SmartHelio, the Solar Doctor

SmartHelio, the Solar Doctor

Article originally from Efficience 21 in collaboration with CleantechAlps.

“The young entrepreneur, Govinda Upadhyay, imagined an innovative system, that can diagnose faults in solar plants based on the data collected from their smart IoT sensor.

Founder and CEO of SmartHelio, Govinda Upadhyay, with HelioHealth sensor.

In order to optimize a solar plants’ efficiency, SmartHelio has developed a cloud based system to analyse their performance. This innovative system then provides prescriptive actions to fix the faults and improve energy production.

“Just like a doctor, our sensor ensures solar panels work properly and generate more kWh per day”, says Govinda Upadhyay, CEO of SmartHelio.

The start-up was created in 2019 in Lausanne, Switzerland and currently employs three people.

SmartHelio solution — an AI-enabled sensor, is made up of three modular components: a communication module compatible with different protocols (WIFI, GSM, LoRa and BT), a encrypted processor and, most importantly, a fault detection device. For the time being, the detection device just captures current and voltage data, but in the near future, it could take into account more parameters such as pollution, air temperature or soil humidity.

Diagnostics and Prescriptions

Remote reporting and prescriptive actions to help the clients with decision-making.

Pattern recognition technology is being used in the sensor developed by SmartHelio which can identify faults in solar plants. By measuring the variations of current and voltage, the technology anticipates and prevents failure of the system. Their algorithm is based on clear sky moment detection that helps the AI to detect shading events, panel soiling, module degradation etc. Ten years of research has gone into this project to develop such AI where the data has been collected from solar plants from all over the world.

Beside its affordability, what makes SmartHelio solution so different from competition is how data is being processed and analysed automatically.

“Many monitoring systems already exist, but they are all expensive and can only collect data, but they are not able to perform root-cause analysis as SmartHelio does.” SmartHelio system can also use data coming from several sources and other monitoring platforms; in addition, it does not necessarily require weather station to assess solar plants performance, unlike competitors.

Taking things up a notch

After a few tests in Switzerland, the company decided to focus its activity in emerging markets such as India, where solar energy industry has a 34% growth (CAGR), representing 10 billions Swiss Francs. Currently, SmartHelio has more than ten clients and currently monitors a 20MW portfolio.

In Europe, the start-up has two clients in France and one in Switzerland. During the covid-19 crisis, its activity has increased 200%; lots of solar plants owners were looking for a system capable of analyzing data in a reliable and precise way to remotely diagnose their systems.

A CEO known for his sustainable innovations

Govinda Upadhyay wins EIT Change Award in 2015.

It is not the first time that Govinda Upadhyay innovated in the solar industry: his first start-up, LEDsafari, offers a DIY solar lamp, combined with a online training platform, which has impacted so far more than 100,000 people in the world.

Thanks to that invention, Govinda won in 2015 the EIT Change Award; in addition, he was listed among the Forbes “30 under 30” and the Asia 21 Young Leaders. He has also received the prestigious Swiss Ambassador Award for his work in sustainability.”

Thank you Efficience 21 and CleantechAlps for this article about the journey of SmartHelio and its founder, Govinda. Check out the original article, written in French, here!

Re-think and Re-imagine solar industry using AI and ML

Re-think and Re-imagine solar industry using AI and ML

In the past one month, most of us had to restructure the way we work. From the discipline of working from home to virtual meetings, we have successfully adapted to the calling. Webinars have increasingly become a source of knowledge sharing, problem solving, industry wide discussions and collaborations. Organizations like NSEFI, SolarQuarter, Bridge to India, Mercom etc played a vital role in hosting seminars on the impact of COVID-19 on the solar industry and the way forward.

Webinar conducted by NSEFI to discuss the impact of COVID-19 on the solar industry. Attended by industry leaders like Kushagra Nandan, Ritu Lal, Shaili Yadav, Kunj Shah

During these webinars, many industry leaders like Amplus, SunSource, Aditya Birla, Zodiac Energy, TATA Power, Fourth Partner etc shared their problems and how the lockdown has impacted their businesses. Focusing on the problems with the solar plants (constructed and operational pre-lockdown), here is a quick summary of COVID-19 impact:

1. Many C&I solar rooftops have been shut down because these buildings (factories, schools etc) are shut.
2. Such C&I projects with the OPEX model have choked the revenue of IPPs.
3. Projects built under government tenders have PR guarantee commitments but due to lack of manpower or restricted movements, cleaning schedules have been affected.
4. Some plants which are still operational during the lockdown had maintenance scheduled post March 25th, but again, they could not be served on a timely manner now leading to further decreasing performance of these sites.
5. Rooftops got very little share of the voice, focus was diverted towards utility scale plants.

