Dr James Kenneth Ryder Watson
Dr Watson is the Chief Executive of SolarPower Europe, a role he has held since July 2014. SolarPower Europe represents all the solar companies active on the European market, as well as the national solar associations.
Prior to taking the helm at SolarPower Europe, Dr Watson worked as the Director of Public Affairs for Weber Shandwick, specialising in energy and trade policy for 7 years. Before coming to Brussels, Dr Watson worked for the Commonwealth Secretariat on a European Commission project on trade and sustainable development based in Ethiopia. Earlier in his career James worked for various UK government bodies in London and worked as a lecturer in Environmental Law at the University of Manchester.
He holds a Ph.D in International Trade and Environmental Law from the University of Leeds, and is currently a Visiting Professor at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel.
Worker Information System © SMA Solar Technology
There is vast potential for new digital technology to increase the deployment of solar in Europe. It was this potential that in many ways led SolarPower Europe to set up our Digitalisation & Solar Task Force and work with our members to examine this trend in detail. This led to the launch of our report, Digitalisation & Solar, thought to be the first study of its kind to look specifically at how digital technology can intersect with the solar industry.One of the huge trends currently transforming the energy sector is digitalisation. This involves the application of new digital technology, such as low-cost cloud computing, the internet of things, big data analytics and blockchain to energy. In this new energy world, solar and digitalisation have emerged as a natural fit, as both help democratise and decentralise our electricity supply.
But how exactly could new Information Technology (IT) and connectivity put more solar on the roofs and fields of Europe?
When it comes to building-mounted self-consumption solar systems, digital smart building technology can go a long way to increasing self-consumption rates, optimising grid feed-in and therefore increasing the profitability of solar installations. If the theoretical holy grail within the self-consumption business model is 100% self-consumption, smart tech promises to be an important tool for realising this goal.
The essential component of a smart building is the energy management system, which should be designed to combine accurate forecasting of solar generation with artificial intelligence to optimise generation and demand. Just as important are the smart building appliances, electric heating and cooling with smart thermostats, smart electric vehicle charging, and last but not least, battery storage. All of these technologies form the 'smart building package' in which solar plays an integral role. A good example of this is the new EnnexOS energy management system from SMA Solar Technology, which links together solar PV, battery storage, gas, EVs and much else in one platform.
'Today, over 50 leading companies have signed SolarPower Europe’s Go Digital declaration, calling for more solar digitalisation.'
There is huge potential for new digital technology to increase the penetration of solar on apartment blocks and multi-occupancy commercial buildings. If you go to the tallest building in almost any European city and look down at the roofscape, you will notice that very few roofs have solar panels. In London, solar is currently installed on just 0.5 per cent of the city’s 3.4 million homes. The reason is that most of these roofs are shared between multiple landlords and tenants, creating a landlord-tenant dilemma. The full roll-out of smart metering – together with regulatory change at both EU and national level – can help to overcome this challenge. New business models are emerging in Germany and France, such as the Mieterstrom solar supply model, that allow electricity generated on a shared roof to be sub-metered and distributed among the occupants of a building.
Digitalisation can also be put to good use to reduce costs right across the solar value chain, both in the utility-scale and rooftop markets. Lower cost solar equals more solar. A great example of this is how satellite mapping and remote design software can reduce the cost and time required for customer acquisition and installation design in rooftop solar. Google Project Sunroof, E.ON, IKEA, Aurora Solar, PVSol, PVSyst and Ezzing Solar are all examples of companies using this concept. In national markets, where a lack of trust in solar installers can act as a barrier to customers signing on the dotted line, having big, credible brands behind customer acquisition can make a big difference to clinching the final deal.
Wider digitalisation can contribute to new schemes for financing solar projects. The ‘blockchain buzz’ has also become part of the solar industry, with the cryptocurrency SolarCoin now being used to encourage more solar production by decreasing the payback time on solar installations. Web-based crowdfunding can also help finance (and later re-finance) large-scale community projects. Smart metering (when combined with the necessary regulatory changes to allow for third party ownership) allows for freemium style Power Purchase Agreements for residential and commercial customers. These were made famous by SolarCity and SunRun in the United States.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, from a system level perspective, the more digital technology is integrated into the grid, the more solar can be integrated into the grid. Digitalisation can make better use of existing grid infrastructure, reduce the need for back-up capacity and, crucially, reduce the need for the curtailment of renewables. That is why one of our key messages to policy-makers within the debate on the Clean Energy Package in Brussels is 'go digital to make the most of the renewables revolution'. Sector-coupling and demand response can make the most of the energy transition, and focusing on smart applications and manufacturing can also maximise the industrial value for Europe from the solar value chain. Today, over 50 leading companies have signed SolarPower Europe’s Go Digital declaration, calling for more solar digitalisation. Indeed, solar is at the heart of the digitalisation of energy in Europe. Now we need the right regulatory framework to deliver the full potential of digital solar. We would recommend that policy-makers consider accelerating the deployment of smart grids, reforming incentives for network operators and rewarding the speed and accuracy that solar can provide in grid-supported services. This will maximise the opportunities arising from digitalisation, and increase the cost-efficient deployment of solar and renewables in Europe.