Streamlined residential solar: Solaria, Enphase Energy, Quick Mount PV join forces

Solaria Power XT Enphase AC module

Solaria Corporation, a global provider of high efficiency solar modules, is teaming with mounting and racking provider Quick Mount and microinverter manufacturer Enphase Energy, to produce a single, unified system that ensures efficiency, performance and aesthetics. Available through select distributors, the complete solution gives solar installers the ability to streamline installation and ensure homeowner satisfaction at the lowest possible cost.

Solaria manufactures the PowerXT pure black solar modules using advanced cell interconnect and module production processes, significantly boosting power generation and providing outstanding performance with unmatched aesthetic appeal.

Quick Mount PV’s QRail racking system features patented QClick and QSplice technologies that simplify and speed solar installation. The result is the fastest and most reliable system deployment in solar.

The Enphase IQ 7+ Microinverter features Enphase’s two-wire cabling for ease of installation, and leverages semiconductor integration for higher reliability and better economies of scale. The 295 W AC Enphase IQ 7+ Micro combines efficiency, reliability and streamlined installation and is available either as a standalone component or in the factory-integrated Enphase Energized PowerXT-AC module from Solaria, which further improves installation efficiency.

Solaria will be exhibiting at booth 1251 at Solar Power International in Anaheim, September 25-27, 2018.

— Solar Builder magazine

Data Drivers: Inverter monitoring system trends in the residential market

data monitoring inverters

This is an excerpt from the 2018 Inverter Buyer’s Guide. Be sure to download the full free report, complete with specs on 136 inverters at the bottom of this page.

Don’t let the hard, boxy exterior fool you — today’s inverters are all about transparency. A key in inverter selection is knowing just how transparent it is: What portals are set up for you and your customer to use? What do they show? And when? Just after it’s failed or maybe just as it sees something’s wrong? How do the alerts work? Can you make adjustments? Will it make its own adjustments?

Basically: How well can you see inside that box?

We asked each inverter manufacturer to share with us how their inverter monitoring system works and what came back was a variety of strategies, from increased flexibility and visibility for the operator and homeowner to innovations in predictive analytics and automated processes. Some come standard, some are subscription-based, but all are slick, boost PV performance and improve your company’s O&M services.

Here are the trends among the manufacturer-provided inverter monitoring systems on the market.

Download the 2018 Inverter Buyer’s Guide

Apps for that

Mobile-friendly platforms are fairly common now, with differences coming in how much data is presented and what remote capabilities are offered.

APsystems provides complimentary module-level monitoring through its cloud-based EMA service for both homeowners and installers. With the EMA app, users can see the energy their system is producing at the panel level, so if the app shows that a particular PV module is underperforming, the owner knows to check for shading issues, debris, damage, etc. The online EMA portal also emails alerts to the installer if a system or unit is operating outside its standard parameters. This is particularly handy when a PV module fails or is somehow disconnected.

Some solar customers invest in a PV system because they want to fully take ownership over their energy bills. They are hands on and want insight into what’s happening and how the system is performing. There are more options than ever for providing this service.

Enphase comes with MyEnlighten for homeowners, which presents system energy production, overall health, historical performance and energy equivalents all on one mobile-friendly display. Real solar enthusiasts can take advantage of a paid upgrade to per-panel monitoring, which is available via the installer who activated the system.
The flipside for the solar installer is the Enphase Enlighten Manager, which provides: fleet management, upgrade management for existing fleets (based on production and consumption data) and simplified repeat-business generation tools to reconnect with existing customers through additional services like battery management, EV charging solutions and system upgrades.

Diagnostics and remote updates

Fronius software updates

The free Solar.web platform from Fronius offers remote diagnostics and alerts such as proactive notifications in a variety of dashboards.

At Fronius, the free Solar.web platform offers remote diagnostics and alerts such as proactive email notifications concerning performance and state codes, as just two examples, to help determine whether a truck roll is necessary or not. Remote Update via Fronius Solar.web eliminates another category of O&M complexity and cost. In just a few clicks, any Fronius SnapINverters is updated remotely from any web-enabled device.

