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Featuring Brian Pasquill, Schneider Electric

Trailblazers in the renewable energy industry are making it easier and more affordable to bring solar, battery, and other clean energy technologies into consumers' homes, cottages, and remote communities. But what does it mean to be truly “off-grid”, and what are the trends shaping this growing industry?

We reached out to Brian Pasquill, Solar Specialty Channel Manager with Schneider Electric, for an illuminating industry perspective...

What does the “off-grid” industry look like today?

Historically, off-grid systems were either cabins with 2- to 10-kilowatt capacity range battery based inverter systems or luxury homes in remote communities. This market has changed significantly over the last number of years. We are becoming more and more involved in the electrification of communities in places like Africa or Indonesia where there is no power. Rather than bring in a grid, we're developing micro-grids with multiple inverters that are all connected.

More locally, there's the growing demand for energy offsetting systems, eco-generators that reduce consumption through use of solar and battery back-ups, and hybrid inverters that accommodate grid interactivity. There are also a lot larger battery-based systems being put together and these too are becoming more multifunctional.

So, overall, the market changing and it's becoming more accessible.

What part of the industry is experiencing the most growth?

The traditional off-grid cabin industry hasn't changed all that much since there aren't a whole lot of people building in off-grid areas in North America. On the other hand, there's been a huge move to use those same systems for building infrastructure in smaller communities that are off-grid and want to move away from their reliance on energy alternatives like diesel.

And then, the biggest market moving forward in North America has to do with self-consumption technologies in peak demand markets where you can have battery-based inverters that are capable of grid interactivity which offers consumers the chance to use storage or grid strategically to control consumption. That gives them the ability to use self-consumption measures to reduce their energy costs.

What technologies are driving the off-grid industry?

Solar panels and related technologies are becoming less expensive and offering higher energy density, which means coming to market with more watts per square inch. However, the big thing everyone is clamouring for is lithium-ion technology, which offers greater reliability and a longer lifespan. Right now, the upfront capital cost is high, but is coming down as large manufacturing plants are brought online. In fact, the price of lithium-ion technology is projected to come down at a faster rate than solar PV has over the recent years.

You mention these systems being more accessible to the general public. How so?

Cost is obviously the thing that holds people back from putting any sized system into their homes, but it's far from what it used to be. Installing solar used to be very cost prohibitive and something people did with discretionary income. Now, we have a lot of programs with “lease” programs that are structured like rent-to-own scenarios where companies provide financing based on how much you get out of your system. One of the keys here is these new financing programs do not require a lien on the house as collateral.

What can we expect down the road?

As mentioned, lithium-ion is really the next big thing. With a 3x smaller footprint, no off-gassing concerns like with lead acid battery chemistries, and 100% depth of discharge, these batteries will change the way we manage our storage. Utilities are preparing the infrastructure to be able to use independent residential storage as a buffer for their own system. Utilities such as California are requiring a level of interactivity with household inverters that will allow them to take control of when they are independent, selling to the grid to support the utility, or storing to the batteries. This takes the concept of “smart-grid” to new levels.

Brian Pasquill, Solar Specialty Channel Manager with Schneider Electric. For more, visit Canadian Energy, Canada's exclusive supplier for Schneider Electric.