Category Archives for "Solar Technology"

Solar Inverter Costs and How to Choose the Right One

solar-inverter-costs

Solar inverter costs, warranties, and efficiencies you should know before making your purchase.

Quick Tip: If you’re not too familiar with solar inverters, glance over our primer on solar inverters What Solar Power Inverter Should You Get For Your PV System? to understand the basics before moving forward with this article about solar inverter costs.

If you are already working with a solar installer, most have a short list of inverters they typically like to install, so your options for inverters might be somewhat limited. Which inverter is installed in your home is typically decided by availability and installation size as well as placement of your solar installation (see the article linked above for more information on this).

Even if your installer has shortlisted a few inverters to make it easy for you to choose, or even if they already chose for you, it’s a good idea to know a little the technology and typical solar inverter costs so you know what you are getting and whether it’s a good deal. There are a lot of inverters out there, each with different prices, efficiencies, and warranties, so knowing a little background information will go a long way to helping you make a sound financial decision.Continue reading

Organic-Inorganic Hybrid Perovskite Solar Cell Could Quadruple Power Efficiency

pervoskite-solar-cell

Could an organic-inorganic hybrid perovskite solar cell be the Holy Grail we’ve been looking for?

Reaching a high power conversion efficiency has always been the goal of solar energy.

Last year, the development of perovskite-silicon solar cells by the Hong Kong Polytechnic University showed great promise by reaching the world’s highest power conversion efficiency of 25.5 percent. This was accomplished by designing a transparent perovskite layer with an optimized thickness that allowed the absorption of light into the silicon part of the solar cell.

Then a few months later, a team from Eindhoven University of Technology showed that adding a few nanometers of a thin layer of aluminum oxide would protect a perovskite solar cell against humidity while increasing power efficiency by three percent.Continue reading

How Many Solar Panels does it take to Charge an Electric Car?

how-many-solar-panels-to-charge-an-electric-car

How many solar panels are needed to charge an electric car?

The residential solar industry has enjoyed a huge growth spurt over the last decade due to falling prices and new financing mechanisms. At the same time, electric car ownership has grown steadily, pushed forward by companies like Tesla and Nissan that are constantly researching and developing new ways to make electric vehicles cheaper and go further on a single charge.

Some electric car drivers are even installing solar on their home’s roof to charge their car. An electric car powered by clean, renewable energy? Yes, please! This idea though might leave you asking the obvious question “How many solar panels does it take to charge an electric car?”

Continue reading

The History of Solar Energy

history-of-solar-energy

In this post, we talk about the history of solar energy and how it developed throughout the ages.

For thousands of years, humans have harvested sunlight. It started simply – warming rooms with large windows or starting fires with mirrors – and led to today’s complex photovoltaic power plants with millions of solar panels each creating electricity.

Knowing the history of solar energy gives us a deeper appreciation for just how much work it took to get us to today’s modern solar technology. Below is just a brief overview of this story.Continue reading

Can You Walk on Solar Panels?

scratched-solar-panel

Walking on solar panels doesn’t sound like a great idea

On first hearing this question, my initial reaction was, “This is going to end badly.” Outside of the much-maligned Solar Roadways project, I hadn’t heard of any solar panels you could walk on. I also couldn’t bring to mind any cases where you’d want to, outside of being a ninja trying to ensure you left no trace on a target’s roof.

Ninjas aside, I have since come across a couple of minor cases where wanting to stand on solar panels is understandable. It’s something I’ve seen yacht owners asking about, trying to make use of very limited deck space.

So, the question remains — can you walk on solar panels?

Early on in my investigations, I came across this promotional video from SolarWorld. In the video they make a point of showing off how strong their panels are, simulating some incredibly vicious hail, walking across them, and even going so far as to drive a truck over them. Clearly, the panels shown in the video can take the stress with no problems… But.

There’s a problem — we never see the panels actually working, either before or after the test.