ABB’s Aurora Vision Plant Management Platform and Plant Viewer lets homeowners get a real-time view of how much energy has been harvested along with dashboard views for fleet-wide performance management through reports, diagnostics, analytics or event alerts. ABB inverters also come standard with a wireless connection that enables system monitoring and over-the-air upgrades to ensure units are operating with the latest functions.

Satellite monitoring

Recently, SolarEdge added satellite performance ratio and mismatch reporting to its cloud-based, module-level monitoring platform (free for 25 years). The company says this satellite performance ratio service eliminates the purchasing, installation and O&M of sensors. The mismatch report helps to streamline the process of identifying underperforming modules by comparing each module’s peak power and energy production to the average of all modules in the site, and presenting each module’s mismatch as a percentage above/below the average.

Storage integration

The plus sign in a “solar + storage” system says all you need to know about the monitoring system capabilities — there are more added in.

Magnum Energy provides data monitoring through the MagWeb line of monitoring kits. The MagWeb provides live internet monitoring of the inverter, battery monitor and automatic generator start module. Using an internet connection, MagWeb makes live and historical conditions available through a web browser at data.magnumenergy.com. The MagWeb GT provides an integrated dashboard of the MicroGT system engineered for PV + storage systems. With the MagWeb GT, the production data from the array and the battery bank status of the storage system are accessed via your local network from one simple dashboard.

Tabuchi provides data monitoring via the Tabuchi Cloud. Here, customers can monitor PV generation, household consumption, the amount of power bought and sold to and from the grid and the battery charge. It also allows customers to compare data hourly, daily, monthly and yearly. The service is included with purchase of the Eco Intelligent Battery System (EIBS). Tabuchi Cloud allows installers to make sure everything is working as intended, while the simple interface allows homeowners to quickly see how they are saving on energy costs.

Automation

The next evolution in system monitoring is taking all of this data and having the system apply its own fixes. Pika Energy‘s REview Dashboard is provided to the customer with every Pika system to view performance metrics in comprehensive real-time reports, but its biggest advances come from system automation. While some inverters may notify users that grid or environmental conditions have changed, the Pika Energy Island acts automatically to meet these new conditions. When peak rate periods set in, local demand spikes or the grid goes down, the Pika Energy Island manages energy flows to keep system owners powered up and saving money.

SMA’s latest development in monitoring and alerts is SMA Smart Connected. Now available with the Sunny Boy-US residential line of inverters, SMA Smart Connected is a proactive service package integrated into Sunny Portal that automatically detects and evaluates system events and initiates remediation or repair activities. This decreases truck rolls, lengthy service calls and system downtime. Once it is operating, SMA Smart Connected will actively monitor a residential system at all times through Sunny Portal’s intelligent monitoring technology.

For more info on the newest inverters on the market download our free 2018 Inverter Buyer’s Guide

— Solar Builder magazine

Details on LG, Enphase panel partnership that debuted at Intersolar

Module-level electronics are being integrated into panels by OEMs more and more to streamline installations and reduce costs. At Intersolar 2017, the solar industry’s newest power couple announced its debut: LG and Enphase.

LG Enphase ACE panel

Meet LG’s NeON 2 ACe – an AC module that combines LG’s NeON 2 technology with Enphase’s IQ6+ microinverter.

“This changes the basic architecture of an install – the goal is to see the inverter go away and to go plug-and-play,” LG noted at the press event. “This also makes warehousing easier by reducing part count.”

Product Details

LG enphase AC module

  • With this setup, you are able to connect the AC modules without an additional trunk cable, which minimizes cable complexity on the roof.
  • Minimize installation time by reducing connecting work. The DC connection and operation are tested during manufacturing.
  • In view of environment, water-proof capability of the junction box has been improved with an IP 68 Rating
  • Beyond the physical enhancements, the NeON 2 ACe provides an integrated web-based solution. Monitor power generation through the internet, anywhere and anytime and utilize an automatic problem diagnosis function.
  • With LG AC Module mobile app, it’s possible to set up all monitoring configuration steps. A gateway automatically detects and registers AC module through Broadband PLC line once it is connected to powerline.
  • Along with ease of installation, going all low voltage AC means a safer installation too as well as automatically complying with NEC 2014/2017, Rule 21(CA), Rule 14H(HI), UL 1741SA.

