The most important announcement of the show came from our friends over at Enphase Energy who rolled out their 4th Generation microinverter as well as some intriguing upgrades to their Enlighten data visualization web service. Both have great potential - but will the AHJs go along?
As Enphase prepared to roll-out their new microinverter, they did so against a backdrop of dramatic market news driven by their existing products. IHS Research reported that Enphase was the number one inverter supplier in the Americas during 2012, capturing an astonishing 53.5% market share! Pretty impressive for a relatively young company whose product was dismissed out-of-hand by traditional inverter manufacturers just a few years ago. Of course, now all of those traditional inverter manufacturers are scrambling to bring their own microinverters to market - a novel twist on the old adage, “First they laugh at you, then they copy you, then you eat their lunch.”
At the same time, GTM Research reported that the Enlighten monitoring system was named “the #1 monitoring provider globally among power electronics vendors for PV markets.” Collectively, the company has shipped over 3.3 million units around the globe - so their new product introduction was an eagerly awaited event.
Enphase did not disappoint - enter the M250.
I know what you are saying - that’s an M215! No, not quite. For one thing, on the end where it is sitting is a label that proudly identifies it as the M250. Here’s another clue: the Enphase name and logo are now laser etched into the metal surface instead of the (more colorful) silkscreen used for the M215. The M250 has more mounting holes than the M215, although only one is needed. The M250 weighs a tad more than its older brother.
But the biggest difference of all is something the M250 does not have - a grounding lug! The M250 features what Enphase is calling Integrated Grounding and it means that you do not need to run a Grounding Electrode Conductor (GEC) from inverter to inverter - are you listening, LA Building and Safety?
Ok, so how can this be? In the M215, the positive conductor was bonded to ground through a Ground Fault Detection/Interruption circuit - which meant that the metal case of the microinverter was also grounded and from that point it needed to be connected back to the system’s grounding electrode via a GEC. Hence the need for a grounding lug on the M215 and the routing of a #8 conductor (#6 in LA - yikes!) between each unit. Needless to say, this increased cost (especially in LA) and upped the trip hazard on the roof.
The M250 changes all of that - take a look:
Now the solar module is ungrounded and the M250 operates under the NEC provisions - 690.35 & 690.41 - governing ungrounded arrays. According to Enphase:
[S]ince the M250 isolates the DC conductors from ground, only a simpler Equipment Grounding Conductor (EGC) is required. The EGC is provided within the Engage Cable system, which connects seamlessly to the AC power system outpout of the microinverter.
Also new to the M250 is the Insulation Monitor (IM), which measures the insulation resistance of the DC circuit with respect to ground… [thus] the M250 detects ground faults in either the DC positive or negative conductor of the PV module. Together these features offer greater safety than previously possible in any inverter technology.
So, with one stroke, Enphase is doing away with the need for the cumbersome and expensive GEC and eliminating the possibility of disastrous arc fault events! These are important safety considerations that will surely help the M250 move into more small-to-mid-sized commercial installations.
As with the M215, the M250 can operate in either 240 or 208 (3-phase) configurations - the much sought after 480 volt solution is still a ways off. The M250 operates at a CEC weighted efficiency of 96.5% at 240 volts (a half percentage point better than the M215) and 96% at 208. It is intended to operate with 60-cell modules up to 300 Watts which makes it a fine choice for LG’s NeoN modules. The M250 is actually rated at 240 Watts continuous (250 Watts peak, hence the product designation) which means that you can install 16 M250s on a single 240 volt branch circuit, protected by a 20 amp breaker.
Although the M250 rollout was the big news, Enphase also debuted a major rework of their Enlighten monitoring system. Although still in beta, the new visualization service - called MyEnlighten - is intended to take the large amounts of data gathered by the Envoy system and turn it into something more user friendly. We signed up for the beta and here’s how it looks:
Instead of seeing a panel-by-panel display - a visualization that will still be available to installers for trouble shooting - the new display lets you see how your system is performing overall and over time.
The bottom row of blue squares represents the present month with each square a given day. The lighter the shading the more energy that was produced that day. What jumps out is the black square - that represents today’s energy taken at 7:00 a.m. and hence very little to show so far. The other two darker blue squares represent days when clouds and even rain were present here in Pasadena - and the system tells you what the weather was that day so you have the proper context in which to evaluate your system’s performance.