India installed 1700MW of rooftop capacity in 2019. 90% of this capacity installation came from the Commercial and Industrial (C&I) segment. Although developers are worried that all facilities are shut down because of the current lockdown, they appear to be taking measures to ensure revenues continue to flow1. On the other hand, the rest 10% of the smaller residential rooftop installations are predominantly accounted for by 10–15 leading players. In conversation with one of the leading residential rooftop players- Zolt Energy’s CEO Harsha Yadav, he mentioned that the residential subsidies are delayed, some signed contracts are getting cancelled, for quite a few ready-to-install contracts they had already procured materials for installations which are now either sitting in their warehouses or stuck in logistics.

Leading rooftop C&I players expressed their concerns over the post-lockdown O&M challenges:

1. C&I solar rooftop buildings will operate in a staged fashion wrt their energy needs and so turning on the solar PV has to be staged as well, but there is no such insight to the best approach to activating small arrays at a time.
2. O&M services will pile up, so how should one prioritize to maximize the revenue and keep the end-customer engaged and happy.
3. The availability of labor/staff for cleaning panels or regular O&M would be limited, so how can one efficiently manage their available workforce.

Manual periodic cleaning impacted by lack of labor

One could sense that these problems have given an opportunity to the solar companies to rethink their cost structures, O&M, resource allocation etc. This lockdown helped create a space for solar companies to realize the inefficiencies with the O&M of solar plants.

NSEFI CEO, Subrahmanyam Pulipaka says- “COVID19, a black swan event, has a potential to change the entire paradigm of the rooftop business models in India. This will definitely pave the way for innovative business models and inculcating both cost effective and revenue inducing practices throughout the solar plant development ecosystem. Out of all the elements of rooftop plant commissioning, O&M which is often neglected will also be a direct witness of this paradigm shift and Indian rooftop sector will further move towards intensified digitization of assets and their administration in the coming months.”

Solar companies in India have started to realize the need for building an O&M approach that’s futuristic in nature. Through speaking with several companies and via several webinars, the following requirement were noted:

1. Shift from the manual approach for O&M to an automated and predictive maintenance schedule to maximize the system performance and revenue.
2. End-customer engagement and awareness of their solar assets.
3. Focus on sustainability of the solar assets by building a data driven framework for: product selection, system design, dynamic production estimates, faster fault localization and system degradation identification at early stages.

Companies around the globe have already started using deep-data analytics and with the help of AI and Machine Learning, they have already started optimizing their operations and maximizing their revenue. John Deere was able to save $1 Billion by optimizing their inventory2, Best Buy used deep-data analytics to redesign their stores to increase in-store experience3, UPS is utilizing Machine Learning, AI and Big Data to identify and predict problems in their logistics4, and the list continues.

Hinduja Renewables’s CEO, Kapil Maheshwari, emphasized, in one of the webinars, the importance and need to use technologies like AI to perform root cause analysis and data analytics to identify specific concerns in a solar asset. Most of the solar companies in India, currently use excel sheets to generate basic data analytics which only serves to manage reactive maintenance issues. All solar companies use data visualization tools which provide fault alerts, these alerts are analyzed by an engineer and then coordination with the on-site technician takes place to localize the fault and finally steps to rectify the fault are planned. This leads to increased system downtime and lost revenue.

Data driven interventions by AI models can replace the conventional cleaning schedule and recommend when exactly to clean the panels to maximize production and save water at the same time by optimizing cleaning cycles.

Artificial Intelligence models help localize the faults automatically, learns system behavior, predicts system’s performance and prescribes steps to maximize solar production and hence revenue maximization. Advanced AI models use dynamic pollution modelling and climate change factors to estimate realistic energy production, suggest dynamic cleaning schedules, accurately intercept shading losses, and monitor the electrical characteristics of your plant to predict its behavior. AI can also help solve the problem of unidentified module degradation due to high temperature, PID, hot spots etc. by detecting them at a very early stage so that the bad guys could be taken out of the system and save the performance of the rest of the system from being affected.

SmartHelio is working with solar companies in India, Europe and North America to bring a shift from reactive maintenance to data driven predictive maintenance with an ultimate goal of making the solar PV systems more sustainable for the entire ecosystem.

