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What is the Smart Grid?
Sep26

What is the Smart Grid?

Just in the last two decades, we’ve seen our daily communications progress from landlines and pagers to smartphones.  Though the devices we use on a daily basis have been dramatically improving over the years, we’re charging our iPhones with century-old grid technology. The North American electric grid, otherwise known as the “largest machine in the world,” is the intricate network of power stations, transmission lines, transformers, and distribution lines that power our daily lives.  The idea for the North American electric grid was developed about a hundred years ago.  A hundred years ago, the average person’s energy demands were quite modest in comparison with today.  A centralized energy model used to make sense. US energy consumption is expected to increase 41% by 2030. With a drastic increase in demand for energy from a growing population, the North American electric grid is under enormous pressure.  We’re currently experiencing an increase in blackouts and brownouts because of the stress on this dated infrastructure. Though the grid is actually 99.97 % reliable, Americans still pay $150 billion every year because of these disturbances in grid electricity. Long story short- the grid is old and in need of change.  This is why everyone is talking about “Smart Grid.”  With all the hype about Smart Grid, it has many wondering what its defining feature is. Truthfully, the Smart Grid is more of a concept than one specific technology. The goal of Smart Grid is to adapt the existing infrastructure to 21st Century demands by implementing modern communications technology. The easiest way to conceptualize what “Smart Grid” means is to imagine the entire electrical infrastructure connected to the internet.   The Smart Grid is a vision of a more flexible, efficient, and reliable grid that will support renewable energy and engage consumers in new ways.   This won’t be an overnight change, but rather a gradual move towards this ideal. The Smart Grid will be able to collect and respond to data collected throughout the entire electricity grid.   Transmission and distribution sensors will be installed throughout the grid, enabling communication between the devices themselves and with utilities operations.   This will allow the grid to determine the most efficient way to transmit and distribute electricity, saving money and keeping the cost lower. Remote control and automation technologies make the entire system more reliable and efficient.  The Smart Grid will enable us to understand and improve the generation, transmission, distribution and consumption of electricity, creating a more balanced and efficient grid. Utilities will be able to predict, detect, and respond to blackouts/brownouts immediately by without having to wait for a customer to call in and notify the...

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Community Solar Bill Dies

Senate Bill 843, a piece of legislation that would have extended the benefits of renewable energy to millions of Californians, died last Friday in the state’s Assembly Committee on Utilities and Commerce. Currently, 75% of households cannot install residential solar (and other renewable energy) systems for one reason or another.   One of the most significant factors is that 44% of households in California rent, rather than own their homes.  Typically, the only people who can use solar energy are well-to-do homeowners with good credit and minimal shading challenges on their roofs.  Senate Bill 843 would have made clean energy a possibility for Californians who don’t necessarily fit this restrictive criteria.  It is a shame to see this bill die.  Supported by a volume of groups including the Sierra Club California, the California School Board Association, and the Department of Defense, Senate Bill 843 aimed to help Californians the opportunity to make use of virtual net metering from off-site renewable energy plants.   Essentially, this bill would have made possible the indirect consumption of clean energy for Californians who could not otherwise access solar, or some other form of renewable energy.   Proposed by State Senator Lois Wolk, Senate Bill 843 would have created 2 GW of solar energy through community facilities throughout the state of California.   Senate Bill 843 would have made it possible for utility customers within the territories of PG&E, Southern California Edison, and San Diego Gas & Electric to purchase shares of power from these community-based  facilities that have medium-scale renewable energy systems (up to 20 MW).  Customers would sign contracts with the facility and pay a monthly fee for their share of electricity sent into the grid.  These community energy facilities then report the customer’s percentage of the facility’s power to the respective utility.   This amount of solar electricity would then be credited towards the the customer’s utility bill.  This is how virtual net-metering would function with these community-based renewable energy facilities.  The renewable energy facilities’ economies of scale would have given way to a cheaper cost per kWh than standard residential systems- a savings that would keep the cost of electricity down for Californians who wish to utilize renewable energy through virtual net metering. These small to mid-sized solar power plants could have been built at existing establishments such as schools or churches, reducing the need for large-scale solar power plants in the desert, which often pose environmental concern.     These community-based renewable energy facilities also would have created an estimated 12,000 jobs without spending any state funds. Despite all Wolk’s compelling arguments to pass the bill, Senate Bill 843 died in California’s Assembly Committee on...

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SMA to Release Microinverter
Aug23

