Solar Engineering

We've begun the design process for our solar installation and it turns out to be a lot more complicated than I expected.

Solar cells are very simple devices: light shines on them, they produce a voltage, and you get power. So you would think that designing a solar system would mostly be a matter of deciding how many solar panels you want and where to put them, then plugging a bunch of cables together to hook it all up. Unfortunately, the solar industry is a long way away from that plug-and-play world.

Solar Modules

An individual solar cell is a few inches across and produces just a few watts of power at about 0.5 volts. Even a modest residential solar system will have over a thousand solar cells. To make everyone's life easier, a few dozen solar cells are packaged together in a weatherproof frame with a glass cover to make a module. The module wires together all the solar cells in series so that the module outputs anywhere from 80 to 350 watts at a respectable voltage.

For all the technology that goes into manufacturing solar cells, the module itself is pretty dumb. Nearly all modules just passively wire the cells together and output the resulting power as DC current on a pair of wires. As a result, the voltage and power output of a solar module will vary depending on many different factors, including the amount of light hitting the module, the temperature, and the resistance (load) of the attached circuit.

In order to get the best possible power output from a solar module, the load on the module needs to be constantly adjusted to maintain the optimal current and voltage. This is called Maximum Power Point Tracking, and it's usually the job of the inverter or a specialized device called a DC optimizer.

Inverters

The output of a solar module is not directly usable for most electrical needs. The module produces DC power at a voltage which varies constantly, and most electrical stuff needs AC power at a stable voltage (usually 110V in the U.S.). To make the solar power usable, you need an inverter to convert the DC to AC. The inverter is where most of the intelligence of the system lives: in addition to converting DC to AC power, the inverter will track the Maximum Power Point to optimize the output of the solar modules and monitor the health and output of the system.

If your solar system is connected to the electric grid (as most residential systems are these days), the inverter is the interface between the solar panels and the grid. The inverter will make sure the phase and frequency of your AC power matches the grid, and also shut off the solar if there's a power outage. Shutting off the solar in an outage is important because otherwise your solar system would be feeding power into a dead power grid, with the risk of electrocuting power line workers trying to repair the outage. Unfortunately, that means you can't use solar as backup power (without a fair amount of extra equipment and expense to provide the needed power isolation).

String Inverters vs. Microinverters

Traditionally, a series of solar modules would have their DC outputs wired together and brought into a single centralized inverter. The problem with this is that at any given moment, different modules in the string might have different maximum power points. For example, one module might be partly shaded while the others are in full sun. Or slight differences in manufacturing can lead to slightly different power outputs on the modules.

Since the inverter has to hold a single voltage and load for the entire string, this configuration will always cause some modules to produce less than their maximum power. You also have to make sure all modules in a string are the same model from the same manufacturer--no mixing and matching whatever is cheapest this week. However, since power inverters have traditionally been big and expensive, there's been no economical alternative.

In the past few years there's been a new approach. Instead of a string of modules connected to a central inverter, each module gets its own microinverter physically connected to the backside of the module. The AC output of the microinverters is connected together and wired into the grid.

As the name implies, each microinverter is small, with a capacity of a couple hundred watts instead of the kilowatts more typical for a string inverter. The price for a bunch of microinverters is in the same ballpark as the price for a single string inverter of similar capacity (or anyway, our solar contracter is charging us the same system price whether we go with microinverters or string inverters), and having the modules output grid-ready AC power simplifies some of the design and installation.

The big advantage of microinverters is that it allows each individual module to be held at its own maximum power point, yielding more power from the system as a whole. The manufacturer claims an increase of up to 10% total output over the course of the year, though that depends a lot on the details of the system. Microinverters help more when you have different shade conditions on different parts of the solar array, since a single shaded module in a string can pull down the power output of the whole string.

The biggest disadvantage of microinverters seems to be that there's only one major supplier of them, and because they're a relatively new product, some installers are not comfortable with them yet. String inverters have been in the field for decades and perform well, but microinverters only have a few years of field experience. My solar installer describes them as a bit on the cutting edge, since he's not yet confident they'll perform for the entire 30-year life of the system. For us, though, microinverters make a lot of sense because we will have significant shade issues in some corners of our array.

Mechanical

The solar modules have to be physically attached to whatever surface they will be mounted on (in our case, the roof). This attachment has to be strong enough to hold the weight of the system and keep it from blowing off in a storm. It has to be weathertight so the roof doesn't leak where the solar array is attached. And, ideally, it should be easy enough to install that the labor costs don't get out of hand.

One mechanical problem we won't have in Minnesota is making sure the roof is strong enough to support the weight of the solar arrays. Since our roofs are designed to hold a significant weight of snow and ice in the winter, any roof which was built to code should be strong enough for solar. I'm told this is not always the case in more southerly climates.

It's All Custom

Because every system is a unique combination of modules, inverters, and mechanical components, there's a fair amount of custom design for each installation. There's no question this drives costs up. One would think the industry would move towards "smart" modules with integrated microinverters, standardized connections, and a plug-and-play approach. The closest I've seen is Solarpod, which sells a "system in a box." Solarpod still relies on third-party modules and microinverters (as near as I can tell), rather than an integrated smart module.

Part of the problem is that electrical components which will be connected to the power grid need to be certified for safety, and the certification process is apparently slow and expensive. So where there are hundreds of different solar modules from dozens of manufacturers, and new modules coming on the market all the time, there are fewer companies making inverters (and only one major supplier of microinverters). And since the module manufacturers don't want to be slowed down by the certification process, it looks like for the foreseeable future we will be stuck with dumb modules and separate inverters.

I think the industry recognizes this as a problem. Many people in the solar business have spoken about driving the installed price of a complete solar system under $1/watt. That represents about a 65% to 75% decrease from today's prices. The solar modules are only around a quarter of the total system cost, so there needs to be a lot less expense in inverters, mounting, and installation labor. All that will require a less customized, more integrated approach than we have today.

(Thanks to Charlie Pickard of Aladdin Solar, who has been exceptionally patient with me in answering all my dumb questions.)