Decentralized, digital, networked – in the new energy world, various players constantly exchange information to ensure that clean electricity is always available to and affordable for everyone. But how secure is this system? Prof. Bernd Engel, an expert in sustainable energy systems at the Technical University of Braunschweig, and Marek Seeger, Information Security Manager at SMA, discuss the risks and opportunities of the digital energy revolution.

 

Energy supply structures are changing all over the world. Energy companies are being split up and realigned, while more and more people and companies are gaining independence with self-generated electricity. In this context, experts often talk about the “digitization of the energy transition.” What exactly does this involve?

Bernd Engel: The electricity supply of the future will be almost entirely based on renewable energy sources and will therefore be environmentally friendly and free of pollutants – while also providing the same level of supply reliability and falling electricity prices. All around the world, wind and photovoltaic systems can increasingly produce energy more cost-effectively than new conventional power plants. They feed power into the utility grid on a decentralized basis whenever the sun is shining or the wind is blowing. For this reason, decentralized generators, storage systems and major flexible loads, such as electric vehicles and heat pumps, need to be managed in a targeted way. This allows them to consistently balance generation and consumption in the utility grid. For this to be successful, we need more communication links, including with small- and medium-sized generation plants. So far, only large-scale plants have been integrated into the grid operators’ special communication networks. In the future, however, smaller plants will also be able to directly participate in the energy market by pooling in “virtual power plants,” enabling them to supply electricity to consumers cost-effectively and directly, without having to go through electric utility companies. A fast and secure exchange of information between generators, consumers, grid operators and other players using modern communication channels thus forms the backbone of the future energy supply.

Many new opportunities are arising for generators and consumers

What effects will this have on consumers?

Bernd Engel: Increasing digitization will offer companies and private consumers more and more opportunities to get involved in shaping the energy transition: initially passively through their consumption patterns and later increasingly by also actively participating in the electricity markets. Consumers who also have their own PV systems can sell the electricity they do not use themselves directly over the Internet. If they also own a storage system, they can make the storage capacity available to offset generation and consumption in the utility grid in exchange for a fee. Through targeted management of their electrical appliances, it is also possible to take advantage of particularly cost-effective electricity rates and reduce grid shortages in times of high power generation. As a result, completely new business models are emerging in this area. Electricity prices will stop rising and instead fall – partly because progressively cost-effective photovoltaic power will be available. Photovoltaics will become the most cost-effective energy source and will therefore be a mainstay of the new energy world.

Marek Seeger: And as a result, being able to forecast PV power is becoming increasingly important. SMA already took a crucial step toward the future in this area last year. Around 290,000 PV systems worldwide are registered in our online platforms. We professionally record, analyze and archive the data they deliver and our SMA Energy Services solution makes these data available to transmission grid operators and energy dealers, allowing them to improve the integration of photovoltaic power into the grid and related marketing. Of course, we comply with the highest security and privacy standards in this process.

Speaking of data security – don’t inverters have to meet particularly high requirements in this area in the digital energy world? After all, they control the entire PV system, including feeding solar power into the grid.

Bernd Engel: Exactly. Inverters are the “brain” of every photovoltaic system. In addition to managing the PV array, they perform many grid services without which the utility grid could easily break down. The security requirements are therefore particularly high here. It must be ensured that no unnoticed “backdoor mechanisms” are installed that allow for cyber-attacks. Some countries do not shy away from attacking critical infrastructures in other countries, which always includes the electricity supply.

Marek Seeger: For this reason, it is also very important for manufacturers to be independent from government agencies and other such organizations. This is because if sensitive data is passed on, it could be used to cripple the electricity supply of an entire country in the worst-case scenario. At SMA, this independence is of course guaranteed. There are doubts, however, when it comes to some of our competitors from the Far East. In some cases, they are even excluded from public invitations to bid on projects related to critical infrastructure systems due to security concerns.

 

Inverters need to meet high security requirements

 

What else is SMA doing to protect its solutions from cyber-attacks?

