Innovative businesses help communities capitalize on solar
With recent innovations like Tesla’s solar shingles, the future of solar-powered living is looking bright. Still, supplying homes and businesses with affordable solar power is a complex undertaking.
“There’s a lot of moving parts to community solar,” according to Eric Dahnke, the founder and CEO of ProjectEconomics, a Brooklyn-based company that creates software that enables utilities and energy suppliers to distribute their products to customers.
Community solar, sometimes called a “solar garden,” is a solar array that’s installed offsite to serve more than one building, reports radio station WMOT. Community solar can provide access to renewable solar power to people who don’t want to or can’t install solar panels on their businesses or homes.
To jumpstart progress in the solar industry and extend solar power to more people, the Department of Energy recently awarded grants to 13 companies that are working on solar projects. One of these is ProjectEconomics.
The back end of community solar
ProjectEconomics is housed in the Urban Future Lab, “New York City’s hub for smart cities, clean energy, and smart grid technology,” according to the lab’s website. Eighteen other companies are part of the collective—many of these companies have also received financial support from the Department of Energy, according to Dahnke.
Harnessing, storing and delivering energy from offsite community solar panels to customers might sound simple. However, a lot of things take place behind the scenes for this energy transfer to occur.
Top-notch software is a key part of the equation. Specifically, utility companies need software that can communicate with solar farms, billing systems and customer management systems. At the same time, it also needs to provide a customer interface that’s “cohesive and understandable,” Dahnke said.
While ProjectEconomics focuses on the utility side of this equation, PowerMarket is another face of the same business that focuses on consumers.
The $1 million grant received by Dahnke’s company can only be applied toward improvements in the utilities side of the company, he said. ProjectEconomics provides software that enables companies like MIGreenPower and Rocky Mountain Power to deliver their products to consumers.
Using the PowerMarket side of the business, apartment complexes and other living communities in certain cities can now offer solar, wind and other sustainable energy sources to their tenants.
The cost of dirty solar panels
Another grant winner–San Luis Obispo, California-based FracSun–developed its ARES (Automatic Reference for Empirical Soiling) technology to take some of the grime out of solar power.
Dirty solar panels collect less solar energy than clean ones. According to one study, photovoltaic cells can lose more than one-fifth (or 20 percent) of the energy they would usually collect.
Just cleaning cells more often isn’t the solution, due to the expense. According to FracSun’s website, “the cost of washing a photovoltaic system can be quite a large portion of the operating and maintenance expenses.”
“The normalized cost for cleaning an array can be anywhere from $2 (t0) $4 per (kilowatt). This means that a 1,000kW system could cost $2,000 (to) $4,000 to clean,” the company says.
The company decided to create a technology that will let solar users know when springing for a wash-down is necessary to get the most out of their panels. That’s where ARES comes in.
A soil solution
How many ARES devices are needed to monitor an array depends on how much solar power the array is collecting, as well as the array’s proximity to agricultural or industrial operations.
In addition to measuring how dirty the array is, the device also collects other data, including how much energy the array is producing, how much it will cost to clean the array, the likelihood of rain in the forecast and more.
Cleaner solar panels for all
Officials hope to eventually bring the same concept to homeowners. FracSun is even working on “a shared model where many homeowners with PV systems in a neighborhood can operate a single shared (ARES) device and all benefit from the data of the one device.”
FracSun will use its federal grant money for product improvement and field testing at 11 large test sites this year.
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