Being a plant operator at a 600-acre solar plant with more than 2,500 solar arrays is not an easy task. Checking out an alarm can require a three-kilometer walk. To boost efficiency, ACCIONA Energy upgraded its control system to work with mobile
devices, enabling plant operators to review operating information while away from the control room. It used Microsoft Visual Studio Ultimate 2012 and Microsoft Visual Studio Team Foundation Server 2012 to modernize the application with an efficient back-end
and touch-enabled graphics, and found the latest Microsoft frameworks made the update fast and easy.
ACCIONA Energy operates one of the world’s largest solar energy plants in Amareleja, Portugal, with a peak generating capacity of 46 MW. The plant covers 600 acres with equipment located up to three kilometers apart. It consists of 2,520 solar trackers:
large arrays of solar panels programmed to maximize energy production by tracking the sun as it moves across the sky.
Rather than using a commercial Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) solution, ACCIONA decided to develop the system internally so that it could have total control over system development; maintain the security of its proprietary operating technology;
and avoid licensing costs, since it planned to reuse the solution at other solar plants.
In 2010, it developed the mission-critical control system with Microsoft Visual Studio, using Microsoft .NET Framework 3.5. The solution collected real-time plant data on 42,000 variables and 48,000 alarms, and stored the information in a local database
using Microsoft Message Queuing (MSMQ) for high-availability. It displayed the real-time data with an intuitive graphical interface and sent data to the central operations staff in Pamplona, Spain in real-time as well as ten-minute aggregates.
The solution has been a valuable marketing tool as the organization could demonstrate its ability to control a 600-acre solar plant to customers. The plant staff was happy because it made maintenance easy through the graphical interface. The data also enabled
ACCIONA to improve its operations expertise by using statistical analysis on the historical data to do predictive maintenance and analyze plant efficiency.
After a few years of operation, ACCIONA was ready to update the control system application. The plant operators wanted to access the data from outside the control room through mobile devices so they could spend more time out in the plant. The development
team knew that it needed to create a new, modern application. "We needed to improve the quality of the code that we wrote to make a light-weight application with compact graphics that would be easy to use on a mobile device," says Sergio Jiménez, Development
Team Leader at ACCIONA Energy.
||Visual Studio made adding the mobile interface easier than we expected.
| Sergio Jiménez
Development Team Leader
Having never developed a mobile application, the software development team reviewed the available technologies. "We analyzed whether we should move to another development technology like Java or Xcode," says Javier Arratíbel, IT Manager at ACCIONA Energy.
His group chose to stick with the programming environment they'd been working with since 2000: Visual Studio. "Since it was already familiar to us we knew the learning curve would be low.”
The team set out to enable the code to run on a Windows RT tablet, as well as the Windows 7 desktops used in the control room. The new code provides consistent, modern graphics across devices. The backend code was rewritten using .NET Framework 4.5 and Entity
Framework 6 to reduce the amount of data sent to the tablet. The Visual Studio Ultimate 2012 database project functionality made working with the Microsoft SQL Server 2012 database easy.
The developers implemented Complex Event Processing to be able to raise events in real time. They also improved the resolution on the historical data being stored from ten minutes to one second.
ACCIONA converted the graphics to a modern interface. Both the desktop and tablet versions use consistent graphics, but the developers optimized the tablet graphics by making them touch-enabled. They also used the built-in GPS capabilities to automatically
change the view based on the operators location in the plant.
The development team used Microsoft Visual Studio Team Foundation Server 2012 to implement Scrum-based agile development. The project used continuous integration with automated unit testing to produce builds that are ready for user-acceptance testing. The
project manager utilized the Team Foundation Server Web portal to stay up-to-date on the project.
Using Visual Studio and Team Foundation Server, ACCIONA was able to update its mission-critical control software to accommodate the needs of its plant operators.
More efficient plant operations — By making plant-operating data readily available on tablets, ACCIONA is able to improve plant operations. "With the mobile application, the plant operators can see plant performance statistics
and alarms without going back to the control room," says Arratíbel. Operators are able to spend more time out in the plant and react more quickly to alarms. The next phase of the project will include a Windows phone application. "We are excited about extending
the solution to the Windows phone so that our staff can review plant operations at any time," adds Arratíbel.
Reusable solutions — ACCIONA is currently building another large solar plant in South Africa. This plant will also take advantage of the tablet-based SCADA solution. Since it developed an in-house solution, the company will continue to benefit
from the development effort as it expands.
Efficient development — “Our developers were already pros at working with the Microsoft .NET Framework. So they simply had to get familiar with the mobile APIs,” says Jiménez. “Visual Studio made adding the mobile interface easier than we
expected.” ACCIONA also took the opportunity to improve the quality and performance of its code with the latest .NET and Entity frameworks.
Team Foundation Server supported the adoption of Scrum and improved traceability, making project development more efficient. "With Team Foundation Server and the adoption of an agile methodology during development, we have a more precise overview of our
projects at any given time and can manage the development effort more efficiently,” says Jiménez. “The increased transparency and efficiencies enable us to deliver users better quality products in shorter periods of time.”
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