Image credits: Karsten Würth
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News Article

What Can Industry 4.0 Bring to Solar?

By Cas Biekmann | Fri, 05/08/2020 - 14:25

Solar tech is in a state of constant innovation. Whether it is research from the US by NREL or state-of-the art inventions by Chinese players, such as Trina Solar, records in terms of efficiency and flexibility seem to be set only to be broken after. Innovation in this sector is mostly related to solar energy’s core components: photovoltaic panels. Yet, in the sphere of operation and maintenance, efficiency can be ramped up while costs are reduced. As the world shifts to Industry 4.0, Mexico’s own solar sector stands to benefit from various innovations.

According to the International Journal of Energy Research, Industry 4.0 is marked by ‘smart plants’, in which all separate units are interconnected through IoT. AI helps units operate on their own, whereas machine learning makes the entire process ever smarter. While it is certainly not yet possible to run a photovoltaic park remotely and without staff, operations can run smoother and more cost efficiently by reducing staff and tracking where maintenance is needed.

Huawei developed its first AI-based solar inverter in 2019, reported PV Magazine. The company has bigger plans for the concept of AI, however. The year 2020 “will witness the comprehensive integration of cloud, AI and 5G technologies,” said the company. Huawei presented an ‘AI roadmap,’ in which it outlined that it would integrate AI into its string inverters, turning them into smart PV controllers. Furthermore, the company is developing AI inference modules. AI training and inference will be done via a platform. The goal is not to replace people working on operations just yet, although technology will eventually displace workers. Instead, Huawei aims to take repetitive and dangerous work from human personnel, saving time and money and increasing safety. While Mexico does have access to cheaper labor in comparison with the US or Europe, there are few benefits from doing dangerous, uninteresting work with a low-cost workforce. Adequately training personnel to oversee automated processes would be a much more suitable job.

Today, PV Magazine reported about French startup Solean, which aims to make the entire production process of PV panels automated. In fact, they already developed their stringer, which they claim can bring solar panel production back to Europe at increased flexibility. In times of a pandemic, it is easy to imagine the benefits of module production in this manner.

Big advantages can also be found in how solar energy is used. By applying blockchain, the Swiss town Walenstadt has an entire neighborhood participating in a solar power trading market. This technology opens up space for micro-suppliers to generate money from their surplus energy and could for instance be applied in Mexico’s increasingly important distributed generation. Even larger scale producers could end up participating in the chain.

Photo by:   Karsten Würth
Cas Biekmann Cas Biekmann Journalist and Industry Analyst