On the cusp of intelligent PV

Speaking to pv magazine, Simon Hombersley, chairman and co-founder of UK company TwentyNinety, which is currently preparing for the commercial launch of its Active Array PV monitoring and power optimization tags, says that in three years time, it is highly unlikely anybody will be buying "dumb" PV modules.

According to him, the PV industry is in a transition period, where monitoring and control technology is so low cost and easy to implement that there is no reason why manufacturers will not be offering smart PV modules very soon.

"Whoever establishes themselves over the next couple of years, will probably be the platform technology for balance of systems in PV for the next decade. This is going to be a land grab, and companies like TwentyNinety have the opportunity to establish a generic platform technology across all PV for condition and performance monitoring," he states.

Moreover, he says that while in the past, module manufacturers have concentrated on selling as much product as they can, they haven’t concentrated on the value-added side of the industry. However, as was reported at the end of last year, PV modules are becoming increasingly commoditized and, as such, product differentiation is key to creating a unique selling point.

"I spend a lot of time talking to project financiers and players in the insurance industry," says Hombersley, "and they perceive PV, perhaps rightly, to be a low technology risk. They bring together heavily geared projects, install five megawatts and then sit back and count the money. They’re not really appreciating that they’re not getting the most out of those systems."

He continues: "It’s actually quite primitive in many ways and it’s just because it’s a young industry. Every other industry, condition monitoring of your generating source is absolutely standard. You wouldn’t think of building a power station without understanding exactly how it’s working, and yet people are putting in £5 million worth of plant and they don’t actually know what’s going on, so I think there’s a certain inevitability and timeliness to bringing intelligence monitoring, condition monitoring, control optimization, and so forth into this space."

Active array

As already mentioned, TwentyNinety is preparing to launch its Active Array product onto the market this year. Having come out of an extensive testing period, Hombersley is confident that now is the right time to introduce the monitoring, control, optimization and fire safety tags.

The company has already signed an exclusive distribution agreement into the Australian market, and is pursuing the different routes to market in the U.S. Meanwhile, it is aiming to enter the European market directly, without the aid of any third parties.

Designed to slot into junction boxes, the wireless technology, which allows communication with each module in a PV array, can be tailored to fit the needs of individual customers. It also reportedly improves performance by 20 percent over the lifetime of an array.

Hombersley backs up his assertion: "That is based on (…) a couple of studies in this field that have been undertaken, and rule of thumb that panels degrade one percent per year. We’ve also built our own mathematical model calculating what we think the degradation will be through a series of scenarios and what the impact of that degradation is on the power output, so we’re relatively comfortable that 20 percent is a defensible position for what we’re optimizing."

Expected to be produced in the hundreds of thousands in 2011, a number of measures have also been employed to ensure that the tags have been kept as low cost as possible. For example, many of the tags’ components come from other industries. As such, they have both been tried and tested over a 25 year period, and are already being produced in large volumes.

Hombersley explains: "Our wireless chip set, which could be quite an expensive item, actually uses the same wireless chip set that’s found in wireless mice. We also designed our own communications protocol, so instead of using a protocol like Zigbee, which has a license fee attached to it, we’ve designed our own, so that we can reduce costs on that. It’s really just about cost engineering to make sure that that tag is cost effective and as cheap as possible."

How cheap is cheap in TwentyNinety’s eyes? "In terms of our sale price, our objective is to deliver that system to PV manufacturers, total system, not just the individual tag, for within five percent of the installed cost," he says. However, he adds that this allows PV module manufacturers to increase the price to end users to increase their profit margin per module.

TwentyNinety recently won £20,000 from Shell Springboard, in recognition of Active Array’s potential to make a significant impact on the global PV market. What does the company intend to do with the cash? "This is the year that these types of systems are going to be rolled out not just by us, but also by the competition," states Hombersley. "Therefore, we’re going to use that £20,000 on marketing and commercialization rather than on the technical side."

Competition

While TwentyNinety is confident its product is unique to the market in terms of its specific attributes, and the fact that it is a low cost, generic platform for power optimization and safety, there are many other companies out there working on similar devices.

Hombersley states: "With PV modules, because they’re in series, one poor performing module can bring down the whole string and can throw off the balance of the whole array, so a number of companies are out there, attempting to address not just the power optimization question – how to identify poor performing modules – but also fire safety and other safety elements, which are increasingly becoming an issue throughout Europe. All sorts of people are talking to us about that, so there are a number of companies trying to solve the problem in a different way."

For instance, UK company Enecsys launched a new dual micro-inverter at this year’s Ecobuild. Reportedly the world’s highest power density micro-inverter, the company says it promises reduced costs, simpler installation and a longer life expectancy. In an interview with pv magazine, the company explains: "With the new micro-inverter, we get 20 percent more energy from each panel and reduce payback, therefore getting all the benefits, but with more energy and allowing for a flexible use of the product. We are hoping this will be a DIY product in the future, which is definitely an advantage for manufacturers. Additionally, system layout and planning is simplified and installation time and costs are reduced, because only half the number of micro-inverters is needed for each system."

Last October, Suntech also undertook a number of new collaborations in order to integrate intelligent technology into its PV panels. The company joined forces with Tigo Energy, Azuray Technologies, Enphase and National Semiconductor Corp.

Companies like SolarEdge, Enphase, Solar Eagle and SolarMagic have also developed similar products. For example, SolarMagic has released a new product onto the market this month – SolarMagic integrated circuits (ICs) – which it says "increases energy harvest, reduces cost per kilowatt-hour and improves safety in junction boxes and other types of enclosures. Used independently, the ICs provide high voltage and high current gate drive for microinverter or power optimizer designs."

Solon also launched a new power optimizing unit at the 26th Symposium on Photovoltaic Solar Energy in Bad Staffelstein, Germany. It believes it is the first manufacturer to offer a complete system, which consists of a Solon module with an integrated DC-to-DC power optimizer, a properly adjusted inverter, and a web-based monitoring system. "Furthermore in the event of a fire, the system can be disconnected completely, which ensures a high level of safety for system owners, installers, and fire-fighting units," says the company in a statement. It is working in cooperation with SolarEdge.

Meanwhile, research released last August by IMS Research states that PV microinverters and power optimizer revenues predicted to hit around USD$1.5 billion over the next few years. However, it believes that while shipments are growing at more than 100 percent on annum, they are forecast to be utilized in less than 10 percent of the global PV installations in 2014.

Watch out for the May edition of pv magazine, which will feature an in-depth interview with Simon Hombersley, in addition to a full power optimizer market overview.