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There's more to solar energy than photovoltaic (PV) panels. That is, while PV panels are often the most visible component of a renewable energy system, its operation depends on a number of less visible – yet equally essential – components that work in unison to transfer, convert, and store energy collected from PV panels in order to provide power or sell back to the grid.

“Everyone knows what a PV panel looks like, but to really get a sense for where all that technology is going, you need to understand how all the parts – the generation, power electronics, and storage – fit in,” says Brian Pasquill, Solar Specialty Channel Manager with Schneider Electric.

Despite one's familiarity with the industry, it's worth reviewing how the inner workings of a renewable energy system come together to power living spaces and businesses. The process begins with PV panels, which deliver energy down to one of two components. If it's a PV string inverter system (e.g. a pure grid-tied system) that power gets sent to an MPPT Charge Controller inside an inverter that then sends the power directly out to the grid. If it's a DC coupled system, however, the power goes into charge controllers that then turn it into the required voltage for the battery that is connected to the battery-based inverter.

And that, says Pasquill, is where companies like Schneider Electric come in, explaining, “The inverter is the device that takes the DC 48 voltage the systems are built on and turns it into household power at 120/240V or three phase to provide a clean and stable source of energy.”

Functions like generator control and battery monitoring are also available with add-ons that give users greater control. 

“In our case, there's a Combox that's the size of a small modem which not only facilitates system monitoring and control via wi-fi or the cloud, but allows users to change the system settings, view power generation stats, and identify issues,” Pasquill adds. “As well, you can push firmware updates out to these systems from a distance, meaning you can update your cabin's system from home or, if you're an installer, you can upgrade and diagnose your clients' systems from your desk.”

Around the corner

Technologies like Lithium-ion batteries are changing the way energy is stored by offering battery solutions with three times smaller footprint, no off-gassing, and 100% depth of discharge. Currently, several companies are developing lithium-ion chemistries that will make them a more affordable, reliable, and stable option, with cobalt batteries among the more promising alternatives.

“Companies are making lithium-ion batteries that will provide more kilowatt per hour for equal dollars over the life and are very safe to have inside your house,” says Pasquill, adding, “That's one of the most significant changes in solar energy systems that's taking place in the industry right now on a residential level.”

Innovations are also coming to market for the power electrics part of the solar equation, says Pasquill, explaining, “For the utility grade power plant world, Schneider just released Smart Gen, a 1-megawatt block inverter that's being used for utilities and micro-grid communities.”

A renewable energy system is truly the sum of all its parts. As clean energy technologies continue to evolve, expect each of those parts to continue clearing the way for cleaner, more reliable, and more efficient energy solutions.

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

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