You’ve heard the expression “you’re only as smart as the company you keep,” well the same could be said for the solar panels you put on your roof.
When their job was simply to generate electricity for your home – or to send it to the grid, if your home had no use for the electricity – they didn’t need to be terribly clever. But with battery storage becoming an affordable – and economically sensible – option for more and more solar households, it becomes more complicated.
Up until recently, for those households that have installed solar plus storage – or have taken themselves off the grid entirely – it has been likened to taking on another job; monitoring the solar and battery systems, ensuring they are doing what they should, when they should, knowing when to hold it and when to export.
Now, however, the race is on in the solar and storage sector to meet this technological challenge, by developing the software “smarts” that will make solar plus storage even more of a no-brainer for households – a “plug and play” solution for people who want to take more control of their energy use.
One company that has had a head start in this race is US micro-inverter giant, Enphase Energy.
The company, which was one of the first to come up with a “bolt on” residential AC battery unit, has until now specialised in making super smart micro-inverters – “the brains of solar panels” – which have paved the way to make rooftop solar PV installation easier, safer and more flexible.
Now, however, they are rolling out their Enphase Home Energy Solution (Australia will be the first country in the world to get it, in Winter 2016) – a solar plus storage plus software solution that, according to the company motto, “makes solar simple and energy smart.”
Like other home energy management systems being developed in this space, it allows users to monitor their electricity consumption and generation via an easy to use app, while making the important decisions for them; such as when to export energy, when to store it, and when to use it to power the pool pump or charge the EV.
But according to Keera Single, strategic account manager at Enphase Energy in Australia, “we do that differently.”
“It’s an all-in one integrated solar package, which brings in storage and also incorporates the smarts, which is what will be seen more in the future in the typical smart home,” he told One Step Off The Grid in an interview last week.
Indeed, an example of just such a typical future smart home – the home of the so-called “New Joneses” – has been on display in Melbourne for most of the month of February in the city square. The pop-up residence is an award-winning, fully-functional house that showcases, among other cutting edge energy efficiency and sustainability innovations, the Enphase Home Energy Solution. You can read about it here.
As readers of this site would know, Enphase is by no means the only company working on such solutions. Earlier this month we looked at local company Reposit Power’s GridCredit technology, which works out whether to store rooftop generated solar energy in a household’s battery during the day, or sell it back to the grid at a profit.
But what makes Enphase’s offering different, says Single, is that the smarts are applied all the way through the system – from the rooftop array to the battery to the energy management interface.
“To start with, (our micro-inverters) make it a much simpler installation method,” Single told One Step. “It’s only one micro-inverter per panel. It doesn’t really matter which way the panels face. And it eliminates the drag.
“Solar systems installed using string inverters, it’s the weakest link in the string that sets the standard for efficiency of generation. And there can be as much as a 10 per cent difference in performance if, say, one of the panels gets really hot or has a fault.
“Micro-inverters are completely decentralised. You don’t have DC isolators – which are the most dangerous part (of a solar system) and the weakest link – up on your roof.”
For example, he adds, “we’ve had a much bigger uptake in Australia’s commercial market than we anticipates, and part of that comes down to the installers. Our products can make their installation and design work … so much simpler.
“They can now install systems they couldn’t install with traditional string inverters.”
Then there’s the battery and the software. “Right from the start, we saw solar, storage and energy management as the end game,” Single said, and they saw it from the perspective of an IT company, with flexibility and constant adjustment as the core strategy.
“When you’re trying to look at the 10-15-20 year life (of a solar and storage system), it’s not just about the hardware.
“You need to make sure that it remains relevant; that it can still communicate and work with the grid.
There’s no point making a product that still works based on the old standard, if it doesn’t keep up with the technology.”
Enphase’s AC battery offering for residential market – launched in Australia last September – is a 1.2kWh compact plug-and-play unit which, when used with the company’s cloud-based Enphase Energy Management System, allows households to store and manage their solar energy supply and control their overall household energy use on a single platform.
It’s small and light on capacity, but Enphase see that as an advantage, in that it can be scaled up to meet a household’s needs, perhaps more precisely than other market offerings – and this is where the smarts come in again.
“Now, when you install our gateway, it’s installed on switchboard, connects to the wi-fi and can easily be connected to existing solar systems,” says Single.
“Right away it starts measuring consumption and generation, so the customer can work out how many batteries they will need.
“There’s a ‘size my battery’ button in Enlighten (the name of Enphase’s energy management system) that might tell you: ‘three batteries would suit you well and, by the way, putting an extra 2kW (of solar) on your garage would also help your summer air-con load’.”
“We use big data information – we look at the numbers, look at your lifestyle, and thanks to the micro-inverters and the modularity of the batteries, can grow the system over time.”
In future, he says, the system should also be able to – based on your patterns of consumption – help households choose the best retailer for their energy profile.
“We’re always upgrading the software, via the internet – like your iPhone; aways doing those updates.
“We’ve also got a developer API found at developer.enphase.com – which provides open-source code for developers to build their own apps for Enphase system owners to use alongside Enlighten, and that ecosystem of apps will continue to grow over time.”
“It’s all about software and capabilities. Enphase employs 100 software engineers. You won’t find that in any other energy company.”