On the cusp of intelligent PV

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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

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