Why high-efficiency modules are the best value for installers, homeowners

— Solar Builder magazine

Solar coaster news: SolarWorld insolvent, Ten K stops operations, SunPower down

solar coaster bankruptcy

Not as fun as it looks.

The solar coaster feels like an apt description for the up and down nature of the industry except for the part where roller coasters are fun. The dips in the solar coaster are considerably less so. After cresting to the top of another climb in 2016 — passing the ITC, installing more solar than ever – we have now started that familiar descent of slower growth, trade pressure and insolvencies. Here are some of the most notable casualties so far.

SolarWorld goes insolvent – U.S. subsidiary says it will continue operating

The management board of Germany-based SolarWorld AG issued a statement that, after having conducted a diligent review, has decided to file for insolvency proceedings. The company came to the conclusion that due to the ongoing price erosion and the development of the business, it no longer has “a positive going concern prognosis,” is therefore over-indebted and thus obliged to make this move.

“In light of the foregoing, the management board will now immediately file for insolvency proceedings with the competent local court (court of insolvency),” stated the SolarWorld board.

SolarWorld was pushed to the brink several years ago because of similar pressure from Asian solar module manufacturing and sales practices, and the company fought for, and received, anti-dumping and countervailing duties against manufacturers in China and Taiwan in the U.S.

Since that time, according to GTM Research data, imports from China “have virtually disappeared in the past 2 years accounting for just 7% in the first two months of 2017” and Taiwan imports are all but gone. At the same time, U.S. manufacturing capacity has doubled. But now we see this was perhaps more of a Band-Aid over a much larger wound as market gaps were filled elsewhere. “Imports from Southeast Asia and Korea have skyrocketed, from 15% and 7% in Q1 2015 to 55% and 21% in Q4 2016 respectively,” GTM notes. As a result, despite the doubled capacity, U.S. share dropped below 15 percent overall while market prices fell drastically.

All of this international trade pressure seems to much for it to bear, at least in Europe. SolarWorld Americas Inc., based in Hillsboro, Ore., however, reports that it’s operating as usual and maintaining full operations. SolarWorld Americas, the largest U.S. crystalline-silicon solar manufacturer for more than 42 years, is continuing to implement efficiencies and working with external partners to position the company for stabilization and a continued competitive position in the marketplace.

“We deeply appreciate the ongoing support of our loyal customers in the Americas at this tumultuous time for the solar industry,” said Juergen Stein, U.S. president of SolarWorld. “Together, we are striving to maintain our leadership role in the U.S. solar manufacturing industry for years to come.”

Did Suniva just start a global trade war? A quick summary

Ten K Solar discontinues current operation

Ten K Solar, a company that had a really intriguing system that we profiled here, says it will be “discontinuing its current operation” and terminating many of the services it formerly provided to customers.

The company seemed to be trending up after netting a single equity investment of $25 million from a group led by Goldman Sachs, but the solar coaster cares little for such things.

“The most recent 18 months have proven to be difficult for companies in the solar industry,” the statement said. “Ten K Solar has not been immune to those difficulties as significant price pressures and scale have proved a significant barrier to profitable growth.”

The company “has decided to reposition the business to live within the constraints of these marketplace realities.”
It’s unclear what that reposition will be and whether or not bankruptcy is on the table.

For more on the Ten K news, head to the Star Tribune.

SunPower sees continued losses

This feels somewhat like standard operating procedure for all of the country’s largest solar companies, but SunPower reported continued losses in the first quarter of 2017 ($134.5 million) and forecasts more going forward (between $110 million to $135 million in Q2). Some of this, the company notes, is because it is switching up its business model, moving away from utility-scale to focus more on residential and commercial. While this makes sense given the bigger advantages to its technology in residential and commercial projects, those markets are softening. Also, its high-efficiency system advantages are seeing more competition from the likes of LG and Panasonic.

