operations, improving battery performance is urgently needed for off-grid installations. This can now be achieved through breakthrough technology increasing battery visibility, and providing more viable and efficient ways to harness solar power as a renewable alternative energy source.

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