SB Buzz Podcast: Fronius’ Dan Fortson on the future of inverters, how he’d fix energy policy

solar builder buzz podcast

Dan Fortson, applications engineer for Fronius USA, is a lifer in the solar energy – starting back in the wild west days of the ‘80s, learning from the early off-grid PV pioneers to now working for one of the top inverter brands in the industry. He has seen a lot over the years, and he’s not opposed to giving a few hot takes about solar and its place in the world. So, he made for a fascinating podcast guest. Our chat ranges from the technology most exciting him today to what he would do if he could change the energy industry right now. Click to listen, download and/or SUBSCRIBE below.

1 min. We start by discussing Dan’s start in solar — which dates back to his interest learning about energy in junior high science classes: “There’s something dreadfully wrong here.” I say “kind of” too many times.

2:30: What his first PV installation looked like and who is early mentors in the solar industry were.

4:20: Hilarious coincidence about what Dan alludes at this minute-mark.

6:00: What’s been most surprising to him about what’s possible today compared to the systems he was building in the early days – from racking fabrication to inverter technology to batteries — and how batteries can be like animals.

9:00: The effect the SunSpec Alliance standards are going to have on PV technology and system architecture going forward. Hot take #1: Why we might be a little too concerned with safety.

13:30: I struggle to come up with the words to explain the new testing for arc faults, which I wrote about in this article here.

15:30: Hot take #2: How utilities are overstating the issue of grid power quality.

18:10: How Dan would change the energy industry for the better. “Every form of energy is subsidized … We don’t fight wars over sunshine; we fight wars over oil.”

21:30: We get into some of the inverter tech support headaches that Dan sees in the field, and then he offers some advice for avoiding some of the most common installation errors he sees.

24:30: We end discussing some of the new initiatives and products that you can expect to see from Fronius heading into 2018. Be sure to take a look at their brand new website and check out this vision they have for the solar industry by 2020.

— Solar Builder magazine

On the Scene: We went to the Eaton Experience Center to see the grid’s future

Eaton Xperience center

Eaton is one of those companies that does everything without you realizing it, with innovations for industries as diverse as aviation, data centers, food and beverage, rail and, of course, utilities, just to name a few. The company recently expanded its Experience Center in Pittsburgh to show the latest advances in electrical power quality, energy management and safety in a real-world, hands-on setting for interested customers, electrical contractors, consultants and builders in need of training.

In other words, it is a playground for engineers. Everything around the building, except maybe the coffee maker, is labeled, which isn’t just useful for novices like me.

eaton experience center“We’ve had engineers come in here and we’ve asked them to identify a transformer, and they couldn’t do it. They could easily point to the symbol on a design, but they don’t always see them in real life,” noted Dan Carnovale, Power Systems Experience Center manager for Eaton, which again shows the practicality and importance of the Experience Center.

The Solar Builder team stopped by to take it all in, and believe me, it was a lot to take in. Full disclosure: I was showed a lot of stuff and took a lot of notes as fast as I could. That notepad contains in-depth info on super capacitors that aid in solar smoothing, substation vs. pad-mounted transformers, balancing voltage regulation on a larger scale, aggregating string inverters in larger applications and more. The formula for cold fusion might be in there somewhere, but we will never know because they are illegible and incoherent. But that’s OK because the Experience Center isn’t about relaying those details, it’s about the experience, duh.

chris crowell at eatonExperiencing the Experience

The facility includes a functioning microgrid demonstration. There is a 24-kW solar canopy in the parking lot, 86 panels on the roof, 30 kWh in battery storage and a 100-kW generator, all of which are controlled by Eaton’s Power Xpert Energy Optimizer controller. The intersection of all those assets and optimizing their usage is at the core of advancing energy resiliency, so that Eaton’s Experience Center can operate even when the local utility grid may be impacted by an outage.

The standout display plays out two fault scenarios on a small grid that involves three local controllers and one master controller: You enter into an artificial neighborhood, complete with fake squirrels in fake trees. Suddenly, the room gets dark, a thunder rumble is heard and lightning strikes a tree that topples into an electric pole.

Scenario one plays out with no automation. The fault is triggered and the recloser fires and keeps closing, but power won’t be restored until a truck is rolled. Scenario two plays out with automation and is able to isolate the fault and restore power to the critical loads on the microgrid downstream.

Trust me, it was cool.

Animatronic show aside, it feels like we are looking at the future of the grid, not just in terms of the technology, but the mindset needed for deploying and managing distributed energy resources in ways that are much more efficient and economical than how things are done today.

— Solar Builder magazine

SB Buzz Podcast: SunLink VP on tech, data, diversity and the path forward for solar

SunLink data podcast

We sat down, with mimosas in hand at 9 a.m. on the last day of Solar Power International, with Kate Trono, VP of Products for SunLink, for an in-depth discussion on the role that data and technology will play in the future of solar and (hopefully) the grid. At some point, I also nerd it up and mention my current favorite Sci-Fi comic series.

Listen below (and be sure to subscribe!)

What to listen for

After the intro and early rambling, we dig into what Kate and SunLink are most excited to be working on right now. “From what we’ve learned from how to take our [tracker] data and how to make sense out of it, we push out more intelligence – kind of that same thing we do in product management, and we think the other technology companies could do something similar with their data, where they make it more actionable, rather than just a data feed.” The goal being more transparent data across the industry.

At the 11:30 mark, Kate shares some cool ideas on better incentivizing reliability and performance in solar. “The way solar projects are financed … there’s other things solar could do rather than just hit an agreed to energy amount … grid services that are recognized by the utility.”

At the 15-minute mark, we burrow into Kate’s imagination and see her vision of the ideal energy world and solar’s role in it. This obviously leads us into a chat about video games and the Sci-Fi we are into these days.

This SPI there was also a big focus on diversity, and we wanted to get Kate’s perspective not just as a woman in solar, but in the tech/engineering world of solar, which is one of the most white male-dominated fields. That discussion starts at the 18-minute mark.

At the 21-minute mark, I explain my fears about our technology future, and Kate tries to calm me down.

Finally, around 24 minutes, Kate tells us what she found that was new and cool at this year’s SPI.

— Solar Builder magazine