Marek Seeger: IT security is right at the top of the agenda for us at both a strategic and an operational level. By means of firmly established processes and measures, we ensure that our solutions always meet the highest and most recent IT security requirements and comply with all international standards. An interdisciplinary team set up for this purpose works on developing and integrating secure system solutions. This begins early on during product development and extends to regular remote updates of device software in the field to ensure that it is always up to date. Information security is an extremely fascinating and important area that requires constant vigilance. Therefore, as the SMA Information Security Manager, I have continuous contact with all relevant company departments to ensure the highest security standards.

So what is your conclusion? Can we look forward to the decentralized, digital energy world of the future or should we worry about the risks?

Bernd Engel: The new energy world offers so many advantages to everyone involved. By rapidly switching to decentralized renewable energy sources, we can do more than succeed in containing climate change; in addition, the energy revolution also puts an end to the market power of individual states and corporations that supply fossil fuels. This gives more and more people access to an affordable and sustainable energy supply. The risks are completely manageable, provided all parties take the necessary protective measures.

Marek Seeger: I fully agree. As long as we raise and constantly improve awareness of security issues, there are a lot of opportunities in the digitization of the energy transition. It is not just the manufacturers that are called upon to do this but all of the parties involved, including consumers, when it comes to the selection of products and their secure connection.

 

Bernd, Marek, thank you very much for the interview.

Marek Seeger (left), Bernd Engel (right)

Marek Seeger (left), Prof. Bernd Engel (right)

About Marek Seeger

Even as a third-grader, Marek Seeger was fascinated by the PV cells in his calculator. After studying business information technology at the Technical University of Clausthal, he spent several years working as an auditor and consultant for information security. In 2015, he joined SMA as an Information Security Manager, a role in which he is able to perfectly combine his enthusiasm for renewable energy and IT security.

About Prof. Bernd Engel

After studying electrical engineering at the Technical University of Darmstadt, Prof. Bernd Engel initially worked on railway technology. From 2003 to 2011, he was responsible for inverter development at SMA. In 2011, Prof. Engel was invited to the Technical University of Braunschweig, where he now researches and teaches in the specialist field of sustainable energy system components. He also works on the topic of electrical energy supply as a member of several committees and working groups.

This Interview was first published in the annual report 2016. 

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Swiss company HopSol built the third largest PV farm in Namibia and connected it to the utility grid in just two years—with the help of SMA inverter technology and my colleague Manuel März. He told me what mining bees have to do with PV farms and the possibilities that this, at first glance rather inhospitable, country offers.karibib-sonnenuntergang

Namibia is, in many ways, something special. A wealth of natural resources and sunshine, an unstable public electricity supply and there is plenty of space—this combination makes Namibia an attractive location for large PV systems. The country is situated in southern Africa and is bordered by the Atlantic Ocean. However, the same stretch of coastline is taken up by the world’s oldest Namib desert. And with temperatures of over 50°C during the day and below 0°C at night, it is among the hottest and least inviting places imaginable.

“I was fascinated by the variety of the country,” said my colleague Manuel März, who was there in the spring. “There are as many giraffes as we have fallow deer. And some unique species, which can only be found there, live in the desert.”

Background Namibiaflagge-namibia_svg

The black rhinoceros defies the sand with extra-large feet and the desert elephant quenches its thirst by tracking down underground watercourses. Also unique to the area are: the gemsbok, which meet its need for fluids from solid foods alone; the Namib sand gecko, which does not burn its fan-shaped feet even in 70°C heat; and the welwitschia plant, which was named after its discoverer Friedrich Welwitsch, only produces a single pair of foliage leaves, and can live for up to 2,000 years. The welwitschia and gemsbok adorn the Namibian coat of arms.

Of course, Manuel wasn’t on safari in Namibia. He had a different mission: He was helping install a megawatt-class PV farm in Karibib, in the western part of the country. The small area is known for its pure black marble, which it exports around the world.

