DIY Solar Panels Using Micro Inverters?
As we continue to develop distributed, renewable energy, it stands to reason that we will continue to look for more efficient ways of generating electricity. Plug-in hybrid vehicles are just around the corner, and that will put the focus even more squarely on the home's electric bill.
Do-it-yourselfer's like to get their hands dirty and if they can save a few bucks while they are at it - all the better. But unless you live near a river or have enough land to install a windmill, solar power is likely your only choice for offsetting a significant portion of your electric bill.
The draw behind DIY solar panels is certainly obvious. Your roof, generally has plenty of flat surfaces that face the sun. If you are the handy-man type you have probably thought once or twice about installing solar panels yourself. DIY solar should be easy enough, right?
Back to easy, DIY solar. It is not here yet but progress is being made. The advent of the micro inverter is a step in the right direction. Solar panels on the market today produce direct current (DC) while normal home appliances need alternating current (AC). In order to become a source of grid friendly electricity, solar panels must be connected to a power inverter that will transform the DC power to AC power that is in sync with power grid. For home solar electric installations this is typically accomplished by connecting each individual solar panel to a large centralized grid tie inverter that handles the conversion process for all of the panels. Designing the string of panels to connect to a central inverter is a complex process that should only be done by a trained professional. Not to mention the dangers of working with high levels of electric current from the combined solar panels.
For the do it yourselfer looking to get their hands dirt, this is where the "DIY solar panel" comes in. The do-it-yourself solar panel includes a micro-inverter attached to the solar panel so that the unit itself would produce AC power. There is no need to combine all of the DC power to be converted at the centralized inverter, eliminating a complex and dangerous step. That being said, making a mistake while installing a solar panel with a micro inverter would be
tantamount to shoving a paper clip into a live electrical outlet. AC current is still very dangerous but taking steps with large electric current involved out of installation process reduces your risk exposure. Also, because of the nature of AC, one would have to contact both a ground of some sort and a live wire, simultaneously, in order to electrocute themselves as opposed to DC where simply touching the wire could be deadly.
Micro-inverters bring do-it-yourself solar panels much closer, however installers shouldn't fret. Many people will still prefer to have an experienced professional get on their roof and work with dangerous levels of electricity. Your job will actually get easier as micro inverters are adopted and the reduced cost will make the technology available to more customers. The micro inverter market is still in the very early stages. Enphase Energy is the current industry leader and even they are only able to ship limited quantities
at this time (9-22-09). Although Island Technology has announced that they will skip the direct sales of inverters and will be working directly with solar panel manufacturers to integrate them with their panels to create DIY solar panels. Still not convinced that micro inverters are going to be a major contender in the solar electric power inverter space? SMA Technology (widely considered to be an industry leader) thinks so with their recent announcement that they have
purchased OKE Services to enter the market.
Will micro inverters pave the way for true plug and play DIY solar electric systems? I think they will. After all, it wasn't until components began shrinking and sharing the same housing that the personal computer became accessible to the general public. As racking becomes more standardized and easier to install, the last major step will be grid connection. It will be a long time before the average DIY'er will be able to safely complete the connection to the grid. But we will be able to have certified electrician come out and install a grid connected "power hub". Basically a device, not unlike a USB hub for your computer, it would have standardized power input connections for the DIY solar panels to hook into. The power hub is installed once by the electrician and allows you to grow the system over time. You could install a few panels initially then add more DIY panels at your own pace. This architecture is both scalable and flexible and I believe will bring us closer to DIY residential solar electric.