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Solar Data Needs Standards, Too

solarPVgeneric1The enormous task of setting smart grid standards has been at the top of the industry’s list for months. Now there’s a similar type of effort underway for data specifically related to monitoring solar. An industry group dubbed the SunSpec Alliance will officially launch on Tuesday at the Intersolar North America conference, where it will detail its plan to set standards for representing basic solar information, such as current, voltage and temperature, starting with the Modbus protocol for devices such as inverters, meters and other measurement devices.

The new group is made up of firms particularly interested in managing and monitoring solar data. It includes renewable energy-monitoring company Fat Spaniel; inverter manufacturer SMA; solar project developer Nautilus Solar Energy; Veris Industries, which makes energy and environmental sensors; and Campbell Scientific, which makes monitoring and measurement instruments.

The problem the group hopes to fix is that most renewable energy-monitoring products collect the same information, but report it in different ways. The networks are custom-engineered, which is fine if customers are building a large, centralized plant, but a major hassle if they’ve got different-sized plants scattered all over the place, said Tom Tansy, vice president of marketing for Fat Spaniel. According to him, the lack of standards sometimes leads to project delays as –- just as customers are ready to flip the switch –- tests make it clear that some of the equipment may not work well together. “The outcry among customers has been pretty loud,” he said.

While many standardization efforts are already underway, notably the NIST’s smart grid effort, so far they’ve been largely focused on the utility industry, said Tansy. The SunSpec Alliance, on the other hand, is focusing on open standards targeted specifically at renewable energy components in an effort to help them interact with IT systems. Tansy says the group plans to participate in the smart-grid standards process at the federal level and that “the time was right to put our two cents in.”

It makes sense for companies with a stake in the industry to get involved in the discussion. Standards can effectively choose winners and losers, as some technologies aren’t compatible with the standards that end up being selected. “That’s a risk,” Tansy said, adding that different potential standards ultimately have to compete on their merits. “There’s always a risk that once you start standardization, someone’s going to get left behind and we think that’s healthy [to have a standardized base of hardware].”

The initial SunSpec effort shouldn’t stir up too much controversy, though, as almost everyone already supports Modbus, Tandy said. “We’re going for a fairly low common denominator, where someone doesn’t have to do much except have their information come out in a certain way,” he said.

One reason to develop open standards and make partners could also be to help position companies to get part of the stimulus and other government funding. Fat Spaniel could be following this trend with this SunSpec alliance, in addition to its other recent solar partnerships with Regen Energy, Satel Spain and Meteotest.

Tandy said the company is indeed positioning itself for stimulus money, but that it’s mainly taking these steps to build a solid business model and be able to offer more services. Fat Spaniel is hoping to tap into stimulus money for an initiative — in conjunction with the University of California at Berkeley — to provide solar monitoring for California schools, and also is going after funding for a couple of R&D projects, he said.

Image courtesy of NREL.