PV Power Plants Secure Electricity Supply

For Swiss solar company, HopSol AG, it was clear early on that a second look at this unique country was definitely worthwhile. For seven years, it has operated a subsidiary company with HopSol Africa in the capital city of Windhoek. The Swiss company has already built and commissioned three megawatt parks each with 5 MW of power within two years. HopSol’s activities as an independent power producer (IPP) include selling electric current to the national power company NamPower and regional electric utility companies.

karibib-solar-park-feb-2017

After Otjiwarongo in November 2015 and Otjozondjupa in June 2016, came the park in Karibib in March 2017. The 5-MW PV farm with 19,200 monocrystalline modules and 94 Sunny Tripower 60 inverters is connected to the utility grid and is expected to produce around 13,600 kWh of solar power for 3,600 households annually.

Solar energy with a twist

Solar energy with a twist

Robert Hopperdietzel, managing director of HopSol, shared his experience: “In Namibia, we are dealing with unique ambient conditions. The solar irradiation is very high so it is extremely hot and dry but can also sometimes rain heavily. We built the PV farm in heat of 50°C in the shade. All of a sudden, there was a heavy downpour, ruining all of the digging that had been done. That’s why for the inverters, we relied on SMA devices with high levels of efficiency. We also ran the modules on two-wheel trackers in the direction of the sun, to increase the energy yield by another 25 percent.”

Trackers follow the position of the sun increasing the energy yield by 25%

Trackers follow the position of the sun increasing the energy yield by 25%

The Sunny Tripower 60 combines the advantages of a decentralized PV system layout with those of a central inverter concept. This ensures high performance while also guaranteeing maximum planning flexibility. The SMA Inverter Manager is both the communications component and the interface for controlling the entire system, and handles all the important inverter and system management functions. “Against all odds, we completed the entire PV farm in just 12 weeks and even commissioned the system a month ahead of schedule,” said Hopperdietzel.

All in One With the Medium Voltage Power Station

A mining bee

A mining bee

The only drawback is that the inverters require a separate protective cover. Because the modules follow the sun using the tracker system, the inverters cannot even be installed under the module array as normally happens. There is another reason too, caused by the flora and fauna: “Mining bees and sand wasps here would colonize the inverters in a flash and clog the ventilation with their nests,” explained März. “As the operator, we want to prevent this, of course. Therefore, the current transformers, including the medium-voltage block, are well protected in a corrugated-iron hut with finely woven screen doors in front of the windows.”

For future projects, Hopperdietzel can also imagine reverting to SMA’s central inverters. Here, the SMA medium-voltage power station offers everything in one compact enclosure—there isn’t anything better. The storage version, Sunny Central Storage, is also becoming more and more of a topic at HopSol. “Then the energy supply would also be even more reliable in cloud coverage, and the general public could even continue using the solar power at night,” said März. A reliable electricity supply is an important step in the country’s economic development.

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Ninety-four Sunny Tripower inverters are installed in the area protected against mining bees.

Cost-Effective Solar Power Opens Up New Opportunities

Namibia’s economy is shaped by agriculture, tourism and fishing, as well as the mining of natural resources such as diamonds, uranium, gold, silver and copper. Being largely desert, as of mid-2016, the country had a population of approximately 2.5 million which equates to only 2.7 residents per square kilometer, making it one of the most sparsely populated countries in the world. The world’s average population density is 45 people per km2. To make a comparison, in the capital city of Windhoek there are 63 residents per km2, in Germany there are 230 residents per km2, the U.S. has 31 residents per km2, and South Africa, Namibia’s neighbor, has 36 residents per km2. Accordingly, grid expansion for supplying electricity to the population is difficult.

The national power company, NamPower, operates its own power plants but their capacities are not enough to meet demand. Therefore, NamPower also imports electric current from the South African Power Pool, to which the neighboring countries of South Africa, Zambia, Mozambique and Zimbabwe belong. These countries are also struggling with increasing domestic electricity demand, which means that prices are rising quickly and shortages are more and more frequent. For this reason, Namibia’s objective is to be able to meet demand on its own as much as possible by building up its capacities. And because the country is one of the sunniest regions in the world, with overall solar irradiation of more than 2,400 kWh/m2, solar energy already has lower generation costs here than conventional energy carriers.

