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'Solar Room' helps APS monitor renewable energy sites

In a room tucked away at APS headquarters in downtown Phoenix, two employees spend their workdays watching large screens and computer monitors showing the status of renewable energy plants across Arizona.

On this morning, one of the plants represented on a state map of is flashing red, prompting the utility to dispatch a technician to the unmanned Cotton Center, a Gila Bend facility with enough solar panels to power thousands of homes.

Welcome to the APS Solar Monitoring Room.

Officials at the electrical utility say the real-time information available here is important because relying on solar energy means continually adjusting for weather. Even a few clouds can disrupt solar energy production, for example.

“The best way to promote solar in Arizona is to make sure the systems are working well,” said Barbara Lockwood, general manager of energy innovation for APS.

Along with the map showing each plant and a display allowing workers to monitor energy output for four plants at a time, the monitors display live video feeds for whichever plants the engineers want to see. The cameras can pan and zoom to provide easier answers when problems arise.

“We got a call asking why the Yuma plant was putting out less wattage than expected,” Senior Engineer James Hansen said. “We looked at the video and could see that it was cloudy.”

Having a centralized way to monitor every plant not only helps ensure smooth operation, it also allows APS to better understand the trends and issues that accompany this burgeoning industry.

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“Some of our renewable plants are approaching output comparable to traditional power resources,” Hansen said.

As plants get bigger and provide energy to more customers, the up-to-the-minute information the Solar Monitoring Room offers becomes more crucial every day, said Damon Gross, an APS spokesman.

“It’s clear to us that solar is not going anywhere,” Gross said. “This monitoring room is going to make us even better at tracking and improving all of Arizona’s renewable resource facilities.”

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Amy Gleich/ Cronkite News Service

Barbara Lockwood, general manager of energy innovation for APS, shows screens that allow employees to monitor the operation of solar plants around Arizona.