Are inverters PV’s Achilles Heel?

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Courtesy of FCBI Energy Ltd.

The organizers of the Utility Scale PV Yield Optimization Conference & Expo, gained exclusive access with Michael Levi, Senior Director Worldwide Marketing from Satcon to talk about the inverter market for utility solar projects, how they are positioning themselves in a competitive market and how reliable are these key components.

Q1:  What segment of the solar market are you targeting?

Satcon exclusively targets customers seeking to install best-of-breed commercial, industrial and utility scale distributed power solutions. Since our company’s inception more than 25 years ago, we have focused on designing and delivering the next generation of efficient energy systems for solar photovoltaic stationary fuel cells, and energy storage systems.

This targeted focus on large-scale solutions is a key factor that differentiates us from our competitors. We established our reputation early on by defining the standards for large scale solutions, as represented by the introduction of our 100KW PowerGate solutions in 2003, which was the first three phase inverter to integrate multiple components into a single, integrated solution. From that point forward, we have been the clear market leader, setting the standard for power, efficiency and reliability through new product intructutions including the world’s first 250 kW unit, the world’s first 500 kW solution and the world’s first 1000 kW integrated solution.

Today, Satcon continually strives to improve its suite of products. To that end, we have begun to explore ways to not only make a better inverter solution, but ways to improve the complete system itself, from panel to grid interconnection. As a result of our dedication to system innovation, we continue to define the market and set the standards for quality, performance and value.

Q2:  How are you approaching the utility scale market?

We are approaching the utility scale market by driving solution innovation and bringing the industry’s most advanced system wide expertise to our customers. First and foremost, we are the world’s most deployed large- scale distributed power solution, having sold over 700 megawatts of our solutions with power ratings over 100 kW since 2003 . No other inverter manufacturer has achieved this level of volume in the large scale category. Second, Satcon’s PowerGate 500kw is the world’s most widely utilized large scale solar inverter solution and was engineered from the ground up to meet the demands of large-scale installations. As we build on the foundation of PowerGate, we will continue to deliver the industry’s most innovative, efficient, and reliable solutions such as Satcon Solstice, the world’s first complete power harvesting system solution for large scale solar.

Q3:  Are you partnering with any other organizations to help improve your product?

Our strategy is to build and maintain a deep level of in house system design and manufacturing domain expertise in order to improve our products and meet the demands of an evolving market. We have assembled a team of the best talent in the industry, and have given them full access to a vast pool of intellectual property. To fully capitalize on their talent and expertise, we have created internal organizations that focus exclusively on pushing the boundaries of technology to improve our suite of products.

Q4: What is your current efficiency and reliability in the field?

We are extremely proud of the fact that our suite of products is recognized as the most rugged and reliable of their kind on the market today. Equinox, our next generation inverter design, delivers best in class 98.5% efficiency combined with the industry’s widest thermal operating time. PowerGate Plus is the world’s most widely deployed large-scale, utility ready solution, with hundreds of millions of grid connected kilowatt hours delivered to date.   All of our solutions are built to a military grade standard and provide customers with the highest levels of system performance and uptime.

Q5: How is your inverter meeting the demands and conditions for utility scale solar plants?

Our product strategy is to not only meet the demand and conditions for utility scale solar plants but to exceed them. To that end, we continue to utilize our expertise to help our customers keep their asset up and running and create solutions to improve their interconnection to the grid. Because of our extensive field experience installing and grid connecting multi-megawatt solar installations, we have deep experience in many of the challenges that large-scale implementations present; challenges that our nearest competitors are still struggling with.

We continuously challenge our engineers to push the envelope to come up with new solutions that focus on the complete system and to find areas of improvement on both the DC harvest side and the AC grid interconnection side of inverter technology. One example of this improvement is Solstice, the industry’s first complete power harvesting and management solution for utility class solar power plants. Solstice revolutionizes energy production, boosting power production by 5-12 percent over designs using standard inverters, while at the same time reducing overall system material costs.

Additional technology advancements include remote control of real and reactive power, power factor control and low voltage ride-through enabling the utility to manage and maintain the solar asset just as they would every other power plant on the network.

Q6: Are you developing a micro-inverter model or considering a micro inverter model?

The existing micro-inverter approach is not designed for large-scale deployments. While we completely agree with the distributed MPPT approach, a different architecture is required in order to successfully address large scale solar. Our solution for this is Satcon Solstice.

Solstice integrates the best elements of existing micro-inverter technology, including fine grained power harvesting and utility ready grid interconnection, and combines it with the best elements of a traditional central inverter which is highly optimized and provides effective power conditioning, centralized management and grid interconnection, and created a new and we believe better approach to solving the challenges of large scale deployments.

Q7:  How do you compete with micro-inverters and what is your opinion on transformer-less inverters?

For smaller rooftop and light commercial installations, micro-inverters can be the most effective solution. However, with multi-megawatt installations, especially those over 100 kilowatts, micro-inverters cannot scale. If you factor six to eight acres / 4-5 hectares of panels per installed megawatt, it becomes clear that the sheer proliferation of failure points, combined with a lack of intelligent network management architecture and the lack of a single, manageable grid interconnection point significantly handicaps the micro inverter architectural approach.

Solstice is specifically designed for large-scale installations. It provides highly optimized, fine grained energy harvest architecture combined with advanced grid interconnection and utility control capabilities, and delivers significant performance gains, improved system safety and reliability, and an overall reduction in balance of system costs.

Q8:  What are the advances in software monitoring that you would like to share with the industry?

Satcon PV View is an on-demand monitoring service that allows customers to use an internet connection to retrieve information about the operation of their utility tied to photovoltaic system from anywhere in the world. Moving forward, we are exploring ways to provide remote access to not just see what’s happening but to be able to react.

Q9:  To what extent is the inverter key to harvesting energy compared to other balance of system components?

Traditional inverter design is key to harvesting energy. However we continue to explore new and innovative ways to optimize design. At Satcon, we focus on the entire system, and have identified many areas of opportunity for improvement between the panel and grid interconnection that will add value for our customers.

We will continue to introduce next generation solutions that address existing challenges between the panel and grid points that will take inverter technology to the next level.

Q10: What do you think of the statement – inverters are PV’s Achilles Heel?

This statement is misleading. Yes, inverters need to be maintained as they have components that aren’t passive like a panel. Upon closer inspection however, you will find that the inverter is the core value driver of the entire system. It enables us to improve harvesting and monitor diagnostic health.

From a quality perspective, Satcon offers the industry’s most comprehensive preventative maintenance and warranty plans, including our 99% Uptime Guarantee. Our Global Services organization is dedicated to ensuring that each Satcon solution performs with the highest levels of efficiency and reliability throughout its entire lifespan.

Q11:  You will be speaking at the Utility Scale PV Yield Optimization Conference & Expo taking place Nov 30 –Dec 1 in San Jose - what can delegates at the conference expect to learn from your presentation? 

Expect to learn all about the best practices learned across the world’s most advanced and intelligent solar PV solutions, and more about Satcon’s new and innovative technologies for utility scale solar installations.

If you would like to find out more about Satcon or the Utility Scale PV Yield Optimization Conference and Expo, contact us.

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