The display also allows you to present a variety of different energy equivalents - here we have chosen to compare our energy production against what it takes to illuminate the Eiffel Tower. On July 16, this system produced enough energy to light the Eiffel tower for 95 minutes - and over the lifetime of the system it has produced enough energy to light it for 46 nights!
The new system integrates with social media and allows system installers to include information about the system and their company helping to make it a co-branded marketing tool as well as an educational platform. We are looking forward to sharing this system with our clients.
Enphase’s Intersolar performance argues that the company - far from resting on its laurels, or its number 1 position in the market share rankings - is working hard to build on its explosive growth. It remains far ahead of its johnny-come-lately competitors and without a superior product from them, why would anyone jump ship from Enphase?
In our view, Enphase has only two real threats facing it: a sudden batch of product failures and the dumping of cut-rate inverters from China into the US market. As to the former, Enphase is doing all that it can to prevent it from happening, noting that more than a million product testing hours went into the new M250.
As to the latter, there is little that Enphase can do and it raises the question: what will we as an industry learn from our experience succumbing to the siren song of cheap solar modules? That is a topic for another day.
This day, and Intersolar, belonged to Enphase without even having a booth - a dollar savings that will go straight to their investors’ bottom line.
We went to Intersolar (IS) wanting to suss out who actually was on track to bring a useful solar energy storage system to market. We found lots of poseurs and one real player. Here’s our take.
You would think that if you worked for a major manufacturer in the solar space as a director of product development you would have an idea of what your product was, and what the target market for it might be. But when it comes to product developers in the solar storage space that just doesn’t seem to be true. Or at least that was the impression we were left with after talking to some of the folks in the Storage corner of IS.
Take these guys. Solar Battery - or Sonnen Batterie as it appeared on CTO Torsten Stiefenhofer’s business card - had the largest booth, and the biggest box (allegedly a product) in the Storage corner. They also had the strangest attitude of any of the storage folks that we spoke to at the show.
Keep in mind that I approached Herr Stiefenhofer from the perspective of someone who really, really wants to buy his product for my clients. And he insisted he had an actual working product - over 1,000 sold! - but only in Germany. Well, when was he bringing a product to the U.S.? No idea - that was why they were at the show, to get a sense of the potential U.S. market.
Ok, fair enough, but then the conversation turned strange. Rather than discussing his product’s benefits and features, he was actively hostile about the question of selling here. It was almost like he had been ordered to be at IS, but clearly thought the whole idea of selling a product in the States was a giant waste of time. Certainly there are significant logistical issues in bringing a complicated product to market here, and once introduced it has to be supported. But all of that is apparent - so why the attitude? Somehow I doubt that we will be purchasing a product from “Solar Battery” any time soon.
Which brings us to KACO.
KACO has been talking about bringing a solar storage product to market for a long time. In fact, we wrote about this impressive looking box after Intersolar last year. A year later and there was no product on display, and apparently, still no product coming to these shores. My conversation with Bill Reaugh, Senior Director of Product Management, left me scratching my head as he seemed to have very little sense of what market he should be targeting or how to get his hands on data to allow him to do so.
He initially suggested that the market was the residential space - and seemed surprised when I pushed back and insisted that the small commercial market was a more realistic segment. After all, folks in GS-2 that could shift their peak demand so as to get into GS-1 where the full value of a solar power system could be realized would save a bundle using such a system.
“But how big would such a device need to be and how big of a market could that actually be,” he demanded.
Ok, so now I’m supposed to be doing his job for him? Fine, I’ll play along.
How about this, I suggested. Contact the California Public Utilities Commission and make a public records act request. Ask them to give you data about the number of customers that each of the IOUs have on GS-2 (or the equivalent, demand-driven rate structure in PG&E and SDG&E territories) and their average peak demands. Analyzing that data would give you some ideas about both product design and market size.
“Interesting,” he said, turning to his colleague in the booth, “Research that.”
By this time I was pretty thoroughly frustrated. These folks just didn’t seem like they were serious about bringing a product to market anytime soon. What we need is a U.S. company that actually gets the market and has an intelligent, focused strategy for serving it. Enter Stem.
