Thursday, September 26, 2013

Context for Distributed Generation Energy Management in NZ

When you look at the rest of the world, there are a lot of solar PV installations happening out there. I’m not talking about hobbyists and niche deployments but industrial MW scale energy plants. Admittedly, it follows a boom and bust cycle that’s driven by the whims of governments who support renewable portfolios....sometimes. Looks like Australia is in for another spin on the merry-go-round with the results of the most recent election.
Powerful and renewable: Solar Energy
(PHOTO: courtesy Nasa)
Oh well. With solar, it’s always a bad idea to espouse “shortermism.”  However, when you look at the higher-quality, super durable gear - IEC 61701 certified monocrystalline modules, AS/NZS 4777 certified grid-connect inverters, AS/NZS 1170 rated roof mounting - there’s a lot of long-term value there. Everyone is talking about solar PV grid-connect at the moment, but really that’s only one aspect of energy management that companies need to think about. Other aspects are: how and when you use energy, how to intelligently conserve power, what the weather is going to be like, how much solar will deliver as a percentage of total consumption, and all the inter-related data that comes from the dynamic interaction of these daily trends. Not in abstract generalities, but for your business specifically.

While in NZ there is ample renewable power - world-leading levels in fact! - it shouldn’t stop our engineering community from developing the tools that let companies manage those energy and financial flows themselves.  Given that there’s a large contingent of “small to medium sized enterprises” in NZ (SMEs if you want to talk in biz jargon), shouldn’t there be a set of services that hand over the energy management reins to the SME’s COO? That is, not a technologist but a business focused person. Yes: the solar hardware is available today, and skilled installers are doing some great work in NZ.  In fact, there’s actually a very compelling business case to be made for quality grid-connect systems PV in NZ. But what about the business tools that let an SME manage, measure and report how their specific energy flows - and cash flows - are going. Are those tools available?

You may ask: “Why do we need them - isn’t the power bill good enough?”  Well, it’s true that the data is available each month, but what about acting on that data - as it happens? For example: say your target SME is a distributor with a large warehouse roof. Their hours of operation are standard daytime hours, which is when they use the majority of their power, lights, forklifts, computers. It would make sense for the solar energy hitting that vast roof to offset the power bills as much as possible.  With some smarts on maximizing locally-generated energy, turning things off, maximizing loads during sunny hours, you could provide empirical calculations on energy use for immediate reporting and financial forecasts.  Studies show that people who have a simple visualization of their energy use save between 5% and 15% on their power bill.  Add in intelligent solar PV self-consumption and we’re talking about active, web-based, holistic energy management.

Commercial Solar PV in New Zealand is happening, but perhaps not as fast or as broadly as you’d think, for a nation with so much sun.  This is because there’s no real assurance that the investment is going to be worth it.  And so far, not many examples of companies that have taken the step.  We see lots of smart-grid, smart-home promises for the future.  But when those solutions are coming from the labs of electricity retailers....that’s like buying Hen Management Services from Mr. Fox isn’t it? I mean, c’mon - how can we really get this in gear?

But things are changing, I’m thinking it might be more of a chicken-and-egg situation.  If there were an easy-to-implement, solid cloud-based software made available to SMEs, along with some case studies of the benefits, there would be a lot more takers of quality solar PV equipment to offset local consumption.  An SME wouldn’t have to invent something themselves, they wouldn’t have to take a risk as an early adopter.  Instead, they could quickly implement an existing proven system and tweak it for their business.  Business people - not technicians - could review the case studies of comparable firms and say “yep, this energy profile is very like ours - and hey, look at their results. We could do that.” The big picture result would be that, as a group, NZ SMEs could start using more locally-generated power. That means the local multiplier effect starts to kick in, and that leads to more local wealth. Real wealth, not the “wealth” of short-termers.  Plus, there’s the good practice of using more renewable energy in your local community. Cool! Why not collaborate here in NZ as engineers to provide those solutions for SMEs to act on their energy use - and start building some really advanced, site-specific solutions today?

One reason I say this is that there are a lot of solid technical options that are emerging to manage energy flows. Take a look at the JF2 LATA switch.  This is a reliable, affordable industrial CANbus switch that gives you switching as well as state information about each circuit.  Packaged in neat DIN rail compatible units, you can daisy-chain these devices across kilometers of warehouse, using standard CAT5 wiring.  Not only does it save AC wiring costs - because you can avoid AC runs to the switch - but it gives you intricate, durable remote control over a multitude of circuits. Control you can implement from secure cloud-based software.  And guess what? LATA is open source and made in New Zealand.

Configuring a SolarNetwork hardware compnent
But this is just the start. Here at Greenstage, we are building out that software framework, using an enterprise base, and Open Source licenses.  We talk to lots of different pieces of hardware (the LATA is just one example), in a very logical, repeatable and modular fashion - employing open standards wherever we can. Meanwhile, as computing becomes ubiquitous, powerful and inexpensive, the ability to automate the collection of energy information and provide actionable steps to enterprises is now available.  The need for energy - renewable energy especially - is only increasing as electric vehicles become available, while both petrol and grid power prices keep rising consistently over the long term. Can you see it? I believe that collectively, we can prime the pump by identifying SME’s requirements, and providing holistic solutions tailored to their business needs.  We can start doing this by building out a NZ-based toolkit that gives them actionable options on their energy information.

OK enough talking: who wants to join us on the journey?  Lets make this happen!