SMA to Release Microinverter

We are drawing near the long-anticipated release of SMA’s first ever mircoinverter: the SMA Sunny Boy 240-US.     SMA Sunny Boy 240-US, 240 Watt Grid-Tie Micro Inverter   SMA is a German manufactuer of photovoltaic inverters that was founded in 1981 and currently holds 40% of the market for solar inverters.  SMA has consistently produced top-quality inverters for commercial and residential applications, distinguishing itself as a trustworthy brand.  Though SMA has reigned supreme in the central inverter market, microinverter manufacturers are now proving to be notable competition.    The introduction of M175 microinverters by Enphase in 2008 offered the general public an alternative to central inverters.  Like central inverters, microinverters convert the DC electricity produced by solar panels to usable AC electricity.  Microinverters, however, attach behind individual panels in the array, so each module can operate independently.  Because of this, microinverters maximize the power produced by the individual modules, which is beneficial for systems that could be subject to shading.     Enphase M215     Microinverters, such as the Enphase M215, have gained much traction in the last several years, particularly for residential systems in the United States.  Even though SMA is still the leading manufacturer of photovoltaic inverters, the popularity of products like the Enphase M215 has incrementally chipped away at SMA’s would-be customer base.  Enphase estimates that  there have been around 40,000 installations with their microinverters.   The popularity of microinverters for residential systems has provided SMA an opportunity to capitalize on their reputable name.  To address the needs of prospective customers, SMA is embracing this opportunity by creating a microinverter that will soon be offered to the public.   At the Intersolar North America (ISNA) conference, SMA showcased their expanded product line, which includes the SMA Sunny Boy 240-US.  Though SMA will continue to sell central inverters, they recommend the Sunny Boy 240-US for systems of 2 KW or less that are subject to complicated shading conditions or have multiple orientations.  According to SMA’s website:   “SMA’s Sunny Boy micro inverter system enhances design flexibility for installers in the U.S. and across the globe. It features simple installation, an innovative communications platform and superior reliability, and is especially applicable for residential systems and systems with complex shadowing situations. Among the Sunny Boy micro inverter system’s ground-breaking innovations is its ability to monitor via the Sunny Portal with  the existing Sunny Boy inverter line, making string/micro hybrid installations a reality.  Hybrid installations have the potential to minimize installation costs while maximizing energy harvest.”   Customers with SMA Sunny Boy Micro Inverters can also use the Sunny Boy 240 Power Gateway, which allows for internet-based analytics on the...

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Follow Germany’s Lead: Streamlined Permitting
Aug08

Follow Germany’s Lead: Streamlined Permitting

Germany, a leader in renewable energy, recently set a world record when it produced 22 GW of power on May 26th, 2012. At that point in time, half of the country’s electricity was generated from solar. Germany’s currently capacity for solar energy reaches about 28 GW and the country aims to reach 66GW by 2030. By the end of 2011, Germany had about 21.6 times more solar power installations per capita than the United States. Why is it that Germany, which has a much lower level of solar radiation than the United States, proportionally dwarfs the U.S. when it comes to solar installations? What is Germany doing differently? In addition to creating rewarding financial incentives for residential solar, such as their well-known Feed-in Tariff, the streamlined permitting process in Germany has given way to widespread adoption of solar energy. Germany has successfully scaled basic design and installation processes, driving down the cost and wait-time associated with residential solar. Moreover, the country has actually eliminated permitting for standard residential solar, which is part of the reason residential solar is so prominent in the country. Standardizing permitting and installation procedures to streamline these processes has helped make Germany a world leader in solar energy. In Germany, it’s not uncommon for a person to contact a solar company and have a system on their roof in less than a week- sometimes in a few days. Meanwhile, in the United States, customers frequently find themselves forking over hundreds, if not thousands of dollars in fees, undergoing a series of unnecessary inspections, and waiting weeks to have standard photovoltaic systems installed on their homes. The United States needs to follow Germany’s lead by streamlining the permitting process for standard residential solar applications. This would make residential solar considerably easier, cheaper, and more convenient for consumers in the United States. #DOE #SolarABCs Permitting in the United States: Though the price of solar products is decreasing and solar adoption is steadily increasing in the United States, the costly, inefficient permitting processes are a burden to the buyer and impede progress of the solar industry at large. Before installing a residential solar system, a permit must be obtained from the local Authority Having Jurisdiction, also known as an AHJ. Typically, permit applications for standard residential solar installations must be submitted to the AHJ in person. SunRun recommends a standard online application for solar permitting, which would drastically simplify the process. It would be much more efficient if all AHJs utilized a standard web-based application to streamline this process. This permitting processes varies too much across geographical location. This inconsistency between AHJs breeds a series of avoidable obstacles...

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London Olympics: The Greenest Games Ever?

Last Friday kicked off the beginning of the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, England.  Nine years of planning went towards minimizing the carbon output of this event.  An all-encompassing goal of “sustainability” was set for the 2012 Summer Olympics.   The organizers of the event aspired to make this international event socially and environmentally considerate.   Though critics are quick to point out that the event did not meet its renewable energy target of 20%, the 2012 Summer Olympics’ holistic sustainability efforts set new standards for large-scale events to build upon.  With spectators pouring into London’s 2012 Summer Olympic Games by the thousands every day, all efforts to minimize the environmental impact of the Olympics are commendable. All ticket-holders receive a one-day pass for public transportation on the day of their event, and have access to trails in Olympic Park and reduced rates for England’s coach and train services. The goal for the Olympic’s food initiative is to produce “zero waste,” so all food packaging at the events is recyclable. This is an achievement in itself because an expected 14 million meals are to be served at the events.  Overall, the 2012 Summer Olympics aims to recycle 70% of the anticipated 8,000 tons of waste produced at the events. A great deal of planning went into the design and construction of facilities to house the Olympic Games.  Embodied carbon in the construction of buildings was a serious concern for David Stubbs, head of sustainability for London’s Olympic organizing committee. Before they could even begin building, 2 million tons of soil had to be decontaminated, as it was packed with petrol, lead, tar, arsenic, and oil.  London’s Olympic Park is now a lush park with wetlands, trees, and flowers to support biodiversity in the area. Temporary structures were built from materials that will be repurposed after the games.  The baseball arena, for example, is essentially a huge tent with steel frames, covered by PVC fabric.  The materials used for this building will be disassembled and reused after the Olympics. The Copper Box Permanent structures like the Copper Box are designed to be used for many years after the Games.  The Copper Box is home to events like handball, martial arts, and wheelchair rugby.  The structure is equipped with 88 light pipes, filling the inside of the building with natural light during the day.  The outside of this modern building is made from largely recycled copper cladding, which will corrode over time to an inorganic compound called copper patina, accenting the building with shades of earthy turquoise.  The sloped roof of the Copper Box collects rainwater for the toilets, reducing the building’s water...

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