Go Digital to Go Solar

By: Sonia Dunlop, Policy Advisor

The increasing digitalisation of the electricity system is not just an end in and of itself - it is what will allow us to integrate more renewables, like solar, into the power system and decarbonise our electricity supply. In these important weeks ahead of COP23 in Bonn, policy makers should not consider these as two isolated trends. Renewable energy and digitalisation go hand in hand.

Digitalisation can help solve many of the challenges emerging from the increasing shares of variable renewables connected to the grid, and can avoid knee-jerk policies that try to solve new problems with old solutions. Recent moves in the US to encourage conventional generators such as coal, nuclear and hydro to stockpile 90 days-worth of fuel to guarantee their rate of return, in the name of grid resilience, are an example of such backward thinking. In the EU, capacity mechanisms are increasingly being used as a default when they should only be an absolute last resort.

SolarPower Europe has recently published a new report on 'Digitalisation & Solar', which is thought to be the world's first report to specifically analyse how new digital technology can be applied to solar to create new business models and digitalise the whole value chain. This is echoed in the International Energy Agency's report Digitalization & Energy released this week, which highlights the importance of digitalisation to boost the energy transition in a more cost-efficient way compared to old-fashioned capacity mechanisms. Ultimately, the goal is to increase solar deployment, reduce costs and increase performance.

The report also looks at the benefits of digitalisation from a system perspective, and how grid integration can be done in a smarter way. Smart grids with full sensoring and control, digitally-enabled demand response and storage could reduce the curtailment of renewables like wind and solar dramatically. Using algorithms to better manage congestion can allow the system to use abundant and cheap renewables when they are available, while reducing the carbon emissions from the grid. The alternative is system operators being forced to curtail renewables in a 'blind' way, which could result in a solar or wind plant being disconnected from the grid at the same time a coal plant is fired up. This cannot be a rational option in the context of the climate agenda.

New technology can deliver flexibility in all its forms - demand and supply side, on-site and market-based. Real time price signals and building automation are key to enabling consumers and businesses to respond to peaks and troughs in supply and demand. Advanced modelling can make better use of cross-border interconnection capacity, netting flows across borders and thereby maximising the use of the existing infrastructure.

Smart, grid-responsive storage optimises solar feed-in which in turn can increase local grid capacity by 66%. Intelligent control of PV inverters by distribution system operators can increase the capacity of the network for hosting distributed generation by 50%. Analysis has shown that a combination of solar and digitalised 'grid supporting' storage can double the grid capacity to absorb solar feed-in without any other additional infrastructure.

Digitalisation can also facilitate better planning in the system, as it allows for solar and wind operators to forecast their output more accurately. The Digitalisation & Solar report shows how a combination of advanced computer modelled weather forecasting, satellite irradiation data, sky imaging technologies and self-learning algorithms are allowing forecasting providers to constantly increase the confidence with which they can deliver predictions to system operators. Some system operators are going even further, sourcing real-time distributed solar generation data to manage increasing solar power in the system at a lower cost.

On top of all this, there is the potential of blockchain distributed ledger technology. In the report, SolarPower Europe examined, in almost every section, what in theory blockchain could do. SolarPower Europe sees blockchain as a key enabler - the technology of course needs to demonstrate its value, and overcome challenges of speed and resource intensiveness - we fully recognise how this could potentially revolutionise the way electricity markets operate. Blockchain could for example on a minute-by-minute basis log the when, where and who of all electricity supply and consumption. Smart contracts on platforms like Ethereum can be constantly buying and selling power on behalf of customers when the price is right, switching suppliers many times in short time periods. Cryptocurrencies could reward renewable electricity with additional value in jurisdictions where the economics of solar are still developing.

The prospects for creative young minds to put their talent towards finding new solutions that make business sense, support the deployment of solar and solve the climate challenge are immense. The opportunity to go digital, to do more solar is there for the taking. Both solar and digitalisation also contribute to those other buzzwords of the energy transition - decentralisation and democratisation - opening up new options for all to become solar prosumers and revolutionise the energy sector. 


This article was written originally for the #Renewables4Climate campaign, done in coalition with IRENA.