Introducing new solar gear that could change the game

A new solar inverter has been developed by a quiet startup called Empower Micro Systems, which could land on the market by the end of the year. The company’s CCO says the tech could disrupt the landscape.

Today in Cleantech

A lot of the focus of the Intersolar solar power trade show in San Francisco this week is on the “balance of systems” of solar PV installations — everything but the panels, that is. Of that share, the biggest additional costs come in the inverter systems, which change panel direct current (DC) into grid-ready alternating current (AC), and there’s certainly plenty to talk about on the inverter front at this year’s show. Of course, one of the biggest debates in the industry — central inverters vs. microinverters — continues to get a lot of attention, and this week’s show has its share of announcements on both the central inverters (SOLO, Ingeteam,)  and microinverter (SolarBridge, Enecsys) fronts. But there are also some new inverter designs that break new ground in terms of efficiency and cost. One of them is Ideal Power Converters, an Austin, Texas-based startup that says it can shrink the size, weight and cost of inverters by about 90 percent with a design that foregoes transformers and eliminates electrolytic capacitors, among other features. Then there’s Tigo Energy, which says its DC power optimization units can better solve many of the panel-specific problems microinverters are aimed at solving. I’ll be keeping an eye out for other Intersolar news on the BOS front — feel free to tell me what you’re seeing as well.

Today in Cleantech

New York Times reporter Matthew Wald takes a dive into one of my favorite wonky topics today, with an article about Petra Solar’s plans for utility pole solar panels complete with smart inverters that help balance the grid. Wald uses the “Veg-o-Matic” as an analogy for the voltage and reactive power adjustments that Petra’s microinverters do to keep solar panel output in balance with the grid power they support. There’s no doubt that high penetration of solar PV will require a lot more thought into how it interacts with the grid. Most rooftop solar panels are built to disconnect from the grid when it gets unstable, mainly to avoid shocking a utility worker working on downed wires. But if solar PV is to grow beyond today’s single-digit percentage penetrations, it will need to be managed to avoid destabilizing the grid — a possibility that could put solar advocates and stability-seeking utilities at loggerheads. Beyond that, inverters have characteristics that could make them ideal grid balancing devices, and it would be a shame if we didn’t take advantage of them. The Electric Power Research Institute and others are working on standards to make that possible in the future. I’m hoping to do some reporting on this topic, among many others, at DistribuTECH 2011 in San Diego next week — let me know if you’ve got any ideas for me.

EPRI’s Solar Power Phrasebook — a Guide for Future Communications

Last week’s Solar Power International tradeshow gave the world a view of the latest advances in solar panels and solar inverters, and examined the growing impact solar power is having on the world’s power grids. But how will utilities manage all this new solar power to keep it from crashing the grid? That task will require some standard communications and control protocols — and the Electric Power Research Institute has some ideas the industry might want to pay attention to.

Getting Solar Onto the Smart Grid

Solar inverters, which are used to convert the direct current (DC) power generated by a solar panel into the alternating current (AC) power used on the grid, are one area that hasn’t seen a lot of innovation since the early days of solar power, at least not at a dramatic scale. But that’s changing. In the last 10 days, we’ve seen some good announcements out of companies working on new inverters (and other electronics) that help solar panels connect to the grid. In part, this spurt of activity is driven by the capital efficiency of investing in inverters rather than panels; but it’s also part of the bigger push to make our electrical grid smarter.

Apollo Solar Powers Up With $4.5M

Apollo Solar, a Bethel, Conn.-based manufacturer of electronics for renewable energy devices, has raised $4.5 million in a private offering. Electronic components for solar technology are a fast-emerging investment category.