UF Researchers Developing Sensor to Improve Efficiency of Solar Power Grids

solar power
Joel Harley

In January, Florida Power and Light, a utility company that serves about 10 million Floridians, announced it will install 30 million more solar panels in the state by 2030, while eliminating its last coal plant by the end of this year.

As the state continues its projection to surpass North Carolina as the Southeast’s top solar state, researchers at the University of Florida’s Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering are working to make solar power more affordable, while ensuring the power grids are safer and easier to maintain.

Joel Harley, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at UF, is working with scientists at the University of Utah and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory to develop and commercialize a new sensor that would quickly detect a problem and its location on a large solar grid. The project is funded by the United States Department of Energy’s SunShot Initiative, which aims to reduce the costs of solar energy by the end of the decade.

“One of the things we’re trying to address right now is the general challenge of maintaining these systems,” Harley said.

He explained that today, a string of solar panels is monitored by a single hub that records the current and voltage to ensure the system is working efficiently.  But the problem, Harley said, is the hub cannot detect which panel or area of the system is going haywire.

In order to diagnose the problem, skilled electricians have to individually test each panel.

“This is costly, and difficult to do,” Harley said. “So we’re trying to come up with a way that would do a lot of those diagnoses and figure out the location of problems from just a single device.”

Harley notes that this technology isn’t exactly new. The sensor he and his team are working on was originally designed for aircraft. He explains that airplanes contain miles of electrical wires that move around from vibrations during flight. This sensor can detect and locate wiring issues while the electrical systems are live and potentially in flight.

“But, developing this sensor for solar panels is technologically more complicated,” Harley said. “We have a lot to learn to move the project forward.”

Although Harley estimates that the sensor is still about 5-10 years away from being on the market, his preliminary tests have shown promise.

“It is our hope that this research will help to create a commercially successfully future for Florida’s solar power.”