We had come across Stem before when they announced a partnership with SMUD but we had never spoken with anyone from the company. My first hint that things might be different at the Stem booth was the pleasant discovery that the very capable Leesa Lee - formerly of another clever company, Enphase - was there as Stem’s Senior Director of Marketing. A company that could lure Leesa away from Enphase must be on to something.
Then Leesa launched into her pitch describing the company’s focus and it was as if she had been listening to my prior conversations. Stem is all about the commercial space, and the ability to intelligently offset peak demand to maximize the benefit of local power generation.
Here’s how they frame it on their impressive website:
Our vision is to bring energy consumption into the 21st century through distributed storage technology. We are an energy technology company that enables businesses to control their electricity expenses and helps the electrical grid to be more efficient in managing peak usage. Our mission is to provide energy customers and providers with a powerful optimization service that responds to their unique consumption and distribution needs.
Stem is leading the way to a brighter, more cost-effective energy future. Since 2009, Stem has been analyzing how various types of businesses use electricity and how they are charged for it. We’ve used this information to design a solution that protects companies from unnecessarily high electricity costs without requiring any changes to the way they run their businesses.
In other words, Stem has taken the time to analyze the market and develop a product directed at the needs of that market! What a concept!
According to Leesa, Stem should be shipping products before the end of the year. And as further evidence of their understanding of the market, they are putting on a webinar next week on “Using storage to optimize value of PV installations." Yeah, I think these folks get it.
Of course, there is a difference between having a clear view of your market niche and being able to fill that niche, and the jury is still out on Stem. But it is awfully refreshing to talk with people who actually seem to understand what it is they are trying to do. We are looking forward to seeing Stem succeed - oh, and did I mention that they are a U.S. company? Even better.
Last week was Intersolar North America 2013 (IS for short) in San Francisco and we were there - here is our first take on who was Hot and who was oh, so, not at the show (and Recom, we mean you).
Any time you come to a tradeshow - whether IS or SPI - part of the task in reporting back is to get a gestalt for the show as a whole. One sense of that comes from raw numbers - according to Intersolar, the number of exhibitors dropped from 757 in 2012 to 577 at this event, a decline of 23.7%. And certainly there were some major players missing in action such as module makers LG Electronics and SunPower, and microinverter king, Enphase Energy. (We understand that it has always been their strategy to pass on IS as “too local” in favor of SPI - but the rumor is that they will be passing on a booth at SPI this year as well!) Of course, Enphase proved that it is possible to make a splash at a show without a booth (see below) but we wonder if this is the start of a trend toward major downsizing of these events?
Aside from the numbers, here was our gut-check on the expansiveness of the show - where were all the bags? In years past it seemed that every major booth was giving out branded shopping bags that attendees could use to gather info from all of the other booths (and to carry home groceries thereafter!). This year - no bags, other than the clumsy paper version provided by IS when you registered. Without a proper bag we kept our acquisitions to a minimum - I kept one handout, from storage system manufacturer Stem (more on that in a later post) and lots of business cards. Meaning my flight home was the lightest ever.
In many ways, Enphase Energy was the star of this show. Not only did they utilize the posh, Four Seasons Hotel to roll out their 4th Generation microinverter product along with some very cool upgrades to their Enlighten data visualization service (about which we will devote an entire post later in the week) but they also played host to two of the major events at IS - all the while not staffing a booth on the exhibit floor.
The IS Tweetup - hosted by Tor Valenza (aka SolarFred) and co-sponsored by Enphase and Solar Power World - was a huge hit. The room was packed and we were able to see lots of old friends, connect with some new ones whom we had only known via social media previously, and have a very tasty meal. [Shoutouts to Nick Carter (who runs a cool site devoted to our favorite synthesis of EV & PV), Jon Semingson (of MRI Network) and Adam Gerza (who has the awesome gig of being a solar guy charged with directing governmental affairs for Sullivan Solar Power).]
Then Tuesday evening, Enphase was one of the hosts at the annual Summer Solarfest party. Again, this is one of those events where lots of networking takes place and people exchange catch-up information - like who has gone where and other fun rumors.
