We stand at the brink of an energy revolution, where solar power evolves into a data-driven business, states Petr Pěcha (Solek)

We are on the brink of an energy revolution. Organizations that succeed are those who can best optimize production and consumption – sending energy precisely where it is needed and profitable. However, these complex estimations require the analysis of an enormous amount of data. "The basics are production predictions, proper sales, storage, and consumption estimates. Algorithms need frequent updates because the market is changing. This is also related to the arrival of electric vehicles, which will change the concept of energy distribution," says Petr Pěcha, Chief Product & Digitalization Officer of Solek, a company specializing in the operation and maintenance of photovoltaic power plants.

The interview below will address the following:

  • Why does Petr say Solek is becoming a data company?
  • What does it mean when you turn a solar field into a comprehensive service?
  • What challenges is the solar business currently facing, and where is the market heading?

Read the interview

(Text has been rewritten and shortened using ChatGPT)

Ivana Karhanová: 60% of energy from renewable sources. This is not a vision but a reality. However, not Czech reality, but the reality of South American Chile. A Czech company, Solek, specializing in the construction and operation of solar power plants, has just started operating here. What technological challenges is the solar business currently facing? Why does Petr Pěcha, Chief Product & Digitalization Officer of Solek, claim that they are becoming a data company? That’s what today’s interview is about. Hello. Welcome to the studio.

Petr Pěcha: Hello.

Ivana Karhanová: How has the solar business changed in the last ten years? You mentioned that it’s essentially becoming a product.

Petr Pěcha: It greatly depends on the country we are talking about. As you mentioned, in Chile, over 60% of energy comes from renewable sources, while in the Czech Republic, it was 3.7% in 2022, and around 22% in the EU. The development of the business varies depending on the country. It’s also evolving here, and as it does, solar energy is increasing. Solar energy brings a new topic – how to manage not only solar energy but also energy from renewable sources. That’s why a product is becoming a service. It’s not just about production, but also where you produce it and how you distribute it correctly.

Ivana Karhanová: So, it’s not just a product, but a service from a solar field?

Petr Pěcha: Yes, it’s a bold statement, but I believe that’s the direction we’re heading in.

Ivana Karhanová: You also mentioned that the winner will be the one who can manage it best. Why is that?

Petr Pěcha: Imagine that solar panel production is highly dependent on weather conditions. Production can be either maximum or minimum, depending on the weather in a given area. The energy grid must be balanced, which includes balancing production and consumption. Proper management means predicting how much energy you will produce, what the consumption will be, and at the same time, calculating that sometimes it’s better to store energy, which means having good energy storage, such as batteries.

Ivana Karhanová: So, by management, you mean deciding where to use, store, or send the energy?

Petr Pěcha: Exactly. It’s about precise production predictions based on weather data, monitoring market prices, and deciding whether to sell the energy or use it differently, such as for heating a pool. The decision is made by software that optimizes these processes at home.

Ivana Karhanová: That sounds simple, but I assume it involves a massive amount of data, and the optimization task depends on dozens of parameters.

Petr Pěcha: Yes, it can be even more, especially for large factories. The basics are production predictions, proper sales, storage, and consumption estimates. It’s about calculating these things. Algorithms need frequent updates because the market is changing. We have to monitor consumption and anticipate changes, especially with the advent of electric vehicles, which will change the concept of energy distribution.

Ivana Karhanová: Does it mean that you need to create an optimization model based on machine learning or artificial intelligence algorithms that learn from current events and predict future states?

Petr Pěcha: Yes, we work with machine learning algorithms. The new Community Energy Act will allow sending energy, for example, to your own family. When more such communities emerge, AI and optimization can expand not only in households but in entire communities with hundreds of users.

Ivana Karhanová: So, that’s what you meant when you said you’re becoming a data company?

Petr Pěcha: Without data, it won’t work, that’s clear.

Ivana Karhanová: What does it mean for you? From the installation of solar power plants, you have transitioned to software development and working with data to establish a position in this direction.

Petr Pěcha: It’s a significant challenge. There are many companies building solar fields or dealing with renewable sources, but we feel that we are on the verge of a revolution. I’ve seen revolutions in business with the first XML formats and data on the internet, in finance with fast payments and mobile banking, as well as in e-commerce in China. In the energy sector, management is key. It’s complicated because we are at the beginning, but we need to change the essence of the business and the company’s DNA. We have to step out of our comfort zone and look at the business with fresh eyes.

Ivana Karhanová: You mentioned that electric vehicles will significantly change the business. What will be the main change?

