In the race to meet sustainability goals worldwide, renewable energy industries are flourishing. One of these is solar power, which, according to European solar industry association Solar Power Europe, will account for 20% of Europe’s electricity demand by 20301. This is partly due to production costs for solar power falling dramatically, by 90% between 2009 and 20202. In order to meet this growing need, solar power providers are turning to smart technologies to streamline their operations.
Solar power farms
Solar power farms have popped up all over the world, using solar panels to generate electricity. These panels collect radiation emitted from the sun to energize photovoltaic cells, creating an electrical current. This is fed into a series of sub-stations to convert and distribute the energy to where it’s needed. Since the sun is a constant supply of radiation - it’s a renewable energy source.
These farms can get really big, depending on the amount of land available. One farm in Spain, for example, uses more than 4 million panels over 10 square kilometers. At the time it was built (2019), it was the largest in Europe, but the speed of development in the industry quickly changed that. Because so much space is needed, the farms tend to be in more remote locations.
Of course, remote sites like this need securing, and perimeter security measures provide the ability to monitor remotely. However, video technology is also being used for another purpose – to streamline maintenance.
The risk of hot spots
Routine solar panel inspections are an essential part of operational efficiency. Damage to the glass on the solar panel is sometimes caused by strong wind, hail, or equipment structure distortion. Damaged glass leads to further problems - such as water infiltration and photovoltaic film decomposition. These are all issues that can lead to temperature differentiation.
This is a problem for a panel’s efficiency. The temperature distribution of each cell should be uniform for it to provide a stable output. An abnormally high temperature in an individual cell in the component matrix indicates an issue. If this is not corrected quickly, the cell energy production decreases. When working temperature increases 1ºC, energy production goes down by 1.1W3. This loss accumulates across other ‘malfunctioning’ panels, leading to an overall reduction in the solar farm’s output. In fact, according to research, a single ‘hot spot’ could influence the circuit to a 3-7% loss.
These ‘hot spots’ will also cause accelerated aging of panels and components. They also lead to even more hot spots forming.
Monitoring and maintenance
Monitoring such a large area is time consuming, with technicians required to visit the site on ‘patrols’. This also costs the operator money, not to mention the ‘carbon spend’ of travelling. Obviously, the larger and more remote the site, the bigger the time, cost and carbon impacts.
Thermal cameras are used to simplify this issue. They too work with radiation emissions, but this time the emissions coming from the panels themselves. They can detect if the temperature of a cell is higher, or lower than a predefined temperature range. Operators can check any abnormalities in the office before a technician is dispatched.
Using a management software like HikCentral, it’s easy to check the temperature values by camera. This can provide valuable information for the site operator to see temperature trends and differences.
Thermography handheld devices can also come in handy onsite to provide a mobile means of checking the temperature. Technicians use them to further identify and assess the situation quickly. This improves efficiency if a technician needs to be dispatched at all.
Remote sites can prove a challenge too in avoiding fires. In any scenario involving electricity and electrical components there’s an inherent risk of fire. Faults can cause overheating in systems, eventually leading to ignition. Hot spots in the panels also lead to permanent damage.
On a large, remote site, this can be tricky to spot until the fire breaks out. However with the use of thermal imaging, operators can be alerted when a temperature reaches a certain point. This gives them the ability to act before a fire ignites, dramatically reducing risk of damage, injury, and loss of output.
The system can be configured to alert operators automatically. It can also link to an adjacent visual lens camera for verification, automatically recording when alerted. Once the issue has been verified, operators can take action by dispatching an onsite crew or calling emergency services.
The future looks towards sustainability in all its forms. This is also true of further development of solar farms, with plans to better use of these large areas of land. For example, a solar farm could be combined with fishing, farming or other agricultural applications.
But to maximize the efficiency of these large, remote sites requires innovative solutions. The application of smart cameras to monitor and manage them can be the difference between a productive and unproductive site. This innovation can help the industry reach that 20% figure by 2030.
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