Today, if it’s an unexpectedly warm winter’s day, I can turn down my home’s heating thermostat with just a few swipes on my smartphone, no matter where I am. Imagine if the same was possible with solar-powered systems during a prolonged period of bad weather.
By connecting off-grid solar-powered systems to the cloud, a city or utility official can monitor, control and manage street lights, telecom systems, security cameras, and other critical infrastructure from a smartphone — anywhere, anytime. This smart off-grid technology creates the potential for off-grid solar power to be a cost-effective and reliable alternative to traditional grid infrastructure, with the added advantage of allowing these systems to be installed anywhere.
Until now off-grid solar-powered systems have been stand-alone devices. As an example, consider a solar-powered streetlight. It has a pole, a light, a solar panel, a battery, and a controller that manages the power into and out of the battery. But if the battery goes dead due to lack of sunlight over many days, there used to be nothing to do but wait until the battery got enough energy to power the lights. That might take many days to occur.
While this is a relatively minor problem if you have just one or two solar-powered street lights, any complex utility infrastructure with tens or hundreds of street lights needs to be monitored and managed continuously to prevent the kind of widespread outages of critical infrastructure that can cause serious damage to communities and businesses. For solar-powered telecom or security systems that must be available all the time, outages of any length of time is unacceptable.
Wireless communications and cloud technology have already changed our lives in myriad ways; I can hail a taxi or buy tickets to a game all from my smartphone. Now these technologies are the key to powering reliable, off-grid systems.
Smart off-grid uses built-in networking to connect off-grid devices to cloud-based management and control software, and to continuously stream data from each system to the cloud. This provides a wealth of data points on all aspects of a solar-powered system, including battery charge and voltage readings, the status of all components, and more, via the Internet. It also provides predictive weather analysis, which estimates energy generation for the next six days based on current load and weather forecasts.
This revolutionizes how off-grid solar power is managed. Rather than isolated devices, the systems are connected by a communications network that enables proactive service and advanced management, and greater responsiveness to weather conditions and other potential risks.
For instance, smart off-grid solar-powered street lights have been installed by the City of Hamilton in Ontario, Canada, along the Niagara escarpment. This area is built on a unique geological formation, which would have meant tunneling through 2 kilometers of solid rock to connect the lights to the electric grid. But with smart off-grid technology, the city could install the lights at a fraction of the cost, and still provide a reliable lighting service.
Hamilton is also not too far from Niagara Falls, which spectacularly froze over during the recent bomb cyclone storm, so the weather can be pretty brutal in winter. For solar-powered systems, bad weather can be a perennial problem, as prolonged periods of low sunlight can drain battery power. Smart off-grid technology enables the system owner to monitor the solar-powered systems via the internet, and make temporary lighting profile changes to ensure the battery can continue to power the lights during such a period.
The ability to manage such smart off-grid systems via the cloud not only improves reliability, but also reduces the cost of installation and maintenance. This is a game-changer for making off-grid solar a more cost-competitive alternative to traditional grid infrastructure for governments and municipalities looking to keep costs down.
In my work today, I see growing demand worldwide for smart off-grid powered systems, as governments, municipalities and utility companies seek clean, cost-effective, and reliable alternatives to grid infrastructure. Smart off-grid technology will help to improve the lives of millions of people, including the one-quarter of the world’s population who currently live without access to reliable electricity via the grid. By providing access to clean, low-cost, dependable solar power, we can light schools and hospitals, power critical security systems, and connect communities and businesses to the Internet. This brings people living in areas previously without access to power into the modern, digital economy.