The digital revolution has been called the third biggest revolution following the industrial and the electrical. Many industries, such as telecommunications, that previously hit a plateau in their technological progress achieved their next leap forward once they integrated digitization into their solutions. This is because digitization offers industries many benefits, including reduced costs, increased efficiency and faster growth. The world is going digital: So, too, should the energy industry – especially the solar energy industry, which can benefit from digitization in power conversion and monitoring through grid interconnectivity and smart homes.
Taking the inverter digital, for example, could help the solar industry leap forward. One way inverter technology can be digitized is by transferring more of the conversion process onto a digital processor instead of mainly using a mechanical process. This type of technology can significantly decrease the inverter size and weight while also increasing efficiency. The reduction of components helps lower costs, and improved efficiency increases the amount of energy harvested from a solar PV system. On a larger scale, the improved power-weight ratio and efficiency play an integral part in reducing the levelized cost of electricity and speeding up the pace toward grid parity.
Besides improving the economics of PV systems, digitization can also offer increased functionalities. Originally, an inverter’s key function was principally for the conversion of DC to AC, but over the years, the inverter’s role has evolved, and today it has become the brain of the system. As such, it manages many more functions, such as monitoring, storage, grid interaction and safety, among others. With digitization, the inverter can become smarter and its role can expand even faster.
For example, inverters are beginning to play a new role in smart buildings. As mentioned, the inverter already controls PV energy generation and grid interaction, manages energy storage, and monitors home energy consumption. The natural progression is for it to manage device control and, by doing so, merge the two separate worlds of solar energy and building automation. Smart homes not only offer improved convenience, but when combined with a PV system, they also allow homeowners to increase their self-consumption of the solar energy they produce. Because PV production does not typically match homeowner consumption, smart homes allow for the control of appliances via smartphones and, as such, direct PV energy to the appliances. This type of energy management requires more processing power due to the increased amount of information and functionality. The ability to process more information faster is key to this and can be economically achieved through digitization. The next step in digitization after smart homes is the potential to offer many additional benefits, such as artificial intelligence, sub-grid/aggregation, and Internet of Things (IoT).
The benefits of digitization do not stop there. Digitization of PV systems can potentially revolutionize the energy grid. For nearly a century, our energy generation model of centralized production has remained unchanged. Compared to other industries that have moved past this centralized model, this is a very outdated and inefficient model.
For instance, computing has moved toward a distributed computing or grid computing model, which has improved reliability and service. Digitization can help move the electric grid in the direction of mini power stations by allowing faster communications and increased functionalities that are essential for a distributed grid infrastructure. Mini power stations or a distributed grid infrastructure would mean that energy could be produced, stored, and consumed in the same location. In addition, the grid would be able to pull energy from each of the mini power stations when needed – for instance, from PV systems or batteries. This would allow for a much more interconnected system.
However, the type of interconnectivity, bi-directional communications, and dynamic responses that are necessary for a smart distributed grid can only be supported by PV systems that are managed by digital technology and have fast processing power. For the infrastructure to keep up with the modern world and its demands, it will need to change and integrate digital technology.
Inverter advancement can serve as a key for the solar energy industry to join the digital revolution. Over the past 25 years, inverter technology has made limited progress in terms of size, weight, manufacturing costs and efficiency. When comparing the solar sector to the computer industry, which has doubled its processing power every 18 to 24 months, it is no surprise that every home has a computer, but not a solar energy system. However, when inverters – and, thus, PV systems – are digitized, their progress will be aligned with Moore’s law, and continuous improvement based on increased processing power and silicon integration will be of great benefit to the solar industry.
Lior Handelsman is the co-founder and vice president of marketing and product strategy of SolarEdge Technologies Inc., a provider of PV inverters, power optimizers and module-level monitoring services. Prior to founding SolarEdge, Handelsman spent 11 years at the Electronics Research Department, one of Israel’s national labs.