By Ron Van Dell
The same cloud that is storing an online music library also holds promise for reducing carbon footprints at home and at work. Solar power has made major strides in recent years and holds tremendous promise as a solid option for renewable energy. In the past, cost and complexity has prohibited the majority of homeowners and small business owners from participating in solar. However, recent advances in technology and communications networks are opening this vital, free energy source to the mainstream.
In 2012, photovoltaic (PV) installations in the U.S. grew 76 percent, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), and in March solar became the single largest source of new grid capacity in the U.S. for the first time ever, according to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). Such growth means prices are continuing to plummet, putting solar within reach of homeowners and business owners, even without federal and state tax incentives that have traditionally bolstered the industry. In fact, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) stated in its 2013 Long Term System Assessment that due to recent advances in technology, wind and solar will actually be more competitive than natural gas over the next 20 years.
This growth has made its way to Texas with the state, for the first time, making the industry’s “top 10” list for solar capacity installed in 2012. From a jobs perspective, the news is equally impressive: There are actually more solar workers in Texas than ranchers, and with all of the usable land here, Texas is considered the state with the most untapped solar potential.
Innovation is often invisible to the average consumer, who enjoys the benefits of new technologies without knowing how fast and how far they’ve come. One of the reasons for increased use and efficiency comes from microinverter devices that convert power from solar panels installed on the rooftops of homes and small businesses. These “mini inverters” enable AC solar modules as opposed to the more traditional DC modules. AC modules convert energy at the module rather than the system level. A relevant example is how holiday lights work. With more traditional solar panel technology, when one goes out, the entire “string” goes dark. With AC modules, if one module is shaded or experiences a brief loss of power, the system is never compromised because the microinverters are still working on the rest of the system’s panels. In fact, microinverters harvest more than 95 percent of the energy produced by solar panels and lower the lifetime cost of energy by 20 to 30 percent when compared with systems equipped with conventional power inverters. The ability to take advantage of lower costs, safety improvements and energy efficiency this advanced technology offers will give consumers greater control and more flexibility with their personal energy usage.
Nowhere is personal control more apparent than in the ability to customize and monitor solar-powered residential and small business energy systems from the palm of the hand. Increasing consumer demand for technology that delivers new choices and greater control over lives at home, at work and on the move is driving “The Internet of Things,” as SAP has coined it. Solar energy is joining the family of “smart products” including alarm systems, thermostats and appliance monitoring that increasing numbers of consumers are turning to for remote control and customization of their homes and properties. Apps running on a phone or tablet can be controlled and monitored so that the handheld device becomes command central for the wired home, even when its inhabitants are miles away.
A critical component of this connected ecosystem is cloud-based technology, which underscores solar power’s reliability and security. Like a power grid, the cloud can handle the ebb and flow of data surges from multiple sources. Web-based management systems and advanced communications networks enable homeowners and manufacturers to monitor system performance 24/7. With detailed data at their disposal, system owners can monitor and adjust energy usage. Installers can troubleshoot system issues more effectively and resolve them proactively, easily managing all of their sites, offering new value-added services to their customers.
It’s no surprise as industries such as solar mature and become more conventional, there will be even more integration with consumer-facing technologies including web and mobile. This intersection will drive greater awareness, education and ultimately usage of these products. It’s as if technologies that consumers adopted first – computers and mobile phones – can help drive greater adoption of seemingly unrelated technologies such as solar panels installed on home rooftops.
All technology is undergoing dramatic and interesting shifts. Fast advances are decreasing the length of time that lapses between early adopters and mass market consumers. Early adopters are enthusiastic about new technologies and allow their curiosity to compensate for the product conveniences the mass market will demand. Once the product is more affordable, more convenient, more credible, the larger market will respond. We’ve seen this evolution with the Internet, more recently with smartphones, and today with cloud technologies. The next wave will be the connected home, the connected car, the Internet of Things, home-installed solar panels and at the center of this evolution, tech-savvy and inspired consumers who seek convenience, control and cost-savings in their daily lives.
Solar will continue to evolve as a sustainable, affordable and efficient source for safe energy. Bolstered by the benefits offered from cloud technology, solar is quickly becoming another powerful module in the connected home eco system.
Ron Van Dell is a Strategic Advisor to Austin-based SolarBridge Technologies. Van Dell has overseen the development and launch of a ground-breaking microinverter solution, while raising more than $70 million in funding.