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What I Saw at Enphase - Mind Blown!

08/17/18

  03:15:00 am, by Jim Jenal - Founder & CEO   , 1210 words  
Categories: All About Solar Power, Residential Solar, Energy Storage

What I Saw at Enphase - Mind Blown!

Enphase hqLast month during Intersolar, I (along with colleagues Sara and Victoria) was lucky enough to get invited to see a microgrid demonstration featuring the Enphase next-gen IQ8 at their headquarters in Petaluma, California.  As I had to sign an NDA as the price of admission, I was unable to write about what I had seen until today, when Enphase hosted their annual Analyst’s Day.  But I am no longer bound by that agreement, and can now tell you about what I saw. 

To say that I was impressed would be a gross understatement - quite simply, it was the most astonishing thing I have ever seen in the solar industry.  Settle in and let me tell you what I saw…

What Happens Today

Before I launch into describing the demo, let me remind you of what happens today.  All of the systems that we have installed are what is referred to as “grid-tied” which means that if the grid goes down, the PV system that is capable of back-feeding the grid also goes down, and remains down until the grid comes back.  (This is to prevent your house from being an island of energy, feeding the grid, and potentially injuring a worker trying to restore grid service.  As a result, this feature is known as “anti-islanding” and it is required of all inverter systems that are connected to the grid.)

Normally this is not a problem, but last month, when it got super hot out here (think 115° F hot!), both SCE and LADWP suffered dozens of outages, taking down PV systems across large swathes of LA County, and leaving frustrated PV owners without power, or A/C, just like their PV-less brethren.  Not good.

What I Saw in the Lab

Which brings us to what I saw at Enphase last month.

The lab looked like an ordinary industrial space, but with a series of household appliances and tools at one side.  There was a simulated array feeding a bank of IQ8 inverters, and a display that showed the output of the array (i.e., PV production), the total consumption from the loads, and any power being exported or imported to support those loads.  At the start of the demo the only load was a single red lamp, and the display indicated that it was drawing roughly 90 Watts.  The PV array was producing roughly 1.9 kWs, so the excess 1,800 Watts was being exported to the grid.  All super normal stuff.

But then things got interesting…

One of the engineers switched off the breaker that connected the PV array to the grid… and nothing happened!  Well, actually, a lot happened, but what didn’t happen was that the red light did not go off.  It didn’t even flicker to the extent that we could detect it.  But then when you looked at the display you noticed something amazing.  Not only had the microinverters created a grid on their own in fractions of a second, but they had throttled the output down so that now the production of the PV array exactly matched the load of the red light!  And here’s the kicker - there were no batteries attached to this system!!!

But what fun is just having a light on?  How about some toast?  So they switched on a toaster, and it lit up, and the total load jumped by about 1,000 Watts, making the total load now around 1.1 kW, and the PV array scaled up to meet it!  Still no batteries.  And how about this - there was no central controller, no master-slave relationship between the microinverters.  Rather, this was the “hive mind” at work, as the micros sensed the demand and scaled up or down as necessary to meet that load!

But wait, there’s more!

The next load to be added was a grinder like you might find on your workbench in the garage.  All by itself, that device drew roughly 1,200 Watts, bring our total load to roughly 2.3 kW - more than the maximum output of our simulated array.  What would happen when that was added to the mix?  Surprisingly little.  The grinder spun normally, but the red light dimmed slightly.  What was going on?  The system’s “hive mind” had lowered the voltage slightly (a microgrid equivalent of a brown out) to meet the amperage demand of the new load mix!  So slightly slower than normal, cooler than normal, dimmer than normal, but all operating.

Of course, all good things must come to an end.  Our already overloaded microgrid faced one more challenge - a vacuum cleaner with a significant in-rush current, far in excess of what the grid could sustain.  Indeed, as soon as they switched the vacuum cleaner to “on", everything shut off.  Nothing was damaged, the microinverters just shut off to protect themselves.

Turning on the vacuum cleaner served as the “ah-ha” moment for the potential homeowner - I guess I can’t run everything in grid outage mode.  So what do you do when something you just did produced an undesired result?  Well if you can, you undo it!  Turning the vacuum cleaner off, immediately restored the microgrid to its previous state of operation!  No delay.  No human intervention - just turn off that latest (over)load, and the system recovers on its own!

How cool is that?  Pretty damn cool, if you ask me!

Batteries Please?

So what about batteries, how do they play with this new system?  Just exactly as you would want.