Author: Shankaransh Srivastava, Business Development Manager at SmartHelio
Co-authors: Govinda Upadhyay, Founder and CEO of SmartHelio; Subrahmanyam Pulipaka, CEO of National Solar Energy Federation of India (NSEFI)

The state of Rooftop Solar PV systems in India

The state of Rooftop Solar PV systems in India


SmartHelio attending NSEFI — IGEF — SolarPower Europe Joint Workshop in March 2020

India has an ambitious goal of installing 175GW of renewable energy by 2022 out of which 40 GW has been targeted to come from rooftop systems. Analyzing this opportunity, many big companies have increased their focus on rooftop installs who were primarily focused on ground mounted solar installs. Some companies, like Havells, entered the solar industry with a vision to focus on rooftops and many new small companies, with young entrepreneurs, were created to take a lead towards this opportunity. The solar industry is moving rapidly towards achieving the goal of 40 GW rooftop installs by 2022.

In past 5 months, I got an opportunity to visit several urban rooftop sites (on-grid and off-grid) and having spoken with over 50 companies (mostly the known names in the Indian solar industry), I was able to draw some commonality between the post- install problems faced by the solar companies and the end customers. It was very evident that our solar industry lacks a customer-centric approach. Most solar companies are only focused on increasing their customer base rather than on providing a customer care that would ensure happy and educated clients. Word of mouth is the best way to acquire customers and unhappy customers are only leading to more damage to our solar industry because people talk and most of them aren’t talking any good about their solar system performance and customer service. If we analyze from a customer’s perspective, most of the customers are not even aware of how good or bad their solar system is performing.

I happened to speak with a customer in West Delhi and he mentioned that he has noticed a reduction in his electricity bill and he had appointed a person to clean the solar panels twice a week but still he doesn’t see as much production from the panels in comparison with what he was promised while buying his solar system. After visiting his site, I noted that the panels are all covered with dust and pigeon poop and his system was producing over 30% less than what it should. There are many such customer stories which testifies the lack of transparency, awareness and absence of system alerts which would keep the customer informed of their system’s health.

A few months back, I attended a solar conference, Solar Roofs, organized by Solar Quarter, in Chandigarh where many big and small, old and new solar EPCs were discussing their O&M problems.

Like any other industry, the solar industry in India is also extremely competitive and customer’s price sensitivity has further added to continuously falling rates of solar system installations. In a small city like Chandigarh (tri-city area), there are 50+ solar companies registered.While talking with some solar panel manufacturers and leading rooftop solar EPCs, it was realized that it is just a matter of time that the small scale (less than 10kW) residential installation demand would increase but this segment lacks an effective remote monitoring solution that not only alerts the EPCs of maintenance issues but also alerts customers to take care of their system to optimize the production from their solar system.

Current monitoring solutions, for smaller rooftop systems, are expensive, lack solution focus for small rooftop scenarios. Rooftop systems are more prone to dust, bird poo, shadowing from nearby unplanned construction etc so there is an imminent need for remote monitoring to alert the customers as well as EPCs.There is no solution that provides a predictive analysis mechanism for EPCs and customers to analyze system losses before they occur. There is no cost effective solution to cater to this small scale residential system which is going to be a backbone of the solar industry in India and price competitiveness is further worsening the health of these solar installs. The aftermath of this unhealthy competition is SUFFERING!

Sufferings of a solar EPC:

1. Low-skilled technicians for O&M.
2. Profits are too low to proactively provide maintenance services.
3. Remote Monitoring of solar systems requires a lot of manual effort.
4. Customers don’t own up to regularly clean the solar panels (lack of customer awareness and lack of data to help encourage cleaning).
5. Customers complain about lower than estimated production from solar panels, blaming solar companies for poor quality installation.
6. No data driven intervention to manage solar assets. Lost time and money!
7. Reactive maintenance after customer complaints, leading to more customer dissatisfaction.

As per the renowned PV Magazine’s article from September 2019, it states- “Here is a startling fact — over one-third of all consumers who have installed solar on their roofs, both industrial and residential, would not recommend their vendors to their friends. The performance of these vendors left much to be desired. This lack of satisfaction of consumers has greatly hampered the growth potential of solar in India.”

Sufferings of the end customer:

1. Unstable remote monitoring (problems with the mobile apps or internet)
2. If the system is down, it has to be identified manually, so at times days or weeks or even months pass by before realizing that their system wasn’t producing power at all.
3. System under produces for unidentified reasons.
4. Accumulation of financial losses and extended ROI on their systems.

Indian solar industry is maturing and as more systems become old (5+ years), the maintenance and system health issues are inevitable. Newer EPC companies do not care much about O&M issues because for the first few years these systems work just fine, but as systems become old many problems such as wiring issues, design flaws, component replacement, system degradation etc needs attention and having access to an affordable monitoring solution would immensely help the EPCs adopt a customer centric approach by eradicating these problems before it surfaces and affect the solar system health.

