Tuesday, October 4, 2022
Home SCIENCE New technology can turn your home into a solar microgrid

New technology can turn your home into a solar microgrid

Enlarge / Single story modern house with solar panels and wall battery for energy storage.

In 2020, the average United States resident experienced a little more than eight hours of power outages, according to statistics from the Energy Information Administration. The report noted that this was the highest number seen since 2013 when the organization began collecting this data.

During major storms or massive, oppressive heat waves, power can fail and many of the conveniences (TV, Internet, refrigerators, etc.) that Americans enjoy are simply gone. Currently, the main options to avoid this fate are batteries and backup generators. However, a company called Enphase says it has created a product that can allow your home to run directly from your solar panels if they’re producing, though it does have some caveats.

Shouldn’t solar panels work during a blackout?

You would think so, but no, mostly. Solar panels placed on houses (and other structures) that are connected to the power grid will also go broken during power outages. The blackout does not prevent them from producing energy; energy simply cannot be used in the absence of a working grid. This is because microinverters are part of an integrated system that includes the grid, energy meter, and other associated hardware.

(There are two exceptions to this. The first is off-grid buildings that are set up to generate electricity from solar panels. The other exception is structures that have battery systems attached, though they can cost a lot, around $14,000 to install in some cases.)

To increase the number of exceptions, Enphase created the IQ8 Microinverter. investors convert direct current (DC) produced by the solar panels to alternating current (AC) supplied by the grid. A microinverter is just a small version of it. According to Enphase co-founder and chief product officer Raghu Belur, microinverters work while connected to each solar panel rather than having many panels fed to one larger inverter. This approach of having a distributed architecture has proven to work well in other applications, such as computers and data centers, he said.

“The advantage [of putting inverters at every solar panel] is that when you do the power conversion in the panel itself, when you convert from DC to AC, you get better performance,” he told Ars. “The reason you get better performance is because the output of a panel is not dictated by the output of another solar panel, as opposed to a centralized case.

Another advantage is that there is no single point of failure; each panel and inverter acts as an independent power producer. In addition, all microinverters are linked to software that, among other things, uses a mathematical model to predict energy use in any structure they are connected to. That’s why his name includes “IQ”. Because he is smart. (Maybe. We didn’t really ask about that.)

Well, how does it power my house when there is no network?

A collection of these microinverters in a house can act as a microgrid. Each contains a chip that, when the main electrical grid experiences a power outage, switches from a grid-connected to an off-grid mode. In this mode, the microinverters ignore the grid and direct power to the building they are connected to. In essence, it can operate as part of a grid-integrated system or as part of a microgrid.

Once in isolated mode, if the sun is still shining, the solar panels will send their energy directly to the house. But, if the power goes out due to, say, a big storm, the panels wouldn’t be producing anyway, and the building would need to have a battery system to maintain power. However, according to Belur, microinverters can extend the time the building would have power and mean homeowners don’t need to buy a particularly large battery setup.

There are two types of configurations that owners can choose from. The first is the Sunlight Backup System, which uses battery-less microinverters. This setup requires Enphase microinverters and much more hardware: a combiner box like the one IQ 4 Combinera system driver like IQ System Controllera charge controllerand a quick off switch. (Just to be clear, some version of all this hardware is needed for the panels to work.) The other configuration is functionally the same but also includes a battery or batteries.

According to Enphase website, one of the company’s most affordable systems can cost between $6,000 and $8,000. This cost is potentially much cheaper than some top end battery systems.

So it’s technically true: the IQ8 will increase the odds that your home or business will have power during blackouts. Will it cover you 100 percent, regardless of the weather or time of day? No. Is it cheaper than many high-end battery systems? Yes


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