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The utility grid in Namibia cannot always supply sufficient electricity on demand.

PV power plants are an appealing solution to rising electricity costs and to increase Namibia`s electrification rate, which is still less than 50 percent. Systems with power of 500 kW to 5 MW are given particular support by the Renewable Feed-In Tariff (REFIT). As an IPP, the PV farm operator signed an electricity consumption agreement with NamPower and receives a feed-in tariff of up to 1.37 N$/kWh (equivalent to €0.10, as of April 24, 2017) for solar power. This is economically attractive for operators and helps Namibia close gaps in the electricity supply.

Mining Operations Save Fuel With SMA Fuel Save Solution

Incidentally, mining operations in remote regions can also benefit from solar energy. With a photovoltaic diesel hybrid system, they integrate cost-effective solar power into their energy supply and, in doing so, reduce electricity costs and CO2 emissions. The SMA Fuel Save Controller controls the PV system and diesel generators, and enables efficient system operation with maximum grid stability. Find out more here.

Indian total installed energy generation capacity stood at over 320 GW (326848.53 MW) on 31st March 2017. Although the country has added 93.5 GW of power generation capacity within its ‘12th Five Year Plan’, more than 4000 villages in the country still remain without access to electricity, and power failures still plague the ever demanding lifestyle of city dwellers. Statistics show a distinct energy generation deficit in Northern (-1.8%), Eastern (-10.3%), and North- Eastern regions (-8.3%) in India. Although, energy transmission solutions are being implemented with the help of initiatives like UDAY, facilitating the availability of electricity to the farthest corners of India is still work in progress. Therefore, to realize the ‘100 per cent village electrification by May 2018’ announcement by Finance Minister Shri Arun Jaitley, the country needs to opt for new initiatives to spread light to rural areas.

Solar Can Save The Day

Solar rooftop installation offers a simple, speedy, and feasible solution to energy problems in rural areas in India. And factoring in that more than 60 per cent of the population lives in the villages, it is a necessity for India to spread the green energy revolution to the rural parts to see comprehensive growth. Rooftop solar solutions (mini-grid, off grid installations) can help in illuminating the areas still un-electrified.

Growth in Rooftop Solar Sector

Policies and schemes offering custom duty concession, tax holidays, excise duty exemption, and accelerated depreciation, for commercial and industrial sectors, have led rooftop solar installations to rise from 72 MW per year to 227 MW per year. Currently standing with more than 1 GW capacity, rooftop solar industry in India is promising at least 75 per cent growth in 2017 over 2016. Tamil Nadu (132 MW) is currently leading the country in rooftop installations, while Gujarat (69 MW) and Maharashtra (89 MW), are making huge strides to utilize rooftop solar solutions.

Besides facilitating the growth in commercial and industrial sector, India has also focused on residential installations to bring the common man into the fold of the green energy revolution. Foreign investment commitments of more than USD1.5 billion in this sector, 30 percent capital subsidy to residential and not-for-profit institutional investors, and implementation of net-metering facilities (30 of the total 36 states and UTs have net-metering policies) have led to incredible growth in the residential rooftop solar industry.

Solar Rooftop is Feasible

Besides the Government support and global acceptance, solar rooftop has another trump card up its sleeve to woo common man into rooting for green energy revolution. Recent study has proven that solar rooftop utilization is more feasible than the expenses burdened by the diesel generators. And this feasibility is expected to help people into making the right decisions for an energy rich future. Diesel generators are primarily used in the rural areas where grid connectivity is rare or non-existent. However, cities suffering from power cuts also use these generators to keep the lights on. Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) based study shows that diesel generators cost INR 15-20 per unit of electricity, while rooftop solar can generate electricity at INR 5-6 per unit. This study carefully analysed the residential installations in and around Delhi, Rajasthan, Haryana, and UP; and it clearly portrays solar rooftop solutions in a brighter light supported by facts.

