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Renewing renewables: data analytics can unlock a new age of predictable operations and profits, for wind, solar and hydro

Data can be our crystal ball. With advanced analytical tools, we can harness the flow of data from turbines, solar cells, dams, our organisations and even external sources, such as energy markets, to optimize performance and earnings. You can look into the future, now.

Businesses thrive on predictability. Stable demand, stable supply, stable operations and, if we’re doing it right, stable growth and positive development that leaves us, and all our stakeholders, with stable smiles on our faces.

However, renewables are unpredictable. The supply of energy we convert is inherently unstable – it fluctuates according to the whims and fancies of a power beyond our control, that of Mother Nature. Hydropower is perhaps the exception, as dams offer operators a steady means of power storage and production. All we have to do is, quite literally, turn on the tap. Nevertheless, unpredictable weather patterns, such as prolonged dry periods, can impact upon even this most proven and reliable of renewable sources.

So, how do we bring predictability into this new energy arena? We can’t tame Mother Nature, but we can learn from her, from ourselves, from our equipment, and from the energy market to continually adapt and optimize our assets and operations. In doing so, we can plan more effectively than ever before. We can unlock predictability within our industry.

And big data analytics is the key.

Star power

But, let’s start with something we don’t need a crystal ball to see: the sun is our future energy source.

On a clear day, the solar energy hitting our planet at sea level perpendicular to the sun is about 1 kW/m². In real terms that means an area of 2350km2 over the equator, roughly the size of Luxembourg, is sufficient to supply us with the same amount of energy that we produce globally today.

The amount of solar energy reaching the surface of the planet is so vast that in one year it is about twice as much as we will ever obtain from all of the Earth’s non-renewable resources of coal, oil, natural gas, and mined uranium combined. The potential is staggering. It is up to us to harness, convert and realise it.

Solar, wind and hydro energy are as dependent on the sun as we are. With solar, no explanation is needed. Wind is caused by differences in atmospheric pressure as air moves from high-pressure areas to low-pressure areas in a constant search for equilibrium. The sun is the engine driving this perpetual movement, as it creates heat differentials between the equator and the poles. We harvest this solar energy as kinetic wind energy, with the abundance of the harvest determined by wind speed, swept area of the wind turbine, and air density (mass).

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