Listen Up: Improving Solar Panel Output with Optimizers

Solar panels keep getting more efficient. That’s a great thing. But they can’t communicate, can’t adjust to environmental circumstances, and don’t have automatic shutdown capabilities. Fortunately — and with apologies to the Farrelly brothers (who seem to have similar limitations) — solar panels aren’t getting any dumber. Many of the newest solar panels are equipped with optimizers, either built into the junction box or attached as a separate component to the back of the panel. Microinverters (which convert the DC output of a panel to AC) provide the same basic benefits at similar costs; however, unlike microinverters, optimizers operate on the DC side of the system and are always connected to a central or string inverter.

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These optimizers, or power electronics as their also called, provide three basic functions. First, they optimize the output of each panel by adjusting the current and voltage generated by each panel. If there is a weak panel operating at a low current, the optimizer on that panel can lower the voltage across that panel (thereby increasing the current) and prevent that panel from affecting the current of the other panels in the string. Second, optimizers have communications capabilities so that the installer or system owner can see the performance of each individual panel. And third, some new optimizers provide code-required automatic DC shutdown capabilities to prevent arcing and fires.

As with many new solar technologies with high initial costs and unproven benefits, optimizers got a relatively slow start. But as production volumes increased, prices came down and operating capabilities were improved, more and more installers began to use them for both residential and commercial projects. Perhaps the biggest breakthrough came as panel manufacturers began to integrate optimizers into the junction boxes — this step significantly reduced both parts costs and installer labor.

My guest on this week’s Energy Show on Renewable Energy World is Zvi Alon, Chairman and CEO of Tigo Energy, based in Los Gatos, California. Tigo is one of the pioneers in the optimizer business, and is getting a lot of traction in the marketplace as more panel and inverter manufacturers build Tigo technology into their products. So listen up to this week’s show as we explore the costs and benefits of this latest generation of solar panel optimizers.

Find more episodes of The Energy Show here.

About The Energy Show

As energy costs consume more and more of our hard-earned dollars, we as consumers really start to pay attention. But we don’t have to resign ourselves to $5/gallon gas prices, $200/month electric bills and $500 heating bills. There are literally hundreds of products, tricks and techniques that we can use to dramatically reduce these costs — very affordably.

The Energy Show on Renewable Energy World is a weekly 20-minute podcast that provides tips and advice to reduce your home and business energy consumption. Every week we’ll cover topics that will help cut your energy bill, explain new products and technologies in plain English, and cut through the hype so that you can make smart and cost-effective energy choices. 

About Your Host

Barry Cinnamon is a long-time advocate of renewable energy and is a widely recognized solar power expert. In 2001 he founded Akeena Solar — which grew to become the largest national residential solar installer by the middle of the last decade with over 10,000 rooftop customers coast to coast. He partnered with Westinghouse to create Westinghouse Solar in 2010, and sold the company in 2012.

His pioneering work on reducing costs of rooftop solar power systems include Andalay, the first solar panel with integrated racking, grounding and wiring; the first UL listed AC solar panel; and the first fully “plug and play” AC solar panel. His current efforts are focused on reducing the soft costs for solar power systems, which cause system prices in the U.S. to be double those of Germany.

Although Barry may be known for his outspoken work in the solar industry, he has hands-on experience with a wide range of energy saving technologies.  He’s been doing residential energy audits since the punch card days, developed one of the first ground-source heat pumps in the early ‘80s, and always abides by the Laws of Thermodynamics.

Lead image: Green microphone via Shutterstock

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As energy costs consume more and more of our hard-earned dollars, we as consumers really start to pay attention. But we don't have to resign ourselves to $5/gallon gas prices, $200/month electric bills and $500 heating bills. There are literally hundreds of products, tricks and techniques that we can use to dramatically reduce these costs -- very affordably. The Energy Show on Renewable Energy World is a weekly 20 minute podcast that provides tips and advice to reduce your home and business energy consumption. Every week we'll cover topics that will help cut your energy bill, explain new products and technologies in plain English, and cut through the hype so that you can make smart and cost-effective energy choices.

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