Now, this was a promotional piece, and not a scientific test. That said, I’d want to see the voltage coming out of those panels before and after the tests shown before I risked stomping across panels I hoped to use — even more so if I were paying for them out of my own pocket. With that in mind, I went hunting for datasheets.Continue reading

Everything You Need to Know About Solar Monitoring

solar-monitoring

Solar monitoring: the metrics dashboard for your panels.

For anyone interested in installing a new solar system, or if you already have one in place, there are likely still some questions about how your system will perform once it’s actually up and working.  You might not have heard of solar monitoring before, but it will help you answer questions like:

  • How much energy is being produced?
  • How does rain or snow affect my production?
  • How much energy do my various appliances use?
  • How will I know if something has gone wrong?

Because solar power is a huge investment it is important to make sure that you are getting a good return on this investment. Many people are also interested in how solar power works and to see exactly how their system is performing.

Let’s check out some of the main advantages you’ll have by adding solar monitoring to your home system:

Advantages of Solar Monitoring:

Advantage #1: Having Live Data

It’s possible that a small monitoring panel came with your system by default, but the most basic systems do not provide the best data.  One great feature of an advanced system is that you’ll often have access to live data about your performance.  This means that instead of seeing updates every 10, 15, or 30 minutes you’ll see updates every few seconds.

Once you’re able to see these frequent updates, you’ll be able to clearly see how things affect your system by looking at shade during the day, turning off appliances, and seeing the real-time effects of rain and snowfall.

More frequent data also smooths out your data reports and means that the analysis will be more meaningful because it will have access to many more data points.

Advantage #2: Knowing Expected vs. Actual Solar Production

When you are picking out your solar panel system it will likely have some amount of expected solar production attached to it.  Your installer will use averages from your area or actual sunlight readings along with your system size to determine how much energy it should be producing on an average day.  The number that they arrive at is extremely important because it will determine how much you will be saving with your system on a monthly and yearly basis.

Depending on how you structured your contract, your system’s production may even be guaranteed.  In this situation, it would be extremely important for you to know exactly what your system is producing to make sure you’re getting your money’s worth!

Advantage #3: Increase in Performance and Efficiency

If you have access to the complete details of your solar system then you will be able to see ways to improve your performance. Say, for instance, that you see a couple of the panels on the left side of your roof are starting to produce less power during certain parts of the day.

You could use this real-time data to check and see what the cause might be. Perhaps some tree limbs are starting to grow over your roof. Maybe they are getting dirty for some specific reason. Either way, a monitoring system will allow you to capture these performance increases in your system.

Advantage #4: Optimize your Energy Use

optimize-energy

With any solar system, your production will be highest during the times of day in which the sun is brightest and aiming directly at your panels. It is during this time that you’ll want to time any high-consumption activities, such as pool pumps or recharging an electric vehicle, to coincide with your peak energy production. On the other side of the coin, you’ll be able to see when your production is lowest and try to avoid high-energy activities during that time of day.

Advantage #5: Resolve Troubleshooting and Alerts

Troubleshoot

Most systems come with advanced troubleshooting and diagnostics features. These will show you when a piece of equipment has failed, possibly avoiding a long period of time with lost production. Something as simple as a pest chewing through your wires could take ages to diagnose and locate without some type of solar monitoring software.

Which Features Differentiate Your Options?

As we begin to look at different options in the solar monitoring space, we’ll see that there is a huge amount of variation in what exactly each company is offering. Some systems want to maximize the amount of customizability while others want to offer the simplest process possible and everything in between.  Here are a few ways in which your solar monitoring systems could vary:

  • Measuring Interval – Your system could update every 15 minutes or every few seconds.
  • Communication Methods – Your system could communicate via WiFi or you might have to manually upload data.
  • Type of Inverter – If each panel has its own micro inverter then you will often be able to diagnose individual panels.  One central inverter might not allow this.
  • Cost – Some systems have a one-time install cost, others have a monthly, some have both!
  • Ease of Use – Does your system offer a portable monitoring solution like a phone app?  How difficult is it to use?

