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Overcoming interoperability challenges

Image: Adobe Stock / liliya

The Internet of Things (IoT) has already enabled unprecedented levels of connectivity, data collection, and analysis across industry, and the renewables sector is no exception.

IoT devices can be used to monitor the performance of renewable energy assets such as turbines and generators, utilising real-time data to improve efficiency and reduce downtime.

But these devices rely on interoperability to function effectively. IoT devices must be able to communicate with each other and other systems, such as cloud-based platforms and data integration tools to deliver increased efficiency, cost reduction and improved sustainability.

Why interoperability matters

In the renewables sector, interoperability is essential for ensuring that all hardware and software systems can communicate with each other, regardless of the manufacturer or technology used. As renewable energy assets are often located in remote locations, where terrestrial coverage is intermittent or unavailable, it can be difficult to maintain connectivity and monitor performance.

Real-time data exchange between different systems. allows for more accurate and comprehensive data management. Given the inherent unpredictability of wind, sun, and water patterns, the ability to improve the speed and accuracy of output forecasting can be a game changer.

This data can also be used to inform predictive maintenance, ensuring at-risk parts are replaced before failure, avoiding costly downtime. The early detection of turbine damage, for example, can save wind farm owners millions annually. And the same goes in myriad other examples in solar and other renewable settings and environments where early intervention is crucial.

What’s more, interoperability makes it easier to add new systems and devices to existing infrastructure, making it more scalable and adaptable to changing energy needs. This is especially important in the renewables industry, where new sources of energy are constantly being developed and added to existing energy systems – secure, stable connectivity with the grid is essential.

Interoperability challenges faced by the renewables industry

One of the most significant challenges to achieving interoperability is communication and integration issues between different hardware and software systems. Renewable energy systems are often composed of different components and technologies that may not be compatible with each other. For example, solar panels from one manufacturer may not be able to communicate effectively with inverters from another manufacturer. This can result in inefficiencies, data silos and increased costs.

Interoperability can increase the vulnerability of renewable energy systems to cyber-attacks. When different systems and devices are connected and exchanging data, it can create new attack vectors that may not have been considered in the design of the original system.

In addition, currently there is no universally accepted standard for renewable energy systems, which can make it difficult for different systems to communicate and exchange data effectively. This can lead to inefficiencies, reduced data quality, and increased costs.

What’s more, often renewable energy assets, such as wind turbines or solar farms, are located in remote areas. These areas may experience intermittent or even complete lack of traditional terrestrial coverage, which can make it difficult to establish reliable connection for data exchange and remote monitoring.

The importance of resilient and ubiquitous connectivity

At present, a mere 15% of the earth’s surface is supported by conventional terrestrial communications infrastructure, some of which is complex, vulnerable, and expensive to maintain. Satellites in contrast, can provide global coverage and are comparatively resilient – unaffected by, for instance, natural disasters.

In our own blog, The role of 5G and Satellite technology in Industry 4.0, we discussed the three key areas where satellite can complement 5G and terrestrial networks, augmenting network reach to include rural, remote areas, embedding redundancy and, of course, additional backhaul capability.

As assets such as reservoirs and wind turbines are in remote, rugged environments often it’s not financially viable to build or maintain the infrastructure required to support these assets via terrestrial or fibre connectivity. In fact, a recent survey by Inmarsat found that 91% of business leaders felt satellite connectivity was key to improving the effectiveness of IoT solutions.

Perhaps unsurprisingly then, satellite has become an increasingly popular solution for assets outside traditional terrestrial coverage to ensure reliable, blanket network coverage.

Important considerations for satellite integration

Some integration challenges are regulatory (spectrum allocation and licensing, for example), while others are capital, not least the cost of deploying satellite-enabled devices. But in short, hardware compatibility and power management are important considerations for anyone looking to introduce satellite IoT modules into their network.

Satellite IoT modules typically use different communication protocols and hardware interfaces than traditional IoT devices, so it is important to ensure that the modules you select are compatible with your existing hardware and software infrastructure. Selecting modules which support the communication protocols and physical interfaces required by your network is key.

In addition, satellite IoT modules may require different power management strategies due to their reliance on satellite connectivity and potentially long battery life requirements. So it is important to select modules that are designed to operate efficiently in low-power environments, and to implement power management strategies that minimise power consumption and maximise battery life.

Finally – cost. Due to the added complexity and technology required to support satellite networks, satellite modules and indeed satellite airtime, can be more expensive. However, there are several ways this can be integrated within your network to ensure you get the right balance of performance and cost. Just one such example, in the case of one of our customers managing a water treatment works; sensors utilised LoRaWAN to transmit data to a hub, the hub then optimised the data payload to reduce transmission costs, and transmitted this via satellite only when cellular connectivity was unavailable. This solution has proved very successful and stands as a great showcase of the possibilities available with integrated networks.

Seamless network integration

Thinking about interoperability and integration more generally, it is key renewables organisations evaluating hardware and software solutions, consider systems and components that are designed to work together. Though not always possible, it’s important to consider factors such as compatibility, data exchange standards, and communication protocols. By choosing solutions that are designed to work together, companies can streamline communication and improve efficiency.

APIs provide a standardised way for different systems to communicate and exchange data, while data integration tools enable companies to consolidate and manage data from multiple sources. By leveraging these tools, companies can improve data quality, reduce data silos, and streamline communication between different systems. Simply, APIs and data integration tools are powerful tools for achieving interoperability.

Moreover, cloud-based solutions can play a critical role in enabling remote connectivity for renewable energy systems. By storing data in the cloud, companies can access data from anywhere with an internet connection, enabling remote monitoring and management of renewable energy systems. Cloud-based solutions also provide a scalable and cost-effective way to store and manage data, enabling companies to optimise energy resources more effectively.

Managing growth, and costs

In Europe, solar and wind power generated 22% of all electricity in 2022 according to European Electricity Review 2023 – outstripping fossil fuel (20%) for the first time. However, according to Wood Mackenzie Power, $8.5 billion was being spent on unplanned repairs and corrections caused by component failures in wind operations.

Though the substantial growth in renewables demonstrates a clear appetite for the global commitment to hit eco targets, this must be balanced with managing economic investment. Given that many of these costs can be mitigated with reliable monitoring and control, preventative maintenance, especially for devices in hard-to-reach areas; it’s no great surprise that satellite IoT is becoming increasingly popular within the renewables sector.

Ultimately, the renewables industry has had to cope with managing remote and harsh environments for many years and has done so adeptly, evolving with the technology to support remote management. There will always be challenges of course, but with satellite, issues associated with operation visibility and control could be a thing of the past. With the availability of reliable connectivity anywhere on the planet, renewables operators have the chance to turn what was once a major challenge, into a cost saving, and efficiency bearing advantage.

Picture of Alastair Macleod
Alastair Macleod
CEO at Ground Control

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