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Big data the latest beneficiary of solar innovation

Big data the latest beneficiary of solar innovation

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News & Events - Engineering News

January 31, 2013

With big data and associated analytics becoming more prevalent in renewable energy, the U.S. Department of Energy has announced that it will be funding seven projects intended to transform the engineering tools used by the solar industry.

In a press statement released by the department, Energy Secretary Steven Chu revealed that research teams at prominent universities and laboratories would be awarded varying levels of funding to advance big data studies relating to solar energy deployment. The DOE has allocated a total of $9 million for engineering research and development, with the intention being to partner the academic recipients with public and private financial institutions, state agencies and regional utility companies.

Sunshot Initiative
The funding, which is part of the
Sunshot Initiative introduced by the Obama Administration in 2011, will be spread across projects in California, Colorado, Connecticut, Massachusetts, North Carolina and Texas, with scientists being encouraged to engage with both the solar community and residential electricity consumers. With solar power still a topic of debate in many parts of the country, the DOE is eager to deploy affordable renewable energy sources across the country as it heads toward its goal of reducing the cost of solar by as much as 75 percent by 2020.

"Through powerful analytical tools developed by our nation's top universities and national labs, we can gain unparalleled insight into solar deployment that will help lower the cost of solar power and create new businesses and jobs," said Energy Secretary Chu. “Projects like these will help accelerate technological and financing innovations - making it easier for American families and businesses to access clean, affordable energy."

Clean energy momentum 
Sunshot, which took its inspiration from the Kennedy-era declaration of intent that put a man on the moon, has been credited in some quarters with adding momentum to the clean energy industry, with President Obama reported to have a keen interest in the success of the initiative. The seven projects being funded by the DOE are all expected to provide innovative technology that will allow utility companies and state energy agencies to push solar technology to a new level, with big data an important factor in encouraging its widespread adoption.

Engineers at Yale University will be partnered with SmartPower's New England Solar Challenge, with nearly $2 million in funding allocated to develop a strategy to improved the effectiveness of community-led bulk solar purchase programs, while the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado, will receive $2.26 million to analyze data from 1,300 solar installation companies. Sandia National Laboratories in Livermore, California, has received the largest amount of funding, with the DOE providing $2.3 million to study market data impacting solar development.

The funding will also allow for the study of historical data relating to the development of the solar industry as a whole. Software engineers at the University of North Carolina will be going back decades to research scientific publications relating to solar, while SRI International, based in Menlo Park, California, will be trawling through patents to develop faster ways of implementing innovative designs and engineering tools that can further commercialize the alternative energy source.

Solar beneficiary
The Obama Administration has made no secret of its desire to advance renewable energy and alternatives to fossil fuels, with the solar industry a regular beneficiary of funding from a number of federal and state agencies.

However, the industry has been hampered by the amount of data being produced, with many utilities unable to use the information to their best advantage. Analytical software is still very much in its infancy, despite the increasing number of smart grid projects under development across the country, and it is hoped that by focusing on the data created, researchers will be able to reduce the price of the technology to fall in line with the goals of the DOE.

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