We were able to talk with a number of Enphase folks during both of these events and it really helped to have a greater understanding of the company’s strategy going forward. And then, just like that, they were gone!
We suspect more companies are going to adopt this approach - eschew the booth in favor of more closely targeted events where you can connect with the people you most want to during the show opportunity. While there is certainly more bang for the buck from that approach - and no doubt that matters a lot to a recently gone public company still trying to reach profitability - but there is the downside of not making that serendipitous connection. Given that we got hooked on Enphase by just such an occurrence at a small data monitoring conference years ago, we would hate to see those opportunities slip away.
While the exhibit floor was definitely not as Hot as in years gone by, there was another floor that was as Hot as ever - and that was the one found at the annual Solar Battle of the Bands. Thanks to a miracle ducat from the folks at Quick Mount PV - shoutout to Ron Jones - we were able to attend this year’s sold-out event. The action ranged from way cool blues…
…to the hottest of the hot!
The crowd loved it!
Great to see industry folks hang out a bit and enjoy the many talented people in this biz.
As you walk the floor a common question that colleagues ask each other is - what is the coolest thing you have seen on the floor? When a show covers so much floor space - module makers on the first floor, inverters on the second and racking/BoS folks on the third - it is easy to overlook something. Well we found what was the coolest thing at the show, hands down - the folks from QBotix - Solar Powered by Robotics.
Imagine a utility-scale array of dual axis trackers. Lots of motors and controllers out in the field to wear out over time - big expense to install and maintain. If you were going to come up with a different solution and were willing to go way outside the box, what might you dream up?
The QBotix solution is to get rid of the motors and electronics on the trackers themselves - leaving only a series of sealed gears connected to flanges on the base. Now introduce a robot - that yellow device on the rail in our picture - and program it to follow that rail from tracker to tracker throughout the array. When it arrives at one it stops, engages the gear box flanges and spins them, repositioning the array for that time slice. Then on it goes to the next, repeating that process, until every tracker in the array has been adjusted. It then parks itself (where it recharges!) and then repeats the process so that the array is re-aligned every 45 minutes. Now how cool is that?
So far the company only has a couple of relatively small test installations. But their booth was the hit of the show, always with lots of folks standing in awe at the creativity behind this concept. We don’t know if this will ultimately prove to be a viable solution to the dual axis tracking problem, but we certainly do salute their innovative approach. We will keep an eye on these folks going forward. Nicely done!
Besides trying to track down what is cool, the other question that folks ask while wandering the floor is what is the worst thing you have seen. Alas, that is a question worth asking given the pattern of seeing tacky, outright sexist displays that are passed off as marketing. That pattern plunged to new depths this year when the geniuses at Recom - a module manufacturer headquartered in Greece - came up with the brilliant idea of putting women in cages to advertise their products. Seriously.
So what is the connection between solar modules and women in cages? Besides none, of course? Apparently their modules are named after a Leopard and a Panther so the obvious marketing choice is to highlight those products by putting women wearing torn clothing in cages. Obvious, that is, if you are a sexist idiot with the maturity of a high school sophomore boy - with apologies to sophomore boys everywhere.
Lest you think this was just a momentary lapse in judgment, there is this from their website (which no, I’m not linking to):
Experience the Difference
The most elegant girls welcome you to the Recom experience. See the most extravagant booths, listen to the best music and join us in a place where reality become unreal. You can’t miss us from every large international industry trade fair around the world. Come and admire the innovative approach to our booth design, unique to each fair.
Seriously. Who the hell are these guys?
Well, thanks to LinkedIn we were actually able to track down their Managing Director, Hamlet Tunyan. You can email him at: email@example.com and let him know what you think of his sexism pretending to be marketing. I hope his mailbox melts down.
That’s it for this slice of IS - next up will be the poseurs and the player in the solar storage debate.
Interesting times in the solar industry with a major player from Germany, Conergy AG, entering into insolvency proceedings on the eve of Intersolar North America (IS). We will be at IS and will be reporting at some length upon our return, but here is our brief preview.