Most Popular Solar Monitoring Companies

There are lots of companies in the solar industry that offer some type of monitoring service. These services are either built into their own hardware, offered as an add-on piece of hardware, or simply plug into existing systems to provide information. Because of the wide-ranging differences between the systems, they all offer something a little different in terms of features, pricing, and convenience.

Let’s take a look at some of the most popular options for solar monitoring companies:

1#: SolarEdge Monitoring

solaredge-monitoring

SolarEdge has been around since 2006 and was founded and incorporated in Delaware,  going public in 2015. They exist primarily as a secondary equipment provider for solar panel systems by selling power optimizers and inverters. Their SolarEdge PV Monitoring Platform is built into their hardware and it is offered along with the others as a complete package. This would allow you to take solar panels from other companies and couple it with the unique features of the SolarEdge system.

  • SolarEdge Power Optimizer – These power optimizers are either installed onto each PV module or embedded by module manufacturers, replacing the traditional solar junction box. These allow for increased energy output and allows for monitoring the performance of each module. Using these power optimizers allows the customer to have the flexibility and features of a micro inverter without the added costs.
  • SolarEdge PV Inverter – This inverter is specifically designed to work with their own optimizers. By using these components together, the inverter is simpler, more cost-effective, and more reliable than a traditional setup. It has a standard 12-year warranty (extendable to 20-25 years) and has a weighted efficiency rating of >97%.

#2: SolarEdge PV Monitoring System

solar-monitoring

This company has put a lot of effort into creating an optimized, all-in-one type of solution for your monitoring needs. Just keep in mind that you will need to be using their other equipment to effectively use their monitoring system. Let’s take a look at the major feature set:

Pros

  • Enables a top-down, visual map view of your panel installation
  • Shows real-time performance data for individual modules and for the whole system
  • Allows for historical and aggregated data, analysis, diagnostics, and guided root-cause fault analysis
  • Alerts user by email when a fault is detected along with troubleshooting advice
  • Remote service capabilities
  • High-resolution data from up to 12 months prior with visualization options
  • Service is free for 25 years when you purchase a system

Cons

  • Requires use of multiple SolarEdge Products to work
  • Requires an optimizer for each module in your system

Take a look at a home owner’s experience and review with a SolarEdge system:

#3: Enphase MyEnlighten

enphase-myenlighten

Enphase has been around since 2006 and has proven to be a major player in the solar energy space. In 2008 they actually introduced the world’s first microinverter system and since that time the technology has been an integral part of their total energy strategy. They go one step farther than SolarEdge by seeking to offer a complete, all-in-one package that includes everything you need to create an efficient and tightly monitored system for your home.

Their hardware solution consists of Enphase microinverters that will connect to each solar panel in the system. All of those modules will then connect to an Enphase Envoy – basically, the hub used to combine the data from each panel and feed it to the monitoring system and the Enphase AC Battery. From that point, you can access system data from your home or over their cloud-based software called MyEnlighten. Let’s take a look at MyEnlighten’s feature set:

Pros

  • Real-time monitoring of data and system performance
  • Automatic emails of any event that affects system performance.  You can view maintenance issues on graphs or a map of your system.
  • Secure, backed-up online data storage
  • Compare actual system performance against the modeled data to see how your system is producing
  • Share data across social media
  • View historical weather data along with analysis of how it affects performance
  • Today’s performance at-a-glance

Cons

  • Requires multiple pieces of equipment from Enphase
  • Requires a microinverter on each panel

If you are looking for a complete, easy-to-use system that allows for great mobile access to advanced monitoring features, Enphase’s MyEnlighten looks like it could be a good option.

