Cost consideration is a major barrier to solar power adoption in Africa where consumer purchasing power may be several magnitudes lower than that in developed countries. In addition to cost concerns, solar power promoters also face further consumer concerns with operational challenges; this is especially true with mini grids and hybrid solar systems that target business owners. How do businesses effectively and efficiently manage the operation of their solar mini grids to optimize reliability and justify the overall investment? For stakeholders in the on grid solar power (utility-scale), there is also the challenge of optimizing operation and maintenance, as well as, achieving effective reporting standards and practices for named stakeholders in a Power Purchase Agreement (PPA).
Can solar power leverage software advancements to attain better competitiveness? Especially in African markets where a number of solar adoption and deployment hurdles still exist. Invariably, Information Technology tools are increasingly proving to be a valid means of improving the operability of solar power installations – both in mini grids and on grid installations. With a difficult terrain in several places in Africa, the use of solar software promises to be a good way to allay some consumer’s concern on ease of asset administration, as well as, on-grid investor’s willingness to play in these markets.
How can software practically help to improve solar power attractiveness and ease of deployments in Africa?
Perhaps these early days of solar power development in the continent provide ample opportunities to champion a well-rounded relationship between solar and software solutions. Since reliable power is the principal demand of mini grid power consumers and reliable output the overriding target of on grid asset owners; software that helps to guarantee reliable outputs are of immense value to stakeholders. Experts believe that software is fast becoming an integral tool for solar power projects. For this unarguable relationship to be nurtured and optimized in Africa, “home grown” software solutions may be critical. Home grown in this sense does not necessarily imply “developed in Africa by Africans” but refers to solutions whose architecture are consciously suited/adapted to reflect peculiar challenges of operating solar installations in Africa.
From production forecasting to design optimization, grid integration, Operation and Maintenance; solar software has a growing number of roles they play in solar system deployment. Even in moderately mature and maturing-markets outside Africa, software is pushing its way into solar markets.
It may be deduced that Africa’s solar markets may offer greater opportunities for software service providers, since infrastructural challenges such as poor road networks may limit the ease and scope of Operation and Maintenance activities.
Software solutions can also be used to achieve much remotely. For example, if an asset has some reasonable number of smart devices and sensors deployed on site (though with an additional cost); big data and analytics tools provide a way to improve efficiency and save cost through remote monitoring. Similarly; where a large number of personnel may have been otherwise required on site, solar software solutions that simplify administrative, operation and maintenance tasks could lower personnel requirement while delivering better asset performance.
The solar-software usefulness scenarios are many and quite promising but challenges remain.
Defining the level and form of software vendors’ involvement in asset operation and management could be challenging for asset owners. Implementing software solutions on assets could bring on significant cost, whose return on investment (while known) may be tough to demonstrate in tangible terms. With a proliferation of software solution built for solar assets, asset owners also risk over-implementation which could erode profits or add an extra layer of administrative complexity that will prove detrimental to optimum plant performance.
Solar system developers and asset owners are therefore faced with the challenge of defining the solar software integration threshold – the level of software investment in solar assets that delivers the minimum benefit at the maximum cost. Similarly, for transmission systems that are poorly automated and/or governed by poor data/reporting standards, interfacing (administratively and operationally) a utility- scale on grid solar plant that runs on a state of the art solar software solutions may be a tough task.
There are also some uncharted regulatory areas for software use in solar assets especially in the African context. Perhaps regulators may begin to explore and clarify the regulatory and policy areas that concerns software use for new and upcoming solar assets, especially those relating to developer’s production records, metering, tariff estimation, billing and invoicing. The question of who is best positioned to develop/manage software capabilities between asset owners and third party vendors also remains unanswered.
Since solar is only beginning to expand in Africa, the necessity of software solutions creates an opportunity for the solar-software development market that is non-existent at this point. But the continent can leverage its commendable progress in other areas such as retail market software, mobile pay solutions and e-commerce to push the frontiers for solar software. comment
*Cover photo credit: CNN