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The history of solar inverters

Francisco CastroMay 14, 20192630

He is known as the “Father of Invention,” for the 1,093 patents he acquired in his 84 years, including the phonograph, the incandescent light bulb, and motion picture cameras. 

Yes, Thomas Edison, also called the “Wizard of Menlo Park” for the New Jersey town where he did some of his best-known work, is perhaps one of the most well-known American inventor. 

But it was a less-known electrical and mechanical engineer - one whose name has become synonymous with electric vehicles in today’s world - who paved the way for some of Edison’s inventions, had a fierce dispute with him, and whose work also led to the development of one of the most important pieces of any home solar energy system, the photovoltaic (PV) inverter.

Born to a Serbian family in 1856 in Croatia, Nikola Tesla had a childhood fascination with motors that eventually led him to invent radio (no, it wasn’t Guglielmo Marconi), the electric generator, fluorescent lighting, alternating current (AC) and other technologies that generate and deliver electrical power for our homes, including the solar inverter.

Tesla attended the Technical University at Graz, Austria, and the University of Prague. At Graz he saw the Gramme dynamo, which operated as a generator and, when reversed, became an electric motor, and from this observation he got the idea to use alternating current.

In 1884 Tesla came to the United States and went to work for Thomas Edison. But their diverse background and methods made his employment short-lived.

Later on he sold his patent for polyphase alternating current technology to George Westinghouse, who joined forces with General Electric Company and used Tesla’s invention to harness the power of Niagara falls with electricity.

Tesla’s power was in AC, where the strength of the energy is continuously changing. The Edison company had been promoting direct current (DC) as a safer way to power homes and factories. Edison even launched a campaign to persuade the general public that AC was dangerous, despite knowing this wasn’t true.

AC has a number of advantages over DC: AC generators are simple, cheaper and more reliable than DC generators; AC can be easily switched by circuit breakers at any voltage and DC can only be switched at low voltages; and AC motors and other electrical appliances are simpler and more reliable than those designed to work with DC.

The solar inverter 

Which brings us to solar inverters. Without the work and inventions of Tesla, we wouldn’t have them today. Inverters first made their appearance in the late 19th century and their development continued through the middle of the 20th century.

The year 2000 brought the advent of residential solar when scientists at Sandia Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico, invented the modern inverter. 

Called the “non-islanding inverter,” the device developed at Sandia Laboratories automatically diverts or turns off electricity flow from grid-connected PV systems when an electric distribution line shuts down.

Previous to that discovery, utility companies had been reluctant to connect solar installations because of the potential for safety hazards and equipment damage. The problem was that if a utility needed to shut down power in a distribution line for repair or some other reason, the line must be completely de-energized. This is for the safety of a line worker or a passerby coming in contact with the line.

Before the Sandia development, photovoltaic systems could not determine that a line had been de-energized under all conditions and it could continue sending electricity through the line. 

The “non-islanding inverter” allowed solar power systems to sense that a line had been de-energized and to automatically shut off power production or divert the electricity to the house or business to which it is connected.

It was a major step and one that spearheaded the growth of residential solar energy systems.

Just as important as the solar panels, inverters are key parts of any domestic solar power system, converting the DC to AC.

When sunlight hits solar panels with particles called photons, the modules convert them into electrons of DC electricity. Photovoltaic panels are made from a semiconductor mainly consisting of silicium. A semiconductor can only make DC current. 

When the panels send that energy to the inverter, this machine converts the DC into AC power used by most appliances. This is called inversion. 

Solar inverters are also partly the reason for a more affordable residential solar power system. Back in 1956, solar systems were only 6% efficient and cost a staggering $300 per watt. Now, with advancements in solar panel technology and more efficient solar inverters, the average solar system performs at 14 to 18 percent efficiency, costing as little as $3 per watt.

A good solar inverter will match the capacity of your solar array. If you need a 5 kW home solar array (the average size), you will need to get a 5 kW solar inverter.

There are three types: string inverters that connect to all the panels and send the DC energy into a single unit to transform it into AC electricity; microinverters that are small devices placed on the back of each solar panel, and DC-Optimizers, which like microinverters, go on the back of each solar module, but unlike them, do not convert DC into AC energy directly at the panels but help optimize their output with a string inverter.

Fortune Energy offers a wide variety of high-quality solar inverters from a number of reputable companies with a long-standing track record of the highest efficiency and outstanding warranties.

 

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