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Remote monitoring of solar farms

01 August 2015

The UK’s largest solar farm is enabled for remote monitoring thanks to novel ITS2 Intelligent switches from ABB. These slimline units, integrated by Burnell Switchgear, have inbuilt metering and communications to enhance operations.

Solarcentury is one of the world’s leading solar energy companies, specialising in solar installation and photovoltaic (PV) systems for businesses who can either choose roof systems or ground mounted solar farms. In October 2014 Solarcentury approached ABB to supply low voltage products, including the latter's Slimline XR ITS2 intelligent tier switches, miniature circuit breakers and distribution boards.

The slimline XR ITS2 is a switch disconnector fuse, fitted with an intelligent metering and communication unit inside its casing. It is based on ABB’s new Emax 2 air circuit breaker technology. Conventional switches are used simply to isolate solar panels and other electrical equipment but ABB’s ITS can monitor voltage, current and power, and communicate with a high-level management system using the Modbus communications protocol to Solarcentury’s Solarmanager+ platform. Solarcentury head of engineering, David Minnis takes up the story:

“There is growing demand for technology that enhances the operation, monitoring and maintenance of solar farms. By choosing ABB’s slimline XR ITS2, Solarcentury has been able to offer solar farm operators a tool that keeps them informed about the solar farm’s productivity. Should a fault arise, the tool can identify the precise location so that it can be resolved quickly, helping to reduce maintenance costs.”

The order was placed via Burnell Switchgear, a supplier of bespoke electrical switchgear products, who designed and installed the packaged substations housing the ITS units, medium voltage switchgear and transformers. Solarcentury commissioned Burnell to deliver the power containers for several new solar farms, including the UK’s largest at Southwick near Portsmouth, which has a peak capacity of 48MW. Southwick is one of the first to use this technology for remote monitoring, an innovation that is hope will lead to enhanced operational efficiency.

“There is growing pressure on the solar industry to supply up-to-date information on the generation of power and the identification of potential faults, and as most solar farms are unmanned, remote monitoring is essential,” says Burnell’s John Blake. “We have for many years used the conventional ABB slimline switch in our normal course of business and the ITS2 intelligent switch is a welcome addition to the range. The compact design and simple installation keep costs in check whilst delivering the latest technology.”

In the event of a fault or a blown fuse at a solar farm, the ITS will detect a voltage drop and transmit its readings to a control centre. The voltage drop will set off an alarm and identify exactly where the fault lies, prompting a technician to visit the site with the right equipment and spares to rectify it - all without having to undertake an on-site investigation.

Another benefit of the switch is that the plant’s operator is able to monitor production in real-time and this knowledge gives security and confidence in the plant’s operation, setting a benchmark for environmental sustainability in solar farm operation.

In the case of Southwick solar farm, Solarcentury installed a total of 340 slimline XR ITS2 switches in 20 cabinets that additionally contain inverters and miniature circuit breakers (also supplied by ABB), as well as 400V/33kV transformers and switchgear, which control power injected into the local distribution network. The switches monitor voltage of key infrastructure, which is transmitted to a remote control centre in London. David Minnis again:

“We have over 80,000 data points being monitored at Southwick in near real-time. This is a leap forward in terms of solar asset monitoring and using ABB technology has helped us achieve this.”

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