Can Solar & Smart Grid Speak the Same Language?

Can solar power inverters talk to the smart grid, to help make them a benefit rather than a burden to utilities? Here’s a new standard that could help solar and smart grid get along.

Enphase Planning to Embed Inverters Directly Into Solar Panel

EnPhse logoA growing number of companies are working on technologies to squeeze as much juice as possible from solar panels and reduce the cost of these systems over their lifetime. One of those companies, Enphase Energy, now tells us that it is working on the next frontier of this development: It wants to embed its microinverters directly into solar modules so that the two are sold bundled to installers. Raghu Belur, co-founder and VP of marketing for the Petaluma, Calif.-based startup, said in an interview that the company is in talks with yet-to-be-named “global panel makers” and that in five years, he expects most of the company’s microinverters to be sold pre-installed. That will mean that “you have no notion of an inverter to install,” and will lead to savings through lower system and labor costs, he said.

The vast majority of solar installations today use a large, central inverter to convert the direct current (DC) flowing out of panels into the alternating current (AC) used by the electric grid. The inverters also have electronics, called a Maximum Power Point Tracker, that run algorithms to maximize the amount of power drawn from the panels. But placing these critical functions into one device has drawbacks: It means a failure of that one device takes down the whole system, and the weakest panel in the array eliminates the benefits of better-performing panels.

A host of companies are developing technologies that would distribute these functions to each panel. Most say their technologies will increase the amount of power that arrays produce by between 5 percent and 25 percent. Enphase is arguably in the lead, having already shipped “tens of thousands” of its microinverters. The microinverters today are mounted to the panel racks out in the field. The startup has deals with solar installer Akeena Solar and module maker Suntech Power. Enphase’s current deal with Suntech is for the module maker to directly market the microinverters with its products and not to embed the products into its panels. But while Belur wouldn’t specify which module makers the company was talking with for the embed, Suntech could be one of them.
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