Below is a video of an Enphase customer going through the software and experience:

#4: Locus Energy

locus-energy

As opposed to the two companies we’ve looked at so far, Locus Energy doesn’t produce its own proprietary inverters, batteries, or optimizers. Instead, they produce a piece of equipment that can tie-in to a variety of other installations and provide data on their output. The main drawback to sourcing data in this way is that there is no way to monitor performance from individual modules from their products alone. Their solution is meant to provide general data on your system and doesn’t dig too deeply into the finer details. Let’s look at a few features:

Pros

  • Modular interface allows you to hook their product into a wide range of preexisting installations or plan it as part of your future build
  • Current and historical data
  • Reporting tools
  • Net metering data shows you how much power you are adding to the grid vs. drawing from it
  • On-site data storage with backup and offline access
  • Neat visualization of environmental benefits such as gasoline offset or homes powered

Cons

  • Can’t see data from individual strings or modules
  • No troubleshooting information or alerts about problems with your system
  • Limited ability to diagnose performance issues or optimize efficiency

Here’s a video of the software in action:

#5: AlsoEnergy

alsoenergy

Founded in 2007, AlsoEnergy is another company that focuses on providing a tie-in solution to either previously installed systems or to compliment a new build. They developed their own software, PowerTrack, and then added DECK Monitoring to their product line after acquiring the company that created it in 2013. This allows for both an option between advanced-level and an essentials-only software for your installation. Here’s what both options offer:

  • Revenue-grade Reporting
  • Production values and status indicators
  • Compare actual production against benchmark values
  • Automated alerts for device status and system performance

In addition to this, their individual options offer:

AlsoEnergy Option 1: PowerTrack

  • Has data points for lots of factors including performance models, shading, panel tilts, seasonal variation, etc
  • Workflow Suite for installers and operators that need access to multi-site monitoring and maintenance planning
  • Personalized string maps
  • Apps for iPhone, iPad, and Android

AlsoEnergy Option 2: DECK Monitoring

  • Intuitive tools and navigation to simplify routine tasks. Emphasis is on user-friendliness around alarms, analytics, and reporting
  • Great front-facing PR tool for public displays

Pros

  • Works with a variety of other equipment providers
  • Different levels of software for different levels of needs
  • App support on a variety of devices

Cons

  • No module-level data from individual panels

Conclusion

After looking at some of the most popular options, it’s easy to see how much variation there is in the solar monitoring market. Your final choice will depend on exactly what it is you’re looking to get out of your system, but we think that SolarEdge takes the win here for their overall feature set and convenience. Although there will be more equipment to get up and running, having access to all of the information that their system provides could be worth it to many buyers, enabling your system to perform at its expected level.

With SolarEdge, you’ll get a complete system to couple with the solar panels of your choice and you won’t have to worry about assembling a hodge-podge of different options. You’ll get access to live, visual data, historical analysis, troubleshooting alerts and diagnostics, and much more.

SolarEdge looks to be a great option for anyone looking into maximizing their solar panel system.

Photo Credits:

Images courtesy of SolarEdge; Enphase; Locus; AlsoEnergy.

Tesla Powerwall II Review

Tesla Powerwall 2

The Tesla Powerwall II aims to be a simple solution to the difficulties with solar power, by making sure you’ve actually got the power when you need it.

If you are at work for most of the day, almost all of the power consumed by your house is used in the evenings, when your solar panels are no longer generating electricity. To use the solar power generated, you could consider using timers to move power-hungry tasks like laundry and dishwashing into the day, where they can take advantage of your solar system. Depending on how big your solar array is and how much power your house uses.

Alternatively – you could look at buying a battery. When buying a battery for your solar system you need to consider the costs involved. You would need to spread the cost of the battery over its lifespan, and take into account how often you’ll cycle it – the more you use it the cheaper it will work out on a per-kilowatt-hour basis. You might find that it works out cheaper for you to use grid power in your area, though you might still consider buying a battery if you need short term protection from black-outs. Or even better than just buying a battery, you could buy a Tesla Powerwall II.Continue reading

What are Thin Film Solar Panels?

What-are-thin-film-solar-panels

The details about thin film solar panels.