The engineers added a bank of batteries to the mix, each with an IQ8 installed.  Now the display also indicated the battery’s overall state of charge, and whether they were charging or discharging.  Reset the demo to just the red light as a load and the batteries at 30% state of charge.  The PV array output jumped back to its maximum, with the surplus energy being used to charge the batteries.  As more loads were added, the PV array remained at maximum output, and as needed, drew power from the batteries.  Should the batteries reach full capacity and the PV output is greater than the loads, the microinverters will once again throttle down.

Sweet!

What’s Next?

I hope you agree that this was an amazing demo, and the IQ8 (or Ensemble, as Enphase refers to the overall system) has tremendous potential, both for Enphase as a company, and for so many nascent markets.  Think of how this product could have helped out in Puerto Rico, or in parts of Africa which have never, ever seen a grid!  Makes me want to book a trip to bring power to a village somewhere - hey Laurel, what do you say?

For our own clients, this has the potential to be the answer we have been seeking ever since Elon’s whoppers got people thinking about storage for the first time ever.

A point we raised with Enphase management is the need to have a reasonable upgrade path for existing clients.  Indeed, I have a call with Enphase tomorrow to discuss that very topic.  We know that current Enphase IQ products (the 6+ and 7+ we have been installing this year) will be compatible with Ensemble.  We expect to be able to work with older systems, though there may be a higher retrofit cost.  When we have that information, we will surely let you know!  The IQ8 is expected to be available in 1H2019… watch this space!

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Comment from:
bwelliott
Fascinating indeed. I am a homeowner in Florida and am considering the purchase of solar. FL is less solar-friendly than CA but it seems like a no-brainer to me, particularly with the fed credit. Enphase seems to be heading in the right direction with new partnerships and game-changing tech. Their financial picture concerns me and the Prescience Point report(s) make me even more gun shy towards them. You noted that 6+ and 7+ products will be compatible with Ensemble. Does that mean the 6+ and 7+ micros would provide the same mind-blowing functionality you saw with the 8s? I know it is early in the game but do you have a sense if there would be added costs involved with having the 6+ and 7+ products work with Ensemble? How about the Encharge storage offering they mentioned at yesterday’s Analyst day? In short, the case studies described exactly what I’m seeking so I’m trying to better understand if I should just wait for the 8s or I could go ahead and move forward with PVs, 6+/7+, and then add Ensemble software and Encharge storage when it arrives next year. Thanks for your great coverage on solar….
08/17/18 @ 14:16
Comment from: Jim Jenal - Founder & CEO
I do not (yet!) have an answer to your question, but expect to soon and will write about it then. Watch this space - and thanks for taking the time to comment.
08/17/18 @ 19:08
Comment from:
solarkings
5 stars
Awareness is critical for Enphase’s new revolutionary technology. There are literally millions of “anti-islanding” customers out there who will want this capability — in Hurricane Alley, Typhoon Alley, and basically anywhere where the grid goes down, sometimes for weeks after a hurricane or other natural disaster. Enphase’s IQ8 is the answer. All other microgrids are “dumb” as Raghu would say — Enphase is the first company to truly have a “smart” microgrid solution. Go Enphase!
08/17/18 @ 15:49
Comment from:
beholderseye
What was the inverter name? Glad that Empower advanced their product line… And not soon enough…
08/17/18 @ 18:54
Comment from: Jim Jenal - Founder & CEO
The new microinverter is called the IQ8.
08/17/18 @ 19:09
Comment from:
gwiggins
5 stars
Thanks for the excellent write up of the demo that very clearly explains how the IQ8 works under real life conditions. It does sound pretty extraordinary. Will other inverter makers like SolarEdge have anything like this to compete with in the near future or does Enphase truly have a deep moat that will take others years to catch up to? Wanted your impression of the battery solution they announced yesterday. Also, can you comment on their software and how important that is to the total Ensemble Platform? Appreciate your efforts to educate the market.
08/17/18 @ 19:42
Comment from: Jim Jenal - Founder & CEO

Thanks for the kind words (and for taking the time to comment).

I don’t have any insight into what SolarEdge has in store, but they don’t have anything like this in the market. SPI is next month, so it will be interesting to see how they respond.

The software is the entire key to how this works (assuming you have hardware that is capable of running it). The ability to coordinate without communication (let alone no master-slave relationship) is nothing short of astonishing. In fact, I’m reminded of Arthur C. Clarke’s line: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” This was close to that!

