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Smart Modules will account for 30% of all solar panel shipments in 2017

Several companies have begun embedding electronics into PV modules. This enables performing maximum power point tracking (MPPT) for each module individually, and the measurement of performance data for monitoring and fault detection at module level.

Some of these solutions make use of power optimizers, a DC-to-DC converter technology developed to maximize the power harvest from solar photovoltaic systems. As of about 2010, such electronics can also compensate for shading effects, wherein a shadow falling across a section of a module causes the electrical output of one or more strings of cells in the module to fall to zero, but not having the output of the entire module fall to zero.

Solar panel installers saw significant growth between 2008 and 2013. Due to that growth many installers had projects that were not “ideal” solar roof tops to work with and had to find solutions to shaded roofs and orientation difficulties. This challenge was initially addressed by the re-popularization of micro-inverters and later the invention of power optimizers.

Solar panel manufacturers partnered with micro-inverter companies to create AC modules and power optimizer companies partnered with module manufacturers to create smart modules. In 2013 many solar panel manufacturers announced and began shipping their smart module solutions.

A solar micro-inverter, or simply microinverter, is a device used in photovoltaics that converts direct current (DC) generated by a single solar module to alternating current (AC). The output from several microinverters is combined and often fed to the electrical grid. Microinverters contrast with conventional string and central solar inverters, which are connected to multiple solar modules or panels of the PV system.

Microinverters have several advantages over conventional inverters. The main advantage is that small amounts of shading, debris or snow lines on any one solar module, or even a complete module failure, do not disproportionately reduce the output of the entire array. Each microinverter harvests optimum power by performing maximum power point tracking for its connected module. Simplicity in system design, lower amperage wires, simplified stock management, and added safety are other factors introduced with the microinverter solution.

The primary disadvantages of a microinverter include a higher initial equipment cost per peak watt than the equivalent power of a central inverter since each inverter needs to be installed adjacent to a panel (usually on a roof). This also makes them harder to maintain and more costly to remove and replace (O&M). Some manufacturers have addressed these issues with panels with built-in microinverters.

A type of technology similar to a microinverter is a power optimizer which also does panel-level maximum power point tracking, but does not convert to AC per module.

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