Conergy AG is the parent company of U.S. solar distributor, Conergy America. Collectively, they comprise one of the largest distributors of solar equipment in the world. Conergy AG had been reportedly seeking an investor to take over loans held by ten banks, but one bank balked, forcing the company into insolvency. It is not clear what impact, if any, this will have on Conergy America’s business (they insist none, at least in the short term) but it is certain to be a major talking point at IS.
One of our favorite companies, Enphase Energy, is set to announce the release of their 4th Generation microinverter during the show. Rumored to be a 250 Watt device, it will be interesting to see what other features make their way into this product - perhaps a less glaringly reflective surface (high on every installer’s wish list), or a more visible operations indicator light. We have agitated for an ability to communicate with the microinverter before the corresponding solar module is installed (perhaps as part of a debug mode). The wait will soon be over as the product will be rolled out Tuesday morning.
But Enphase is also showing their social side with a couple of events, starting by co-hosting (along with Solar Fred and Solar Power World magazine) the Annual Tweetup! This looks to be a great party, with lots of Twitter-connected solar peeps taking advantage of our sponsors’ generosity. Oh yeah, we will be there - and so should you!
Then, later that same day, Enphase will also be sponsoring the Enphase Wine Country Lounge at the Solar Summerfest. Should be a big day for our friends at Enphase and we are looking forward to raising a glass or two with them.
The most buzz at the show - apart from who is going out of business - is likely to be centered around the role of storage in solar power systems. As we have reported before, IS will feature a section specifically devoted to storage systems. We are looking forward to seeing what will emerge from the vapor-ware fog as a viable solution for our clients.
Finally, three of the whip-smart members of USC’s 2013 Solar Decathlon Team will be in the IS house. Evyn Larson, Kai Nguyen, and Alain Peschard will be at the show, looking to learn all they can and help establish long-term relationships between USC and various solar manufacturers and distributors. I will be privileged to be showing them around for at least part of the time - if you are interested in supporting USC’s program now or in the future, please let me know.
That’s it for now - by the time you read this I will be en route to the Bay Area. Hope to see lots of you over the next few days and sharing what I learn with those of you kind enough to follow this blog.
If the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) has its way, investor-owned utilities (IOUs) around the state will have a mandate to acquire 1,325 MW of storage capacity by 2020 as part of the plan to have one-third of all electricity come from renewable sources, according to a report from Bloomberg.
The CPUC’s proposed ruling would allow IOUs to acquire energy storage as part of the “general rate case” process by which utilities build infrastructure and pass the cost on to their rate payers.
Energy storage is widely viewed as a critical piece of adding more renewable sources to the grid, given its ability to smooth out the peaks and valleys that come with renewable sources like solar PV and wind. Possible storage technologies include lithium-ion batteries and even molten salt to store heat to later run a turbine to produce electricity. Cost of this exercise? As much as $3 billion, or $2.26/Watt.
The proposed rule making is the result of legislation, AB 2514, by our old friend Nancy Skinner, and it is evident that the CPUC “gets it":
Energy storage has the potential to transform how the California electric system is conceived, designed, and operated. In so doing, energy storage has the potential to offer services needed as California seeks to maximize the value of its generation and transmission investments: optimizing the grid to avoid or defer investments in new fossil fuel-powered plants, integrating renewable power, and minimizing greenhouse gas emissions.
The proposal allocates portions of the 1,325 total to each IOU with SCE targeted to procure 580 MW of storage, of which 80 MW should be customer side, as opposed to transmission or distribution connected.
A final adoption of storage targets is due in October.
Meanwhile, in a separate but related announcement, SolarCity made some news when it disclosed that it intends to incorporate a storage offering by 2015 that would serve customers without net metering. In other words, the storage system would be capable of storing any excess energy created by the solar power system and then feeding it back to local loads without ever sending any energy back onto the grid. If such a system could be deployed in a cost-effective manner, it would eviscerate the utility’s “fairness” argument in opposing the additional penetration of solar.
But can it be cost-effective? SolarCity is hoping that its partnership with Tesla Motors will enable it to procure battery packs at a low enough cost to succeed in this new arena.
Of course, a successful energy storage system is more than just batteries, and as we head to Intersolar in a little over a week, a great deal of attention there will be devoted to the energy storage realm. We will be there and will report back after the show.
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