And Considering The NGO Proposals:

  • To make rooftop solar installations mandatory for residential societies,
  • Ban generator sets, as they are expensive and not pollution proof,
  • Urging DISCOMS to support rooftop installation,
  • Support towards usage of mini-grid, and off-grid solar installations for houses and communities;

It is easy to understand that off grid and mini-grid rooftop solar can be the best options for extensive electrification of India at a faster rate.

Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) has explained that installing rooftop solar plants can promise a better generation at a much feasible rate even in the rainy season. CSE is also working on putting up a website with solar calculator for people to easily calculate their cost to energy if they go solar. Such developments will surely help people make the right decision, saving money, and the environment, while illuminating their homes.

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India’s aggressive push towards green energy shift is finally picking up speed, catching up with country’s current primary energy generation source, thermal energy. In FY 16-17, while the thermal energy generation capacity stood at 11.5 GW, renewable energy reached 11.3 GW capacity, promising to surpass thermal power in a short time span. It is great news for the country, since the government and private players have been shouldering challenging ventures to bring about drastic changes in the nation’s energy mix. From implementing new policies, to bringing in foreign investment for the renewable sector, the initiatives have finally shown results that the country hoped for. However, a curious mind will eventually find lack of symmetry in this growth, especially for solar.

India is Championing Solar

It is no secret that India has chosen solar to lead the green energy shift, due to its numerous benefits (such as- confirmed availability, increasing global acceptance, feasibility of installation, low maintenance, etc…) that far outweigh other sources of renewable energy. But surprisingly, solar has very little share in the recent growth of renewable energy that is contending thermal capacities.

A closer inspection reveals that the total capacity of the renewable energy sector has reached 57 GW. However, solar stands with only 12 GW of the cumulative capacity. Our Hon’ble Prime Minister, Shri Narendra Modi’s solar target announcement, which gave solar 100 GW target out of total 175 target capacity, makes solar the first priority of growth initiatives. However, the current scenario has faltered in realizing that growth.

It is also undeniable that Government backing and plethora of policies offering easy financing, long tenure loans, net metering, mandating solar installation in Government buildings, viability gap funding, and initiatives like International Solar Alliance have helped Indian solar sector to claim the position of the 3rd largest solar market in the world (overtaking Japan). The Indian Government has taken progressive initiatives and prompt decisions which have electrified more than 12000 villages and led India to double its capacity in 1 year (from 5 GW in 2015, to 10 GW in 2016).

However, in the similar vein, we also need to highlight that achieving the set targets of 100 GW, approximately 18 GW of capacity installation each year is needed for the next 4-5 years, which is more than 3 times the capacity it has added in 2016. And although doubling solar capacity in 1 year is a commendable feat, considering the lack of advanced industrial structure within the country, it has to be noted that India fell short to reach the set solar target in FY 16-17 by 6,474 MW. Therefore, we can state that the intensity of the efforts are coming up short in reaching the humungous solar target that India has established.

The Way Forward

Arguments about statistics aside, India has done a terrific job in moulding its energy infrastructure to welcome green energy revolution. All it needs, is a push in the right areas to bring about a symmetrical growth for renewable energy, where solar shines bright (since that is what solar reliance is all about).

  • Introducing more projects (especially DCR category)
  • Focusing on domestic manufacturing (just like China and USA has done)
  • Imposing anti-dumping (to create demand for domestic players and to maintain high quality modules for countrywide installation)
  • Speeding up the project awarding process after completion of auctions
  • Stabilizing tariffs (to attract more investors, and to protect project sustainability)
  • Establishing more R&D and quality control facilities (currently we have only 5)

Focusing on these primary challenges can help India to increase its solar installations and assure energy sustainability at the same time. We are still at the beginning of building our solar empire. Taking positive and bold decisions now, will have great impacts on our energy future. Therefore, we should all come together and join the solar revolution to make the next energy success a greener and brighter one.

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