SunPower launches new tool to improve buying, selling of solar systems

Enphase Energy reports sluggish Q1 results

Enphase Energy reported total revenue for the first quarter of 2017 of $54.8 million and a GAAP gross margin of 12.9 percent, which was lower than expected. GAAP operating loss for the first quarter of 2017 was $22.1 million and non-GAAP operating loss was $12.9 million. GAAP net loss for the first quarter of 2017 was $23.3 million, or a net loss of $0.30 per share. On a non-GAAP basis, net loss was $13.6 million, or a net loss of $0.18 per share.

“Our revenue for the first quarter was lower than expected due to the extraordinarily wet winter in California, where we have a significant presence,” said Paul Nahi, president and CEO of Enphase Energy. “We started shipping our Enphase Home Energy Solution with IQ, our sixth-generation integrated solar, storage and energy management offering, in the U.S. at the end of the first quarter. We look forward to the U.S. launch of our integrated AC solar modules, developed with our partners, during the second quarter. These modules, which we believe are the future of rooftop solar, will include our sixth-generation microinverters, creating a simpler and more consolidated solution.”

Revenue expectations for the second quarter of 2017 are within a range of $72 million to $80 million.

The entire solar industry reported a down Q1, that most everyone is chalking up to bad weather, but some onlookers aren’t buying this as a sufficient explanation for Enphase’s quarter. From stock analyst website Seeking Alpha:

What makes this miss particularly ugly is that the Q1 guidance was given two months into the quarter and it was already well below expectations with management blaming rains in California as the main reason for the low guidance. With that backdrop, the miss of over 10% at the mid-point was exceptionally bad.

— Solar Builder magazine

Keys to inverter service: Data granularity, remote updates, customer relations

Service Provider Training

What support does your chosen inverter include? Fronius Service Provider training, for example, certifies installers to purchase spare parts and field-service inverters to reduce the number of truck-rolls.

Services for solar inverters are improving markedly, from commissioning through replacement, as the flow of panel and string-level data becomes more granular, fueling more sophisticated monitoring systems. From string inverters at a commercial and industrial (C&I) level, to microinverters now dominant in the residential market, manufacturers are embracing dynamic improvements in functionality based on bi-directional communications and firmware adaptability.

“As inverters become more advanced and the best companies advance the market, the distinction between awesome performance and just OK performance is finer than ever,” says Ed Heacox, the general manager of sales and marketing at Chint Power Systems (CPS) America, a commercial inverter manufacturer. “As the variance narrows in product specifications, service becomes a bigger factor than ever.”

Microinverter makers are credited for initially pushing the solar industry data collection standard to a panel-specific level and for providing enough automatic analytics to educate consumers and solve basic performance problems. Now, both micro and string manufacturers are widely including programmable chips and WiFi cards within their inverters that permit periodic upgrades of firmware. And as more frequent passive and active actions in operations and maintenance take place, the benchmarking of performance against manufacturer databases also can optimize predictive functions.

“The main technology to improve service for inverters is communication such as WiFi, which connects the system to the internet and an online monitoring portal,” observes Richard Baldinger, the head of marketing at Fronius. “Through online monitoring like the FroniusSolar.web, users can track the performance of a system and get notified if the system is not performing. Based on state codes and other values, a service truck-roll can be planned.”

RELATED: 2017 Solar Inverter Buyer’s Guide 

Firmware Updates

Two-way communications continue to provide real-time monitoring of micro systems.

“Enphase provides multiple web-based applications for both the installers and homeowners. These applications can be used to verify, in near real-time, that a given system is performing as expected,” says Ilén Zazueta-Hall, the Enphase director of product management for energy management. “Further, solar installers can receive notifications of any significant issues impacting the system, including notifications of when system performance drops below a certain [customizable] threshold.”

But now, firmware is critical to the inverter life cycle. “Firmware is constantly updated, roughly every six months. So being able to refine an inverter is valuable, but not if you have to visit it to do the update,” Heacox says. He notes that this year, CPS is launching remote firmware updates. “We can either give away or provide at a very low cost our Flex Gateway, with ethernet two-way communications. We can do updates with one card supporting dozens of inverters on a site.”

Some installers find microinverters more easily upgradable. “Microinverter monitoring for us has worked so that as the software suit enhances, we have had five or six firmware upgrades at no charge,” says Jeff Mathias, a co-owner of Synergy Solar and Electrical Systems. “I don’t get that with a string inverter company; there is a way to go into the web box to do it, but I don’t.”

