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Product and Software in Energy

As we enter the 4th Industrial Revolution, technological innovations — particularly advances in software — are increasingly being used to address some of the world’s most pressing issues. Perhaps nowhere is software’s ability to solve our most difficult challenges more apparent than in energy. Big Data, artificial intelligence, machine learning and the Internet of Things (IoT) are enabling us to transform the electric grid — making it cleaner, more affordable and more reliable.

It is true that software can’t actually generate electricity. But it can allow us to maximize the value of the power we generate through effective use of data. In doing so, we can reduce our dependence on dirty fossil fuels, improve the effectiveness of energy efficiency, renewable energy and energy storage technologies, and create a more efficient, carbon-free electric grid. Software will turn data into a new source of power. This transformation will allow us to cost-effectively extend the benefits of electricity to the 1.1 billion people in the developing world without access to reliable electricity and accelerate our transition to a fossil-fuel free economy. When it comes to energy, software will not eat the world — it will help save it.

The need to transform our electric grid — reducing greenhouse gasses associated with energy generation while extending energy access to those in the developing world — is urgent. Left unchecked, climate change will cause a massive amount of economic and humanitarian damage. The difference in climate damage costs between low (1.5°C) warming and high (4.5°C) warming scenarios could be as high as $50 trillion, according to Citibank. The World Health Organization expects that, between 2030 and 2050, climate change will cause approximately 250,000 additional deaths per year from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhea and heat stress.

Moreover, though we have made strides in reducing global poverty, we still need to extend access to reliable and affordable electricity if we hope to continue to increase the income and improve the living standards of millions of people living in the developing world. To put it simply, if we want to sustain the economic progress the world has achieved since the dawning of the industrial revolution, and foster a 4th Industrial Revolution, transformation of our electric grid is essential. The potential for the energy transformation is clear, as GE’s Global Innovation Barometer illustrates, with 61 percent of citizens surveyed saying the industry could benefit greatly from the digital revolution.

There is no doubt that new renewable energy, energy storage and electricity distribution technologies will be needed to enable this transformation. However, software will also play a critical role in making the grid cleaner, more affordable and more reliable.

Emerging Software in Solar

PV installations are no longer solitary and separate sources of energy. They are becoming an influential and integrated part of a distributed grid that can interact in real time. This transition is similar to how personal computers have become part of a larger network. In the early days of computing, desktops had limited functionality and software. However, as computers became more powerful, and more interconnected with instantaneous, bi-directional communication, intricate software became necessary. This is now the case for the PV industry. For PV systems to maximise their impact and continued integration into the grid, dedicated and complex software is becoming increasingly necessary.

Some of the types of software that were initially leveraged by the solar energy industry were ones that supported the development of sites. Both site design and PV simulation software were quickly integrated into the planning and sales process. Site designing software helps to map out sites, manage complicated design limitations, optimise layouts, provide Bill of Materials and more, while site simulation tools are important for analysing the ROI of potential installations. Both of these tools were quickly adopted as indispensable by the industry since they reduce planning, decrease quotation time, and optimise sites for improved ROI. Another software solution that is becoming increasingly popular is designed for improving commissioning. These solutions help to streamline the commissioning process and eliminate any redundancies. Yet these tools are limited as they only provide solutions for the initial stages, and PV systems have a life expectancy of 25 years.

Monitoring software has been developed to address the long-term performance of PV systems, and during the past five years has become nearly ubiquitous in the industry. Before monitoring was adopted by the industry, system owners would make a significant long-term investment and have only minimal insight into performance. This would be similar to never looking at an investment portfolio in the stock market and being unable to make adjustments as desired. While at the same time, for operation and maintenance (O&M) providers, this created a significant burden on their business model as it required multiple trips to the site and more time spent on site in every trip. With the advent of real-time, module-level monitoring with remote troubleshooting, system owners and O&M professionals now have a dashboard to show performance issues. This software not only helps O&M providers optimise their business and provide system owners with control in the palm of their hands, but it also enables higher production and improved ROI.