A True ‘Plug-and-Play’ PV System is Closer Than You Think
Back in the spring of 2012, the Energy Department announced a $5 million, five-year initiative aimed at producing a true rooftop‘plug-and-play’ photovoltaic system, meaning a solar panel that you could pick up at your local building supply store, plant on your roof, and have it soaking up the photons all within the same day.
The concept of a solar appliance that is just as easy to install as any other appliance sounds reasonable enough, but the residential and small business solar market faces a unique set of obstacles. We’ve been covering plug-and-play PV developments since at least 2009, and generally speaking they still involve more time and effort than, say, installing a new fridge.
That’s partly because retail solar systems are relatively new. Standardization is just beginning to emerge, and in the meantime solar customers have to put a lot of elbow grease into the process.
Contrast that with the rest of the retail appliance industry: It is a mature field with a firm platform of standardization, which accounts for why you can buy practically any kind of new stove from just about anywhere without having to think about getting special permits or making other special arrangements.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at a new plug-and-play system, developed by the Fraunhofer Center for Sustainable Energy Systems (CSE) with funding from the Energy Department’s SunShot Initiative, and see how close we are to a true plug-and-play system for solar.
A true plug-and-play PV system
CSE launched its new plug-and-play PV system publicly for the first time last week. The target installation time for the commercial version will be about 10 hours. With the advantage of in-house expertise (and presumably, plenty of practice), the CSE team was able to install and commission a full-scale system in just a tenth of that time.
The design of the system specifically targets ‘soft costs,’ including interconnection with the local grid, permitting and inspection, as well as the processes of purchasing and installation.
The grid connection presented a particularly cumbersome obstruction that required the cooperation of multiple stakeholders to sort out satisfactorily, including Boston, Dartmouth and Falmouth, among other Massachusetts municipalities, as well as National Grid, Northeast Utilities, Green Mountain Power and other utilities serving the Northeast.
The solution is an automatic, pre-certified system that provides for grid integration via a simple email (more details are available here).
So far, so good. The plan for next year is to develop a plan for manufacturing the system at commercial scale. CSE intends to demonstrate a commercial-ready system next year, which puts it on track for fulfilling the Energy Department’s five-year plan.
What your local utility hopes to gain from plug-and-play PV
The end goal is to transform PV ownership from a hassle into a simple bottom-line choice for electricity consumers.
All else being equal, that would certainly accelerate the the growth of the distributed solar energy sector. Distributed generation has already begun to create huge challenges for conventional utility companies, but the CSE collaboration illustrates how utilities can adapt to the new landscape.
CSE’s focus on simplifying grid connectivity is the key. By making a grid connection inexpensive and seamless, the CSE plug-and-play system provides a good incentive for consumers to buy a PV system without making an additional investment for on-site energy storage.
The senior vice president and chief customer officer at Northeast Utilities, Penni Connor, summed it up like this:
“These systems make solar adoption a less complicated and time-consuming process for our customers and easier for us to bring new solar onto our systems. Our customers are going to have easier access to solar, helping us support a more sustainable energy future.”
With a solid base of grid-connected, distributed solar customers, utilities can still focus on distributing electricity and ensuring reliability. In this model, utilities would shift their emphasis from building centralized power plants to building additional energy storage facilities.
As for CSE, last summer it opened its new headquarters in Boston as a “living laboratory” for solar and energy efficiency R&D, which among other projects, houses a pilot fabrication line for solar modules.
Image (cropped): Courtesy of CSE