By Lloyd Wilford
As the largest source of potential renewable energy, solar power is often touted as the next great hope for the green revolution. While solar is indeed a top option for renewable energy, the environmental impacts are not the only reason the solar industry is expected to grow 50% globally in the next five years. Remote locations, unreliable power grids, and collective conservation efforts all add to the necessity for flexible, cost-effective solar systems.
When the power goes out, all current source or pure grid-tie solar systems fail for lack of an energy storage system. Therefore, a standard setup may not work for the kinds of environments described above. It makes sense, since it would be unsafe for solar power to keep running through the grid when the main power goes dark. Utility teams can’t work on lines they don’t know are live. Most solar customers don’t realize their systems are grid dependent. Even in a busy city center in the middle of the day when the sun is shining brightly, a grid-tied system will not deliver power if the grid goes down.
Solar power systems that are designed to be self-sufficient in almost any situation are often referred to as a solar microgrid. This type of all-in-one setup requires a different set of equipment, includes battery backup, and an energy storage system (ESS) with higher than base machine functions to control the flow of power.
Up to this point, the problem for the industry has been that not all solar panels, battery backups, and control boxes communicate with each other at the control level. It’s very difficult (and expensive) to design a system that incorporates all these moving parts in a useful manner to establish a truly grid independent solution.
A more cost-effective solution is multi-level reticulation. This complex but efficient structure has the potential to reimagine the electrical industry worldwide. Here’s how it works: loads - or the devices – that use activity in our factories, businesses, and homes, are not equal. We sometimes think of our electrical supply from the grid as being a single source of power, but that’s not a sound philosophy to apply to an independent micro-grid delivery. A single induction (motor) load, like the heating device in our home, is equal to hundreds of LED lights, so in an environment that has electricity as a limited resource, this type of load cannot be treated equally to the lighting system of building. This difference in the loads goes further than energy usage, to the time of day the load is used. The brilliance of Multilevel reticulation is that it allows the management of a variety of circuits throughout a building in different ways at the same time, depending on the types and volumes of loads they are receiving, and their priority use hierarchy.
This multi-faceted flow of electricity allows solar energy to be used directly by the owners when the sun is out, store extra energy in a battery backup system, and deliver any excess back to the grid at a profit. We call this manufacturer agnostic approach Universal Energy Management (UEM). The battery backups can then be used at night, peak times during the day, and even when the grid goes down.
Because of its versatility, a UEM setup can also be used in circumstances where a home or business needs to be completely independent from a grid system. Isolated resorts far from power lines, schools in poor areas, or conservation centers with tight regulations about the disruption of the landscape, can still have electricity that meets the needs of each unique situation.
An added benefit of using this form of energy management is that it extends the life of the connected batteries. The ability to manage loads according to the specific set of needs at any given moment means that batteries aren’t constantly cycling. As anyone with a cell phone or laptop knows, batteries fade over time, and their charge gets shorter and shorter. Cycling half as often means the batteries in a properly managed solar power setup will last twice as long.
When infrastructure wears out or is not invested in adequately, the power will go out. In California this year, millions of people have gone without power as an antiquated system is periodically shut down to avoid dangerous wildfires. In June, a weather-related power outage affected 41 percent of the traffic signals in Dallas, Texas. One week later, a massive grid shutdown left 48 million people with no power across Argentina, Paraguay, and Uruguay.
Countless homeowners in high-risk areas would benefit from the ability to seamlessly switch over from the standard grid to an energy storage system. As long as its delivery is dependent on the grid, solar can’t do this. Thanks to recent innovation, however, more cost-effective and reliable power is available now.
Lloyd Wilford is Chief Technology Officer for Humless, a U.S.-based company that develops new products in the alternative electrical supply and solar energy industry. Lloyd is an educator and computer programmer, and has dedicated the last 5 years of his career exclusively to the advancement of sustainable energy. He is responsible for the installation of the largest Schneider XW platform, Hybrid Alternative Energy system, as well as the world’s first integrated housing estate with a mini-grid system.
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