According to the US Energy Information Administration, the production of photovoltaic modules has grown 4,700% during the past 20 years. As solar power becomes more prolific, there is increased focus on how best to take advantage of the technology, whether for a home, business or even in rural farming.
The sun provides energy reliability and security around the globe; yet, each year, improperly placed solar panels account for missed opportunities resulting in a loss of cost savings and output power. The placement and orientation of solar panels is the key to getting the most out of solar power. Optimal positioning improves output and efficiency, which produces significant cost savings, clean energy and can even contribute to improved economic mobility.
While placement and orientation may seem straightforward to maximizing solar energy, improperly placed and positioned panels are the most common inhibitors to achieving the best results. There are products available today that can track the arc of the sun and output the highest efficiency point over the course of a day, but these require an experienced installer to visit the site at peak daylight hours – a costly step in the process.
To optimize the energy derived from solar panels, Xylem, a water technology company, recently introduced XyDial, a free iPhone app that enables users to locate, configure and adjust a solar panel in real-time, finding the ideal position that will receive the most sunlight and maximize power output.
The app works by using some of iPhone’s innovative built-in capabilities. For example, the digital compass and gyroscope understand orientation in 3D, which helps the app determine the optimal alignment relative to the sun’s arc for a particular location and date range. The iPhone’s GPS, which can work with or without wi-fi access, enables the device to know where it is in the world, even in settings (such as rural India) where the Internet is not available. Additionally, Apple products come with an accelerometer, a device that senses movement, speed and direction. This feature helps the smartphone judge when it’s shifting, aiding the app in finding proper panel placement in real-time with an intuitive and graphical user interface.
All of these elements can help orient the solar panel to the optimal angle and position. To use the app, the operator simply puts the iPhone on the panel and then moves both the phone and panel to find the best angle and position for direct sunlight.
Although the app focuses on the alignment of a solar panel, it solves additional challenges and provides further benefits. The app also includes a power output estimator that determines the approximate monthly power based upon internal global insolation tables and data that a user can input, including panel size, position, time of year and duration in direct sunlight. Additionally, it has the capability to remember multiple locations for portable or fixed panels. This feature can be helpful for recreational use, including camping, or any time a user has a need to move their solar panel frequently. The app saves the location, so users do not need to repeat the process of finding the best point to place the panel.
Vito Technology, a winner of Apple’s Design Awards 2010, developed the app in collaboration with Xylem. Best known for their work on the Star Walk app, the technology company used some of that knowledge, like celestial algorithms, in developing XyDial.
Helping rural areas through solar
Although the app is beneficial for homeowners and installers, Xylem created it primarily to support rural farming. Through its Essence of Life initiative, the company empowers smallholder farmers to rise above subsistence operations and improve rural development.
As part of the first phase of this initiative, the company has developed a stepping pump that enables farmers to irrigate their crops more efficiently and effectively. At an intermediary level, this technology works well, but as the farmer moves toward more prosperous operations, he or she will begin to look for ways to improve output and further decrease labor. Traditionally, this has been done through kerosene or diesel powered pumps, which often break down and rely on expensive and logistically impaired fuels. Now, solar is becoming a more viable alternative and Xylem plans to release a solar-powered, rural focused, small-holder farming pump around late 2015.
As technology advances, the XyDial app is paving the way for proper placement and orientation of solar panels. It can help farmers, nongovernmental organizations and general consumers harness the power of the sun. The app is scheduled for updates later this year.