Petr Pěcha: I’ve read studies that say there should be around 100,000 electric vehicles by 2030. The average household consumption is about 3 megawatt-hours per year, and an electric vehicle adds another six. That means a total of nine megawatt-hours per year per household, which is a challenge. What’s important is how much it costs to charge your car. Today, the price per megawatt-hour varies, depending on the charging time. The difference between charging for 25 or 150 euros is significant. Electric vehicles will turn low consumption into high consumption and become a source of flexibility for the energy grid. They can supply energy to the EU.

Ivana Karhanová: From what you describe, it seems that there will be a more even distribution of energy consumption over time.

Petr Pěcha: Yes, that’s right. The challenge will be to explain to people that the energy market is not a danger but an opportunity.

Ivana Karhanová: It’s about using the market when the price is low.

Petr Pěcha: Exactly. In Norway, 90% of households are in the global market. There are often negative prices. I believe it can work here too.

Ivana Karhanová: I thought of one scenario that might shake things up. All office buildings and shopping centers offer parking with charging stations. What does it mean for consumption planning? Then it’s not about charging your car cheaply at home, but you come to the office, charge it there, and leave after 8 hours.

Petr Pěcha: It depends on the situation. Shopping centers are ideal for rooftop photovoltaics. I think that’s the future. When you have photovoltaics, a shopping center will want to have some business model and charge for charging. It’s more advantageous to send energy to electric vehicles than to invest in large batteries. They might combine smaller batteries and send energy to cars.

Ivana Karhanová: You’re building a data platform. What was the enlightening moment when you realized you had to go in this direction?

Petr Pěcha: It came when I installed photovoltaics at my home. I started thinking about where else I could send the energy. Concepts like sending energy to my mother or to charity crossed my mind. Then I met people who were working on this, and we connected. Now, together, we are developing because there is no existing market for this business model.

Ivana Karhanová: How is the business model of the data platform working out for you?

Petr Pěcha: It’s like the early days of the internet. Those who invested are now seeing results. In households, it’s a largely untapped field. We believe that as electric vehicles grow, people understand that the energy market is an opportunity, and as energy suppliers have better insights into consumption, a new business will open up. It’s about vision and preparing for the right moment.

Ivana Karhanová: What does it look like in Chile, where Solek has been operating for a long time? Is the situation similar there, or is the market still developing?

Petr Pěcha: Chile is a bit of a specific case. The Czech Republic has focused on the development of renewable energy sources within its energy grid. The construction of solar facilities was in full swing here. However, management and optimization in large fields are still needed.

Ivana Karhanová: Do you mean it’s more centralized in Chile?

Petr Pěcha: Yes, management in the Czech Republic includes households, but in Chile, it’s not the case. However, recently, more companies, including large ones, have started addressing this issue. We can mention Tesla, but there are many other companies that have battery storage and energy management concepts. The main focus now is on households because there is still not much competition here.

Ivana Karhanová: You mentioned the flexibility market. Can you explain that somehow?

Petr Pěcha: It’s about balancing the energy grid. Users can contribute to balancing supply and demand by providing energy from their batteries when needed, or conversely, when there is a shortage, they can return this energy to the grid. This makes sense, especially for large companies with large batteries and diesel generators. Regarding the future we are talking about, it will initially be relevant for electric vehicles and home batteries. When you combine these resources into larger blocks, such as within communities, you can offer capacity on the flexibility market. The main goal is to balance the load on the grid.

Ivana Karhanová: What you just described usually applies more to large companies with energy-intensive operations, such as cooling production lines, steel mills, and others. What about households?

Petr Pěcha: The situation will depend on how large communities of households are formed.

Ivana Karhanová: You also talked about the need for data for products and maintenance. How will this apply to households?

Petr Pěcha: Many people have installed solar panels from various companies, but often they don’t have insight into how the equipment is performing, including its efficiency. With our system, we could optimize performance and even predict which part of the solar equipment is not functioning correctly. Then we could send a notification to a service center to address the issue. Most people are not interested in checking every panel, so such predictive maintenance is very important.

Ivana Karhanová: It’s 2024, and electric vehicles in the Czech Republic are still in their early stages. When do you think what you’re talking about will become a reality?

Petr Pěcha: History has shown us that predictions have their limitations, and unexpected events, such as geopolitical conflicts, can change everything. However, I believe a key event will occur, and it will be a wake-up call for people who realize that a new trend is approaching. When exactly it will happen, we don’t know, but it will be realistic within five years. We want to be prepared so that it doesn’t catch us by surprise.

Ivana Karhanová: That was Petr Pěcha, Chief Product & Digitalization Officer from Solek. Thanks for the excellent interview.