In recent years we have seen radical improvements in the underlying technology of solar panels and although you are familiar with the traditional-style solar panels in pictures and on rooftops, thin film solar panels are now making their way into the mainstream.  They are called ‘thin film’ because they are able to be produced in such a way that allows them to be flexible and coat materials other than the standard wafer boards. This allows for many more applications for solar power and can allow them to blend more seamlessly into your home’s aesthetics.

The Difference Between Traditional Solar Panels and Thin Film

The most obvious difference between the traditional silicon wafer solar panel and newer thin film varieties is the thickness. There are also currently gaps in solar capture efficiencies between first-generation silicon-based wafers and newer, second-generation methods that use different compounds. This comes down to the materials being used in the panels themselves.

Traditional panels often use crystalline silicon (c-Si) in their manufacture. This process has been around for years and has established itself to be reliable.  It should be mentioned that although c-Si is considered to have a high-efficiency rate in terms of energy production from installed systems, it is actually a relatively poor absorber of light. This means that the cells must be fairly thick and rigid in order to produce effectively.

Related: Comparing Solar Panel Types 

In contrast, thin film technologies employ different elements that allow the cells to be up to 350 times thinner than the traditional wafer. This material can then be layered over coated glass, metal, or plastic to create a solar cell, and allows for many different types of materials and objects to produce energy.

Main Types of Thin Film Solar Cells

There are two main goals for thin film solar cells today: to have the flexibility to attach it to a larger variety of building materials and to eventually achieve the same or higher efficiency than traditional silicon-based methods. All of these methods below offer some differences in pros and cons compared to the traditional-style panels. Their names usually derives from the type of material that is used for its semiconductor. Let’s take a look at four and see how the different technologies compare:

#1: Amorphous Silicon (a-Si)a-Si photovoltaic cell structure

a-Si photovoltaic cell structure.  Image by Alfred Hicks/NREL.gov

Amorphous Silicon is the oldest and most mature type of thin film to produce solar power. This is likely because silicon was already being used in its crystalline form to produce the more traditional panels and silicon’s electrical properties were well understood.

Pros:

  • Unlike crystalline silicon, the amorphous silicon version actually has a very high solar absorption rate which makes very thin layers of the material possible. This effectively reduced material costs and because it is relatively abundant, nontoxic, and inexpensive it quickly became the first thin film method to break into the mainstream.

Cons:

  • Because of its relatively low efficiency, however, you will mostly only see this method used in small-scale, flexible power packs and electronics.

#2: Cadmium Telluride (CdTe)

CdTe

CdTe photovoltaic cell structure.  Image by Alfred Hicks/NREL.gov

Solar technology based on cadmium telluride is now the second most popular PV technology in the world, sitting at around 5%. This is thanks to the fact that manufacturing of this process is cheaper and quicker than comparable silicon-based methods and recent leaps in efficiency have prompted more mainstream adoption.

Pros:

  • As mentioned before, CdTe is cheaper than silicon-based methods, but it is important to note that by 2014 the technology had the smallest overall carbon footprint and payback time from purchase. Although CdTe, as well as thin film cells in general, lag behind the traditional c-Si panels in terms of efficiency, they have been rapidly approaching that gold standard. As of 2015, a company called First Solar reached an average commercial module efficiency of 16.1%.
  • CdTe panels are also highly adaptable to hot, humid weather and low light when compared to traditional cells. This means that they work best in the areas with the most sun and are able to be used in areas that up until now were less than ideal.

Cons:

  • One possible disadvantage of the CdTe method lies in the very materials used to manufacture them. Cadmium, by itself, is a very toxic substance that can accumulate in the food chain much like Mercury. Early results show that cadmium can leach from the compound over time in landfills and CdTe itself has shown toxic effects when inhaled by test rats. Fortunately, proper handling and disposal methods will negate much of the potential concern.
  • As such, many agencies and laboratories are actively searching for alternatives that are safe for the environment while also being efficient. Current manufacturers are also searching for ways to reuse or recycle these materials as a way to help solve the issues concerning the environment.

