Solar Monitoring: The Small Solar Tool Making a Big Impact

This year’s Climate and Society class is out in the field (or lab or office) completing a summer internship or thesis. They’ll be documenting their experiences one blog post at a time. Read on to see what they’re up to.

Crane_SolarDashBy Kelsey Crane, C+S ’15

President Jimmy Carter installed solar panels on the roof of the White House during his presidency. This was a huge step towards energy independence during the Arab Oil Embargo in 1979, not a statement about climate change. He was making an economically and politically smart move. President Carter said that this could “be a small part of one of the greatest and most exciting adventures ever undertaken by the American people; harnessing the power of the Sun to enrich our lives as we move away from our crippling dependence on foreign oil.”

While his successor, President Ronald Reagan, took the panels down, it’s clear in hindsight that President Carter was onto something big. He was a leader in adapting solar power, an energy and economic industry that would not see its major rise to adaption and power until 25 years later.

The growth of small-scale and utility-scale solar and everything in between has been incredible. In 2014 alone, the U.S. solar industry installed over 6 gigawatts (GW) of solar power. In the last four years there has been a huge increase in investment with around $3 billion in 2009 increasing to $13.4 billion in 2014.

Many people support solar power because of its environmental benefits, such as being a carbon free energy source or lack of pollution, but there are financial benefits, too.

The levelized cost of PV solar is decreasing and reaching grid parity in many regions across the country. As this grid parity occurs, the solar industry is booming. Jobs are being created, new sectors of the industry are being expanded and the economic value of the industry is growing. This is where a sector within the solar industry is taking hold and gaining major ground: solar monitoring.

This summer I got the chance to see this part of the solar boom first hand. I am currently working as a fleet operations intern at Locus Energy, a solar monitoring and solar data analytic platform provider. They cover residential, commercial and utility PV solar projects, gathering data from 1 GW of solar across the country including more than 500 customers and 70,000 sites.

The solar monitoring sector within the solar energy industry is growing at a rate that is even surpassing the production of new solar installations. This is because the solar industry, just like oil, gas and coal, is now a moneymaking industry. As an economic investment, it is essential that these systems are running at maximum capacity and this is where companies like Locus Energy come into play. Companies need to monitor their investment, just like buying stock or investing in a company, and solar monitoring companies are taking on this task and making it easier for investors.

While this is a small sector of the solar industry, it is making the industry more profitable as well as adding value to a solar panel investment. Key initiatives that were once very hard to utilize within the industry are now easy and accessible. Being able to easily monitor solar output allows for a more efficient and accurate exchange of Solar Renewable Energy Credits and more Power Purchasing Agreements. When investors have better access to these credits and agreements, the market becomes more appealing to new investors.

Another great value that is added to the solar industry from easy and accessible solar monitoring is that it can be used as an educational and awareness tool. By having the monitoring data readily available online, owners can use them to show the difference they are making and see the amount of clean energy they are creating. They can feel a sense of pride by being able to directly see the positive impact they are having because of their investment.

The Locus Energy monitoring systems gives clients the ability to measure how many tons of carbon they saved, the number of trees that they saved and the number of barrels of oil left in the ground because of their systems’ energy generation. This enables investors to see the social as well as the economic impacts of the investment.

Schools can use this to show students the direct impact from renewables and solar companies can use these figures to attract social conscious investors.

So it turns out President Carter was spot on about the solar industry. Across the country, solar energy is meeting and surpassing energy goals, people are now in control what type of energy they are using and consumers are able to make choices about the impact their energy has.

My time at Locus Energy has shown me that solar energy monitoring, such a small aspect of the industry, can work to have major impacts and I am glad that I am part of this industry that is helping consumers and investors while mitigating against climate change.

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