SINSW – Solar monitoring upgrade

CSIRO & AIRAH – 1m ARENA funded energy control and integration program in NSW schools

Executive summary

The solar metering and monitoring upgrade solution enabled Schools Infrastructure NSW (SINSW) to avoid direct upgrade costs, eliminated vendor ‘lock-in’, and facilitated quality information and analytics to better monitor and analyse plant and equipment across the portfolio of 2,300 NSW schools.

The approach involved the design and implementation of communications systems to supplant existing systems that were no longer supported. As a result, the solution delivered over $500 thousand savings due to avoided hardware upgrade costs to be passed on by the original solar monitoring vendor. The solution facilitated data ingestion and monitoring of inverters, integrated with electricity gate metering for analytics and enabled various smart controlled energy quality, network, and market applications.

Our smart sensor strategy and approach enabled Schools Infrastructure NSW to take ownership and control of their solar technology strategy state-wide.

Website: SINSW

Budget: $1m

Location: Australia

Industry: IT design & infrastructure

Key outcomes

$500k avoided infrastructure upgrades

Avoided vendor lock-in

Enabled energy demand response, power quality & network services

Strengthened solar monitoring network security

Challenges – the many

SINSW has approximately 2,300 schools across the state, 1600 of which have solar PV systems. Typically, a vendor solution (SMA ‘Sunny WebBox’) was used for monitoring the systems through a variety of devices. This mix of failing technologies restricted data access and visibility and impeded the operational efficiency and effectiveness of solar PV assets across the portfolio.

The lack of solar monitoring capability created the following challenges for SINSW:

  • Lack of ‘off-the-shelf’ options due to the proprietary nature of the Vendor’s technology, creating a vendor ‘lock-in’ scenario whereby the client has,

    • A single, high-cost upgrade option,
    • Additional integration complexity due to incompatible data protocols that created communication issues,
    • Incompatibilities with external systems that limit data analysis tasks outside of the vendor’s system, and
    • Reliance on external software upgrades to maintain systems security and integrity.
  • A reactive energy management strategy that relies on procurement arrangements with retailers, billing analysis and or wait until it breaks responses to issues on site. In our experience, this can only provide limited benefits and interoperability with other systems and services.

As a result of these issues, we provided various uplift procedures to supplant redundant and ineffective devices across the portfolio.

Advanced energy management – applied

In the past, data was collected by an interface device known as the SMA ‘Sunny WebBox’ to relay to the Sunny Portal for monitoring of energy production by the SINSW. The device was no longer supported (legacy device) and required replacement via various uplift procedures to realise data and analytics from each PV system across the portfolio.

Each system in its uplifted state fed data from the solar PV setup to be communicated to the school’s SINSW network via Modbus TCP protocol into the local integration layer (IL) for analysis and insights into operational performance.

The project required an ‘as built’ asset device review to understand common devices onsite in order to re-establish communications. This review uncovered multiple versions of WebBox communication devices and downstream inverters that were not being automatically updated to their latest firmware.

Uplift procedures were specified for each unique WebBox scenario to enable the flow of data between devices. This required asset validation across the school’s portfolio, specifications on solar inverters, WebBox versions and other data connectivity products as well as sensors and electricity meters.

The uplift solutions were drafted into an uplift manual to cover the various devices and requirements. The document functioned to provide detailed instructions for installers to update/install infrastructure required for remote data gathering and operation of solar plant and equipment. The resulting uplift procedures enabled firmware to be updated for data access and analytics to be run across the portfolio.

Key benefits – realised

The solar systems uplift for schools required forward thinking. A largely single vendor-dominant asset base in a vertically integrated technology stack is a path to high-cost solutions and in the case of a government department, increased cost to taxpayers. The solution considered device, format and protocol standardisation to enable operation inside and outside of a single vendor’s system.

Our solution eliminated SMA vendor ‘lock-in’ saving 500k in infrastructure upgrades by avoiding the need to upgrade all WebBox’s across the school’s portfolio.

A preliminary cost-benefit analysis was conducted to determine high-level cost of equipment installation vs short term benefit of avoided vendor technology upgrades. From this analysis it was determined that the solution had a minimum 2.5x BCR and an immediate payback period over BAU.

The solution enabled smart controls in buildings to optimise thermal comfort, reduce emissions and generate cost savings for owners and occupants of smart buildings.

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