In my opinion, the real question is not if India would be able to meet its renewable energy targets, rather the question should be- how sustainable would be our renewable energy ecosystem? Yes, it would be great to add another 10GW of solar energy to the grid, but what really matters is how many kWh or MWh are we effectively producing from this 10 GW?

As they rightly say, data is the new oil– we need data and automation to proactively maintain our solar systems. There needs to be a mechanism in place to increase customer engagement and awareness. As reported by few agencies, only one-third of the customers are happy with their solar installers, therefore we must provide solutions to make sure the customer is happy and helps in increasing the demand. A remote monitoring solution that empowers companies to be more proactive with maintenance. We can achieve all this with a plug and play sensor, AI driven PR calculation, predictive analysis so that before the system fails we provide alerts and increase system’s availability. Data-driven actions will help build transparency and trust between the EPC and their customers. We can bring customers closer to his system (more savings, alerts on when to clean etc), EPCs closer to their customers.

At SmartHelio, we have developed a plug and play, affordable and reliable AI based sensor which provides data analytics in easily understandable reports and system alerts both for the rooftop system owners and EPCs. Our goal is to provide EPCs with tools to build a customer-centric approach in their business, keep end-customers happy and help generate more demand for solar rooftops.

Visit to Solar Mini Grids in Araria, Bihar

Visit to Solar Mini Grids in Araria, Bihar

Rural electrification has been a long pending issue in India, but thanks to the new policies (like Saubhagya scheme) which is helping rural population to connect with the grid for the first time ever. Although many rural households have started to connect with the grid, there are still a lot of challenges that rural electrification faces. Reliable electricity connection, high connection costs, paperwork, electricity meter readings still need a lot of work on top of finding a solution to make DISCOMs financially healthy!

Smart Power India reports (Feb 2019) “Presently, almost 40% of grid-electricity users (in rural India) do not express satisfaction with grid-electricity services. Dissatisfaction stems from attributes of reliability and adequacy. With regards to affordability, the impact of poor metering and irregular billing and collections contributes to negative perceptions.”

Having worked in the Solar PV industry for 6 years, I am still very new to the Indian Solar industry. I was fortunate enough to tag along with the team of LEDsafari, SmartHelio and Smart Power India in September to visit Araria, Bihar. A local IPP, DESI Power, has setup multiple tiny solar grids in the village of Araria to fulfill the very basic needs of the under serviced poor. These tiny grids were 1.2 kW each and provides electrical connections mostly to rural enterprises and households. Per connection a customer could only run a fan, one LED bulb and a mobile charging point. In the conversation with DESI Power, they reported that system downtime, reliable resources to maintain the systems and payment collection from customers are some challenges that had begun to challenge their existence.

To counter the financial struggle, DESI Power started another model where in they built a mini grid to power machines to manufacture agricultural products, run water purification units etc which they sell in the market. They also built a biomass gasification unit where they use agricultural waste as fuel and the electricity produced by this unit is sold to farmers to power water pumps.

Monitoring and maintenance of these solar systems are currently very ineffective. SmartHelio has developed a AI based monitoring ecosystem, HelioHealth (sensor), which can not only localize the fault, but also does predictive analysis of the issues which could result in lower production or system downtime (HelioApp- online monitoring platform). Their solution can reduce the system downtime of these mini/tiny grids by 80%. Not only that, they have build a comprehensive solution by developing an e-learning platform which links to the problems detected in the system and gives video lessons in local language which could be easily understood and utilizeded by the locals, coming from lower educational backgrounds, who maintain these systems.

This easy to install and universal sensor could truly help resolve the Indian Solar industry’s maintenance issues and enable EPCs to make data driven decision! LEDsafari is responsible for implementing the project as well as training development for the unskilled technicians. LEDsafari has years of experience in rural elecrification through their innovative DIY solar lamp and training programs.

Indian solar industry is growing rapidly and the maintenance of these systems is becoming a growing concern among investors. India receives far more sun hours than the US, but the systems in the US are far more robust, reliable and profitable even though their cost of installation is significantly higher than similar size solar systems in India. The data driven, machine learning based alerts and reports provided by the SmartHelio monitoring ecosystem is going to be a very disruptive solution for the industry!!

Before I put this article to an end, I must say that the infrastructural developments in a village like Araria were simply mind blowing. These roads were recently built under the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yogna. You can now find electric poles installed in villages. Things, though slow, are improving. We, however, need to be smarter on our decisions. We not only have to built systems (energy, roads, housing etc), but we need to make them sustainable!!