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Why drones and thermal imaging are new advent and standard for large solar plants

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By Ishan Chaturvedi, Co Founder & Director, Vareyn Solar 

With the catastrophic changes in the climate and the deteriorating planet’s health, Solar energy is finding its rightful place as a sustainable and renewable source of energy. Globally, Solar PV plants are finding more applications on a larger scale as well owing to industrial interest and government initiatives.

Maintaining Solar PV plants has been becoming increasingly easier owing to technological advancements in thermal imaging and drone development. Drones are having their moment due to their industry-agnostic nature. Be it for logistics, defence or relief work, drones have proved beneficial for the same and are now finding a strong foothold in the maintenance of solar PV plants as well.

Combined with thermal imaging, drones have the potential to preclude expensive maintenance costs for large-scale solar plants. Accelerated Efficacy owing to thermal imaging via drones as opposed to handheld thermal inspections has augmented the ease of maintenance of large-scale solar PV plants. With drone accessibility, solar technicians do not have to manually walk the rows of solar farms thus increasing the accuracy of the data as well.

Earlier on, there were Utility Scale Solar PV Plants which were 5Mega-Watt to10Mega-Watt in size and hence easier to manage but now with large-scale plans from 1000MW – 2000 MW / 1Giga Watt – 2 Giga Watt size for a solar park, the sheer magnanimity of maintenance becomes difficult manually. A Standard 1Mega-Watt uses around 3 to 4 acres of land to be installed for larger plants this area can be thousands of acres of land. This is where drones and thermal Imaging become mandatory Solar PV Plants Operation & Maintenance.

Here’s how:

Hotspots

A hotspot is essentially an area or a small section in a solar panel which gets heated more than usual. This can lead to fires or burn marks on the solar panel and subsequently in the worst-case scenarios lead to huge fires in the solar PV plants. A hotspot can be caused due to multiple reasons like a manufacturing defect, mishandling of the solar PV panels during installation, poor maintenance and cleaning of the solar panels etc. Hotspots can reduce the plant’s efficiency and power generation capacity in the short run. In the long run, it can cause a huge fire which will create monetary damages and/or loss of life, through Thermal Imaging burnt junction boxes on solar panels can be identified along with assessment on reasons for junction box burns which in turn also help in warranty claims from the manufacturers.

Cleaning or hard water issues

Due to the ease of maintaining big plants, many companies these days are using drones for thermal imaging and photography of their utility-scale plants. This in turn gives them an overview of any issues regarding the plant which includes hotspots and also informs the plant owners about the maintenance quality of the plant. A plant which is
being cleaned improperly or the frequency of the cleaning is not adequate will have lesser generation as compared to a plant which is being maintained properly. In many areas, the water quality is not good which leads to a layer of silt forming on the panels which are hard to clean and require specialised chemicals. Recognizing these issues is easier with the kind of reach that drones bring with them.

Loss in generation due to shadows

Drones and Thermal Imaging are excellent tools to check for shadows from nearby objects or trees which often cause generation loss. Drones come in handy in the operation of the plant as thermal imagery during peak generation hours can inform the owners about installation issues like poor shadow analysis or environmental issues wherein a certain object is creating a shadow on the solar array. Such small gaps often lead to big losses as the scale of the Solar PV Plant increases and manpower has more area to cover per person.

Determining degradation of a solar plant
When it comes to older plants, the Solar Panel Manufacturers offer warranties on the Degradation of the Solar Panels. This is usually as per industry standards. Drones and thermal imaging also help in determining if the degradation of certain panels is more than others which can be used to invoke the warranties and replacement of panels thus preventing further damage to the plant.

With the increased application of solar PV plants, drones and thermal imaging have become vital in maintaining plant health.

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