Digital solutions to the solar scaling problem

By Andreas Wabbes, solar engineer and software product owner, PVC complete

The solar industry, like many other market segments since 2020, faces several challenges that prevent it from scaling up to the level needed to meet the goals of the Climate Agreement.

Expectations for scaling the solar energy market are hampered by varying equipment costs, labor shortages and uncertainty related to performance, transmission upgrades and land availability. These challenges combined with the schedules expected by companies and public buyers to meet their climate targets make the current PV development environment very challenging.

If we are to realize the promise and global necessity of solar on a mass scale, solar developers need tools to address these scarcity and uncertainty barriers.

Tools that reduce soft costs and free up technical resources by automating, optimizing and streamlining early development tasks for large numbers of projects can make a world of difference to a solar developer, especially when faced with highly competitive projects that could end in a long interconnect queue with little chance of being built.

At the same time, while speed and soft cost savings are critical, PV designers still need the flexibility to model installations in increasingly challenging terrain and adapt to local requirements on a project-to-project basis.

Advanced multidisciplinary solar software that can automate early design and optimization steps where possible, without limiting design engineering, is a powerful advantage when scalability is hampered by scarcity or uncertainty.

Land and transport capacity

The more solar projects we build, the scarcer the land and transmission capacity becomes – especially flat land with suitable soil conditions and high solar sources near transmission lines with available capacity.

PV developers from California to the Netherlands and other areas with rapid solar PV market expansion often gain access to the grid after significant delays (and in some cases, no access at all), in part because each grid expansion usually takes a long time takes longer than solar energy. In the US, more than 600 GW of solar photovoltaics are queuing for interconnection as wait times continue to increase and completion rates decline.

Revised regulations and interconnection reforms are urgently needed, but the problem remains that for a developer to make an informed decision based on uncertain information, all scenarios must be preliminarily designed, optimized and modeled. Doing this with limited technical resources and increasing costs and time constraints requires advanced solar software that can convert a largely iterative manual process into an integrated digital one. Advances in computer technology now allow us to automatically deal with terrain and component constraints to assess various mounting options, thousands of parametric sweeps comparing different design options of DC:AC ratio, ground cover ratio, azimuth and skewness to maximize preliminary project economics and generate designs that integrate seamlessly into CAD software for more detailed topographical analysis, final engineering and documentation in a matter of minutes .

Having more software-based insights into where to build and how to design projects in less-than-ideal terrain can help reduce project development risk and uncertainty.

For example, with fast iteration and modeling tools for design engineering, solar design software can help developers evaluate whether the energy yield and project economics within the fence are realized by building a solar power plant far from a transmission line with sufficient free capacity on a flat rectangular plot of land with many solar energy, but an expensive interconnection is more or less economically viable than building a PV plant on fragmented or variable terrain — such as parcels of land embrace farmers’ fields, follow the contours of hills, follow the boundaries of cloverleaf highways or bypass wetlands, waterways and other precious natural resources – that’s right next to a limited capacity transmission line.

For the project shown in Figure A, a developer chose to focus development resources on these 25 MWAC project close to an available grid interconnection point on hilly terrain rather than expanding grid infrastructure on a plot with more ideal terrain and solar conditions. Despite a 3% reduction in specific yield (kWh/kWp), an integrated analysis of site, topography, yield, project and interconnection costs showed that this project resulted in a lower optimal LCoE (see Figure B) with a higher chance of completion. Using advanced solar software, this analysis and optimization was completed in a few hours, while previous processes required days or even weeks of iterations.

Figure A: A detailed 3D surface model showing slope and buildable area based on equipment specifications.

Figure B: 3D graph showing the GCR and DC:AC ratio resulting in the lowest LCoE for this project.

You can see how advanced solar software enables us to make informed decisions and propose more projects at once, leading to a greater chance of success at a lower cost

Changing cost structures and supply chain issues

Where PV projects in the past were characterized by a module-dominated cost structure and fixed or predictable rates, a lot has changed in recent years. The cost of modules has fallen significantly faster than the balance of system, installation and other costs, to the extent that the latter have become the dominant cost drivers in utility-scale PV projects in some regions. As shown in Figure C, this trend is expected to continue for utility-scale fixed tilt PV systems (source BNEF). This changing cost structure has resulted in denser and larger (high DC/AC ratio) PV projects and makes it difficult for PV designers to continue relying on generalized specific yield heuristics to define the optimal project design vector.

In addition, ongoing pandemic-related supply chain problems and the lingering effects of uncertainty over US tariffs have slowed the deployment of gigawatts of capacity. As a result, developers need flexibility to use components that are available at the time of construction and to quickly adapt designs to the specifications and limitations of those components.

Once again, advanced solar software is needed that can quickly cycle through entire design vectors on a project-to-project basis, to give PV designers and developers the insight and flexibility needed to adapt their designs to changing markets and local regulations. It also makes it possible to keep projects on track even if equipment needs to be changed, sometimes several times before a site is built.

Shift to multidisciplinary PV design and analysis

Like many industries, the solar industry has reached a maturity and complexity where traditional engineering practices must be adapted to continue scaling it to the levels necessary to achieve net-zero carbon.

The process of developing a utility-scale PV installation normally requires the expertise of several disciplinary teams – each with a specific performance-related goal. GIS teams search for suitable sites closest to network infrastructure, procurement teams search for high quality equipment with lowest cost, performance teams optimize yield within heuristic constraints, civil and electrical teams design cost-driven civil and electrical layout and finance teams evaluate the project economy . In the traditional approach, each team incorporates its insights and recommendations in a sequential and iterative manner until a workable design is achieved.

Advanced solar software heralds a new era of multidisciplinary design optimization (MDO), incorporating all relevant disciplines and inputs into the development process simultaneously. As solar projects become more complex, software facilitates information sharing and enables multidisciplinary teams to use a shared platform as a “single source of truth”. The approach ensures that every step of the development process is seamlessly informed by the analysis that has already been performed, making all teams more efficient and effective in their roles as they are able to understand the impact of their specific design action on the ultimate design goal. Integrated, advanced toolsets and advanced modeling tools enable teams to work towards a common goal in a multidisciplinary, streamlined and flexible way.

Overcoming scarcity and uncertainty

The solar industry faces the very real threat that scarcity and uncertainty will lead to fewer projects being completed. While many factors will continue to influence the scale of the solar industry, the ability of advanced solar software to reduce soft costs, optimize technical resources, manage complexity, and enable greater project design flexibility provides PV developers with powerful tools to scarcity and uncertainty, improve optimization and economy and bring more projects to a successful conclusion.

Andreas Wabbes is a solar engineer and software product owner at PVComplete, a solar design software company. With a degree in Electrical Power Engineering from Ghent University, he has extensive expertise in PV design optimization products.

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