08/18/18 @ 19:32
Comment from:
g__day
Very innovative technology and great analysts presentation pack. I note two areas where I would love to know more. The first is basically how many IQ8 can you put into each 3.3 or 10 kWh storage unit? In Australia there is a huge pricing gap between peak time 2pm - 8pm grid electricity pricing and shoulder 7am - 2pm and 8pm - 10pm and off peak loads (10pm - 7am). The time hours before sunset to 8pm often generate 60 percent of our usage costs. In my typical scenario 4-6 kWh are needed over 2-3 hours. So an output of 2-4 kW for an hour or two would best economically cover my grid usage. This means a peak load storage unit is far more economically attractive than a base load storage unit. Something that can every day if need discharge fast! Your original 1.2 kWh unit took 4 hours to discharge - as only the one inverter per storage unit was released. Will your new units allow multiple 425W IQ8s to be installed per 3.3 kWh of storage? a 1, 2, 3 or 4 IQ8 per 3.3 kWh of storage would be a real game changer if it could be priced to give an ROI within 10 years - it could scale from base load to peak load depending on a customers needs. Secondly - will Enlighten or Enlighten Manager be enhanced to show financial performance of a PV system or benchmark my performance versus friends / a local community? Enlighten is great - a real differentiator for you. It could be superb if it was extended a bit more. I transfer a lot of daily / hourly data from Enlighten to Excel - simple because Enlighten doesn’t allow me to enter my 7 day a week 24 hour day cost of electricity in / value earned from electricity exported into a table - which could then be cross multiplied against usage to give me economic value derived. If I had that - I would love your reporting to death! I have 5 arrays in 3 compass bearing - I would love to see seasonal array performance at a glance (instead of half an hour of seasonal energy reporting analysis of each solar cell gymnastics I perform on Enlighten Manager to realise my North East and North West facing cells make 410 kWh per year and my SE cells average 310 kWh per year (as they only make half 60% of the power of the Northly facing cells in Winter). I have advocated for many of my friends to use Enphase - it would be great if we could readily compare our systems performance against each other. To me adding $ saved to Enlighten reporting versus only kWh produced or consumed would be a simple, yet killer feature to consider. Allowing each user to enter their specific 7 day 24 hour cost of a kWh drawn or provided would be wonderful to allow direct cost reporting from Enlighten would be wonderful. The social side of being able to blind or selectively benchmark is huge - look at what 3dMark / futuremark did when they not only created PC 3d graphics performance testing test but brilliantly added a world wide benchmark and ranking system - they revolutionised the game! Lastly - more specifics about what has to be done to integrate your new technologies to a M250 / S270 / IQ7 house would be appreciated. If I wish for power production with grid out - do I need your control (islanding circuitry) plus swap over all 36 micro inverters I own - or only one array of them - or can a hybrid mix exist but it will give different production performance? ALl up - many thanks - great work Enphase!
08/19/18 @ 01:43
Comment from: Jim Jenal - Founder & CEO

In case it wasn’t clear, I am not associated with Enphase, other than being an enthusiastic installer of their products. That said, I believe the 10 kWh Encharge system contains 12 IQ8’s, and presumably 4 in the smaller unit.

I would not expect to see Enlighten try to model savings as that is a complex undertaking since utility rate structures are so complicated and diverse. However, there are companies that are good at doing that, for example we use EnergyToolbase to model potential system performance and apply it against historical interval data and the chosen utility rate schedule.

Thanks for taking the time to comment.

08/19/18 @ 20:43
Comment from:
g__day
Oops - I missed reading on slide 39 that each 3.3kWh storage unit has a 1.28kW output (assume that is 3 * IQ8) - guys that is very, very nice!
08/19/18 @ 01:59
Comment from:
gridzilla
Add in integration with a generator and you have something truly disruptive.
08/20/18 @ 03:47
Comment from: Jim Jenal - Founder & CEO
My understanding is that you can indeed include a generator.
08/20/18 @ 17:44
Comment from:
amperageman
Nice to see the write up of what we have been hearing about.
08/24/18 @ 00:06
Comment from:
sandeen
Jim - Thanks for the writeup. So is there no transfer switch involved here, I take it? Is it just using CTs on the utility connection to measure net grid power flow and adjusting solar output so that there’s no backflow when the grid is down?
09/08/18 @ 19:11
Comment from: Jim Jenal - Founder & CEO
There was no transfer switch, per se, but they shut off the breaker that connected the array to the grid, so there was no way for the system to export power to the grid. The local microgrid did have consumption CTs as well as a production CT, but that was for the display, not to control what the IQ8’s were doing. The IQ8’s figured out what was needed based on the attached loads and modified their output to match.
09/08/18 @ 21:32

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Jim Jenal is the Founder & CEO of Run on Sun, Pasadena's premier installer and integrator of top-of-the-line solar power installations.
Run on Sun also offers solar consulting services, working with consumers, utilities, and municipalities to help them make solar power affordable and reliable.

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