SolarEdge inverter

This is a SolarEdge inverter installed on an AllEarth Renewables dual-axis tracker in Grass Valley, Calif. Photo credit: North Coast Solar, Santa Rosa.

Predictive Diagnostics

Failure response has become streamlined thanks to better communications. “If a data monitoring system detects an inverter failure, a technician could arrive on site within 24 to 48 hours with a stock of replacement parts. The repair to the inverter can be done in minimal time in one trip, and the system will resume full power production,” notes Baldinger. “Compare this to a typical scenario where a technician makes a first trip to troubleshoot and determine the exact failure, then orders a replacement. String inverters are often replaced in whole, with wait times of one week typical for the replacement unit to arrive before the technician visits the site again.”

“Microinverters and inverters with optimizers such as SolarEdge make system monitoring and problem diagnosis easier. Receiving an automatic email from Enphase when there is an inverter problem is particularly helpful,” says Brian Hines, the principal at North Coast Solar.

Heacox says that later this year CPS “will roll out remote diagnostics and problem solving, so that we can handle 95 percent of a trouble call from our national support center in Texas.”

Warranty Services Improve

Installers in the past have complained that some inverter makers were slow to replace failed units and that some even insisted on repairing the old one over replacement. That standard is no longer acceptable in the market.

“Before we went to microinverters, we had to go to a site, analyze the string inverter problem and if it was a failure, call the manufacturer and go through their on-telephone de-bugging routine to validate that the unit was bad. Then we’d take it to the shop, put it into box and wait two or three days to a week for the replacement,” Mathias relays. “Now, we just text in an app that we have a bad inverter, and a new one comes in.”

Zazueta-Hall explains: “In cases in which a product is defective, installers are guided through a streamlined return merchandise authorization (RMA) process. Installers can submit a warranty claim or check the status of a pending warranty claim online. Customer support can also authorize an RMA with one call into the support queue to perform remote diagnostics on an inverter. ”

RELATED: LCOE Heroes: How inverters drive down PV levelized cost of energy 

Training Responders

The market has realized that manufacturer training and customer service is integral for inverter maintenance and installer services.

“We offer Fronius Service Provider training, which certifies installers to purchase spare parts [such as PCB boards] and field-service inverters. It also helps reduce the number of truck-rolls in a service case,” Baldinger says.

Inverter design also plays a huge part too because even a well-trained technician working on a complex or cumbersome product is going to run into issues or slowdowns. CPS says it invested in extra engineering and cost into the wire-box and inverter body designs to make them integrated but separable so that when a service event occurs in the inverter body, it can be easily removed and replaced — just four bolts hold the inverter body (top) to the wire-box.

“It takes only 10 minutes to swap the inverter tops for quick uptime recovery,” Heacox says. “It would be several hundred dollars cheaper to make the inverter in one chassis without the separable wire-box, but we know downtime and wasted field service labor and materials can cost much more. We do our best to consider life-cycle service costs when architecting the inverter platform.”

Distributors also play a training roll. “Quality solar distributors can be counted on to provide: short lead times for order fulfillment to installers, in-depth product knowledge and training information,” suggests Jason Higginson, the senior director of marketing for APSystems. “Even if training is offered by the manufacturer, good distributors can often provide basic support and can also coordinate online or live training sessions with a manufacturer for installer customers. Finding a distributor with good relationships with their manufacturers helps to facilitate all the above.”

Microinverter vendors serving the residential market don’t necessarily know where their products are being installed and thus are at a loss to provide support until it is requested. But in the C&I segment, largely equipped with string inverters, the smaller number of devices in field permits more manufacturer-customer familiarity. “In C&I we know where every inverter is going because we go directly to the site ourselves. So we are on a first name basis,” Heacox says. “We also are on a first name basis with our guy in the site region, with the EPC or the developer. So we can directly service the relationship from design to install across full life support.”

Charles W. Thurston is a freelance writer who covers solar energy from Northern California. Reach him at chazwt@gmail.com.

— Solar Builder magazine