#3: Copper Indium Gallium Diselenide (CIGS)

CIGS

CIGS photovoltaic cell structure.  Image by Alfred Hicks/NREL.gov

This type of solar cell is another popular type of semiconductor used to create thin film applications. The CIGS method is currently more popular in Europe and Japan, but there are manufacturers all over the world making use of this technique to take advantage of its environmentally safe materials and peak efficiency potential.

Pros:

  • CIGS have the benefit of being environmentally friendly in terms of materials used which is a boon for manufacturers looking for a long-term benefit to the planet. The materials used also allow it to have the highest potential efficiency of any of the thin-film technologies as well as a great resistance to heat. There is also a great potential for long-life applications due to the lack of significant degradation over time.
  • The methods used also allow for extremely thin sizes of less than one micrometer to be used in creating devices. This means that there are even more potential applications for this technology such as building materials, cars, and airplanes.

Cons:

  • CIGS technology has yet to reach or surpass the traditional silicon-based panels, but it has made great leaps forward in recent years. Although the record for lab-based efficiency is over 20%, real-world applications still fall in the mid-teens.

#4: New Copper Zinc Tin Sulphur (CZTS) Method

CZTS photovoltaic cell structure

CZTS photovoltaic cell structure.  Image by Alfred Hicks/NREL.gov

In an ongoing effort to find solar technology that is both environmentally friendly as well as manufactured using abundant materials, the CZTS method was discovered. This method is very similar to CIGS in terms of properties and methods of fabrication, but its efficiency is still very low.

Pros:

  • As mentioned before, CZTS is made up of the earth-abundant elements copper, zinc, tin, and sulfoselenide. This means that the compound is both environmentally friendly and could ultimately become quite cheap because of the material cost. The tellurium and indium found in the CdTe and CIGS models are extremely rare, for instance.

Cons:

  • CZTS is still in the early stages of development and in order to be more commercially viable, higher efficiencies are required. The technology current taps out at around 7.6%. It would need to hit around 20% efficiency before it could become competitive among its peers.

Conclusion

We trust this information has helped shed light on what exactly are thin film solar panels and how they are shaping the current landscape of solar energy production.

As these technologies mature, they will make their way into competitive products available for purchase. Already there are alternative methods of solar production, such as solar roof tiles, that allow customers to have a more aesthetically pleasing look while still saving money on their energy bills. Watch this space to see what innovative and new trends will be developed.

Photos courtesy of NREL.gov

What Are the Best Solar Panels?

Best Solar Panels

How do you choose the Best Solar Panels for your situation?

When thinking about what components make the best solar installation, every homeowner’s situation is different. Finances, location, and personal values all play a role in deciding which is the best solar panels for you. We’ve decided to choose a best solar panel for common situations that come up when looking to install solar.

Some prefer the cheapest solar panel, while others insist their panels must be American-made. Or some people live in areas with heavy snow. It is misleading to think that a single type of solar panel work in all situations.

Any solar installation company will have different panel options which they should discuss with you, to help you choose wisely based on your situation and current availability.Continue reading

The Best Solar Powered Charger (For Phones & Other Gear)

best-solar-powered-chargers

For under $100, you can now buy a small portable solar charger system designed for small electronics like phones, smartwatches, and tablets.

Like it or not, our modern life requires a lot of devices: phones, tablets, cameras, smartwatches, laptops, GPS’s. Smart phones are ubiquitous across the globe and increasingly out in the wild–while backpacking, camping, or just lounging in the woods there’s an equal number of uses, which range from the frivolous to serious backcountry GPS apps or emergency signals.

This is great if you’re only out for a day or two. But more than that and your battery-powered devices can leave you hanging, running into safety issues if you don’t have any other emergency signal. Luckily, a new niche market has popped up around our need to be constantly charged, even in the wilderness.Continue reading

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