From Energy Storage to Microgrids, String Inverters Are the Key to Expanding Solar’s Capabilities
When it comes to the future of the solar power industry, some trends have built up enough momentum to be pretty close to inevitable — including the continuing importance of operational cost reductions, the escalating need for storage, and the ongoing development of microgrids, to name just a few.
These and other important trends in the solar industry are on the radar of the China-based string inverter manufacturer Huawei.
The quest to push costs down
Already, it’s possible to see the vital role string inverters are playing in boosting solar’s continuing growth — particularly when it comes to driving down costs so that solar can compete with and ultimately replace fossil fuel generation.
“The future trend of the solar plant will be a higher level of reliability and lower operational costs,” said James (Yuyu) Qiao, vice president of operations and product solutions for Huawei Smart PV Solutions North America.
String inverters help with both.
Lower operating costs are directly related to improved reliability, which Qiao notes is a function of both string inverters’ higher reliability design and the evolution toward a distributed solar plant architecture.
Having a multitude of string inverters instead of a few central inverters means solar plant operators are not as susceptible to failure-related downtime. Indeed, if a string inverter at a solar plant stops working, it has only a small impact on generation because only a very limited number of panels are affected.
And with advanced communication and artificial intelligence technologies embedded inside each of the string inverters, the network of inverters in a solar plant can form an autonomous system, which makes it possible to compensate for the energy loss with a team effort.
The robustness of solar plant operation has been greatly improved thanks to the widespread adoption of string inverters in solar system design. String inverters can also be replaced quickly at little expense in case of failure and maintained at close to zero cost, because unlike with central inverters, they don’t need to be replaced with a crane and typically don’t require frequent onsite repair or troubleshooting, procedures that typically need to be performed by highly skilled engineers.
But Qiao believes we’re still at the early stage of the cost-reduction journey. Additional improvements will come as string inverters become more intelligent and allow for higher level of automation. “The more intelligent string inverters are, the greater the possibility that we can have automated end-to-end processes and the most economical power supply,” said Qiao. “That ultimately leads to the lowest level of operational costs and highest revenue stream.”
For that to happen, string inverters need to have the right hardware and communications capabilities to enable a solar power network, remote monitoring, and automatic troubleshooting when generation declines at a solar power plant. This is already possible with Huawei’s FusionSolar Smart PV Management System, which was introduced in 2015. This allows solar plant operators to continuously monitor performance without actually being out in the field.
Another important step to reduce costs is standardization. “It’s just like the laptop computer…and smartphones. They are all standardized,” said Qiao.
The cost efficiencies possible with string inverters are significant, and include the components used to make them.
“Solar system components, even the components inside the inverter, can be standard so that component suppliers can manufacture in mass volumes and drive down the costs,” he said. “I think standardization and modularization can keep driving the string inverter industry to lower costs and make the solar solution more competitive compared to other energy sectors.”
How long will it take? Huawei, which has its roots in both telecommunications and power electronics industries, is convinced that it will be fast.