Let’s talk IoT for solar farms. Solar farms are becoming an increasingly viable option for energy production as conventional energy generation is becoming more expensive. While a solar farm is metered in real-time to determine its overall revenue, individual panels within a farm are typically not monitored. With the development of the Internet of Things, it is possible to attach sensors to individual solar panels in a solar farm. The numerous benefits include granular real-time status monitoring, real-time correction, and predictive analytics.
An IoT sensor on an individual solar panel can monitor specific parameters of that panel such as energy output, temperature, tilt angle, and cardinal direction. This granularity gives solar farm managers peace of mind, allowing them to monitor and correct issues with specific panels quickly. They can get a quick visual overview of panel output through color and location, as shown in our solar farm use case.
Through this overview, the solar farm manager can get insight into problems with a specific panel, rather than just seeing a decrease in overall performance of a farm. For example, if a panel is exhibiting an incorrect tilt angle, a maintenance team can be sent to repair the panel’s tracking system.
With an IoT sensor per panel, issues can more easily be identified in particular layers of the IoT system. If a particular panel stops reporting its data, then we can assume it is most likely not a network issue. However, if a group of panels stops reporting, we are more likely to assume there is a network issue. Before implementing IoT sensors, if we stopped receiving data, it would be hard to tell if the meter was broken or all the panels just stopped working.
Since we can now collect the energy output and efficiency of individual panels, we can proactively replace or repair panels that are low producers. This has a huge benefit compared to replacing batches of panels in close physical proximity to each other based on age. The solar farm will then have increased energy production in the long-term.
Also based off the weather, solar farm managers can run predictive analytics to prepare the power grid for future power consumption. If there is a prediction of particularly high cloud cover on a certain day, then the output for other sources of energy can be increased to compensate for the loss in solar energy.
“Ok wait a second. Aren’t there more security vulnerabilities because there is an IoT sensor on every solar panel?” This is a completely valid concern because we are introducing many more points of attack. However, there have been, and there will continue to be, enhancements to secure IoT sensors from malicious attacks.
One approach is hardware root of trust, a new IoT security solution by Google Cloud IoT Core and Microchip. I will go over this briefly, but please read the linked article for a more in-depth explanation.
Devices can securely connect to Google Cloud IoT Core with a token signed by a private key and Cloud IoT Core can validate the device using the corresponding public key. Microchip manufactures CryptoAuthentication chips which generate their own public/private key pair to encrypt device messages. The beauty of this is that the tamper-hardened CryptoAuthentication chip is separate from the device’s main processor, so even the device cannot directly access its private key.
Once the data reaches the cloud, security is that of a typical cloud system. Overall, the security is greatly improved using something like a Hardware Root of Trust.
Overall, IoT will improve the efficiency of solar farms and make them more accessible. Particularly, sensors will allow solar farm managers to identify problems with specific panels as well as within layers of an IoT system.