The role of the inverter is often overlooked in a photovoltaic system. Kept inside in the attic or in a closet, it is not the most visible part of a system but it performs a critical role and makes up large component of the equipment costs. The inverter is the hub that converts the direct current produced by the solar panels into alternating current suitable for the UK grid.
In a typical residential photovoltaic system, solar panels are connected in a ‘string,’ which means they are connected together in series so that the voltage of each module adds up. The positive and negative ends of the string are connected to the inverter which then does two main things:
Firstly, the inverter applies the optimum voltage across all the solar panels in the string. In order to extract the maximum energy from a solar panel you need to apply to certain voltage across it. The easy way to understand this is by remembering that power equals current times voltage. Current will still flow out of the solar panel if there is no voltage across it, but it won’t be able to provide energy. If too much voltage is applied to the solar panel then you lose current coming out of the solar panel, so the optimum voltage is somewhere in between. It is the inverter’s job to keep the solar panels at this optimum voltage. This is quite tricky since the optimum voltage changes with the temperature of the solar panels. To cope with this there is a special algorithm built into the inverter called ‘maximum power point tracking’, which makes continual adjustments to the voltage to ensure the most energy is got out of the system.
The second important job of the inverter is to convert the direct current produced by the solar panels into alternating current suitable for the mains electricity grid. In the UK, the mains frequency is 50Hz so the inverter must make sure that the electricity it supplies is matched to this frequency so that it can be used by other appliances in your house or be sold to your energy supplier.
Inverters are very common, for example your laptop charger uses an inverter to convert mains 50Hz electricity into direct current for your computer (this partly explains why laptop chargers are so expensive though I still think it’s a rip-off), and there are some very good solar inverters already out there. The largest manufacturer of solar inverters is called SMA, which enjoys a +30% market share worldwide (their line of residential solar inverters is called the ‘SunnyBoy’). Other big manufacturers are Kaco, Xantrex, Danfoss and Mastervolt to name a few. These inverters work well, so what are the developments on the horizon that make inverters interesting?
One issue is efficiency. Most commercial inverters are around 97% efficient, which is pretty good, but it still means that you lose 3% of all the energy you produce converting it from DC to AC. Increasing efficiency to 99% would increase the return on investment of your solar system and give a real competitive advantage. Several manufacturers claim to be close to offering new, super-high efficiency products.
The next issue is reliability. Most inverters are guaranteed for 10 years, which although is not bad, its only half the guaranteed lifetime of solar panels. This means consumers must allow for replacing the inverter at least once when financing a solar project. If inverters could be guaranteed for 20 years, it would mean consumers could feel comfortable knowing that the system will operate under guarantee for its entire lifetime until the whole thing needs replacing. Inverter manufacturers have been striving to improve reliability of their systems and products guaranteed for 20 years should be on the market soon. As a side point; proving 20 year reliability is very hard to do without actually waiting 20 years, and there is an entire field of study devoted to ‘accelerated stress testing’ of these products.
Another set of new features is how information is displayed. Many inverters come with an optional WebBox that allows you to view the performance of your solar system online. Some inverters now even come with iPhone apps so you can watch your solar energy production on-the-go, importantly show your friends in the pub. These types of innovations will keep coming so keep an eye out if this is something that interests you.
Perhaps the most radical development for inverters is the ‘micro-inverter’. Basically this means having not one big inverter but lots of smaller ones attached to each solar panel. This has several advantages. Firstly, it can improve the performance of the system significantly. Going back to the maximum power point tracking feature mentioned above, a normal inverter has trouble if not all the solar panels are performing the same. Solar panels could be at different temperatures to each other or just have different performance from factory errors. By using micro-inverters you can ensure that each solar panel is being operated at its own optimum voltage. Another issue is to do with shading. If one solar panel in a string is shaded or performing badly, it acts like a big resistor and dramatically reduces the performance of the whole system. Using micro-inverters isolates the performance of each solar panel so that power loss from shading is minimized. Enphase Energy, a leading manufacturer of micro-inverters in California claims that these features can lead to an improvement of up to 25% better energy output.
Other benefits of micro-inverters include the elimination of dangerous high voltage DC cabling on the roof, which can reduce fire and electrocution risks. (Another side point; some micro-inverter products are not actually micro-inverters, but they perform maximum power point tracking at each solar panel and then the AC:DC conversion at a central point.)
Currently, there is not a single micro-inverter product available in the UK. This is because it is still a new technology and the UK is such an insignificant market that it is not of interest to manufacturers rushing to bring their products to commercialization. That being said, the success of companies like Enphase in California, and the spate of companies following in their footsteps, means that it won’t be long before they become a real option, even in the UK.