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eIQ Unstealths: Another Entrant in PV Balance of System

Eric Wesoff: August 31, 2009, 9:03 PM

Until recently, the electronics used in PV systems – inverters and Balance of System (BOS) have been an overlooked and underinvested part of the solar ecosystem, despite being a more than $2.2 billion market.

But in the last two years, there has been a surge in investment and entrepreneurial activity in solar BoS. We have listed all of the companies in this sub-sector here.

eIQ Energy, a startup in this market, founded in 2007 with a staff of 25 located in San Jose, Calif. just emerged from stealth today. The firm falls into the distributed maximum power point tracking camp (as opposed to the microinverter camp) and has a new slant on the distributed electronics angle.
I spoke with CEO Oliver Janssen, CTO Gene Krzywinski, and VP of Business Development Michael Lamb. "It's important to differentiate our solution," said Janssen. "Like the microinverters and distributed MPPT firms – we have distributed MPPT and performance monitoring."  But the CEO claims that their difference is that they "enable a truly parallel architecture – the panels do not have to be connected in series and you no longer have to design a string." 

Greentech Media has covered the advantages of distributed MPPT before – amongst the many benefits are reduced loss due to shadowing, soiling, or panel mismatch.  It enables differing roof pitches, incremental additions to the system, and provides design and safety advantages.

"We are making each panel do a DC boost onto a bus," said CTO Krzywinski. The eIQ system uses a distributed "vBoost" module – a small DC-to-DC converter that attaches to one or more panels in an array and provides maximum power point tracking while also stepping up panel output voltage to a constant level and creating a bus architecture. The company claims that its architecture enables the connection of unprecedented numbers of panels on a single cable run – up to more than 100 thin-film panels. 

According to the company – balance of system components (cabling, combiner boxes, racks, and design and installation fees) account for 25 percent to 40 percent of an array’s per-watt cost – and represent a substantial opportunity for reduction in up-front expenditures.

"There is substantial cost savings in optimizing the power capacity of the copper plant,  you could connect one hundred or more panels per cable run with a significant savings in the BoS – wiring, combiner boxes, and labor," said VP Mike Lamb.  To make installation faster and potentially less expensive, vBoost modules include an integrated wiring harness with snap-together connectors, eliminating the need for extensive on-site wiring.

"Those savings will more than offset the cost of our system," said Lamb, adding, "Though incremental power boost is one of the benefits of our solution – we are not relying on incremental energy harvest to offset the cost of our system." 

The company's main customer interactions are with installers and PPA providers (as opposed to module manufacturers). "We are installing small commercial beta installations," Janssen noted, adding, "We believe we have a compelling value proposition for commercial applications."
eIQ's modules work with industry-standard central inverters to which the eIQ system provides consistent and steady voltages, allowing the inverter to operate in its most efficient range with maximum reliability.

The investment climate is changing – the once stagnant inverter and balance of plant market is being shaken up by VC investment and entrepreneurial innovation. In addition to being a sector with room for technical innovation and performance enhancement, the inverter market is also more capital efficient than the solar panel manufacturing sector. And capital efficiency is this year’s VC mantra.

eIQ could be one of those capital efficient game-changers. The firm joins SolarEdge, Tigo Energy, and National Senmiconductor as one of the competitors in the distributed MPPT sector and S.E.T. in the parallel architecture field. EnPhase's microinverters remain the dominant player so far in the distributed electronics field with more than 50,000 units shipped since last August.

More details in the GTI Report: The Coming Disruption in the PV Inverter Market.

Green Odds and Ends: Quotes and More

Eric Wesoff: August 31, 2009, 3:19 AM

Energy Quotes:

"There are liars, damn liars and battery guys. Although fuel cells are a different class altogether."
– Jeff Depew, CEO and Co-Founder of lithium-ion battery firm Imara  

"Utilities are the largest users of electricity in the U.S." 
(Explained by the fact that 7 percent of electrical generation is wasted in transmission losses; Ohm's law you know. This is quite the argument for distributed generation and solar on rooftops.)
– Erfan Ibrahim, EPRI

"Fundamentally VCs are risk adverse – they want no risk in the deal, if we could handle risk we'd be entrepreneurs."
– Victor Westerlind, General Partner at Cleantech VC firm Rockport Capital

A Few More Things

• EnPhase has shipped more than 50,000 microinverters since last August

• Global PV panel efficiency comparison

• Great 1.5-megawatt wind turbine installation video and article

• Most interesting wind turbine designs from gCaptain

Flurry of Energy Storage Investments, News and Analysis

Eric Wesoff: August 28, 2009, 4:02 PM

August is usually a quiet month in Venture Capital, but this month saw at least five new investments in batteries, fuel cells, and energy storage:

  • CFX Battery closed $5 million of a $27 million Series B, according to a regulatory filing spotted by PEHub. The firm builds primary and rechargeable lithium-ion batteries.  Previous investors include CMEA Ventures, Harris & Harris, and USVP.
  • ClearEdge Power builds fuel cell-based Combined Heat and Power (CHP) powered by propane or natural gas. They raised a $15 million Round E from Applied Ventures, Big Basin Ventures, the Kohlberg family, et al.  PE Hub sighted this in a regulatory filing.
  • Pragma, a PEM hydrogen fuel cell developer received about $600,000 in VC funding from Finaqui, Oséo Capital, et al.
  • Seeo raised more than $8 million from Khosla Ventures, et al. The firm aspires to build rechargeable lithium-ion batteries based on solid polymer electrolyte technology licensed from LBNL.
  • SustainX received $4 million from Polaris Venture Partners, RockPort Capital, the NSF, and Angeli Parvi for their compressed-air storage systems.

Energy storage events were the rage in August with lots of storage news from IBM Almaden, MegaWatt Storage Farms, and EPRI.

PG&E is looking for $25 million in stimulus funds to develop compressed air energy storage (CAES) as per this article from Jeff St. John.

And lastly, GTM Research just published a great report on Grid-Scale Energy Storage: Technologies and Forecast through 2015.

(Image from Argonne National Labs)

Green Odds and Ends: DOD Bloopers and More

Eric Wesoff: August 26, 2009, 7:04 PM

The hippies at the Department of Defense get their Green on at this well designed website.  The site includes a video on the 14-MW Nellis Airforce Base solar installation that contains easily the worst explanation of PV technolgy ever committed to film here by Michelle Price, Nellis AFB Energy Manager.

Video of Lissa Morgenthaler-Jones, CEO of LiveFuels explaining the recent change in business plan from algae oil to fish oil.  PETA is not going to be happy.

Rain water catchment systems from Rain Water HOG.  Rainwater can be used for watering the garden, toilet flushing, laundry washing, and bathing.

UC Berkeley and Prescience Intl are offering 10 scholarships to the Cleantech Institute.

On allocating some of the communications spectrum to the smart grid.  How much bandwidth does the smart grid really need?  Not a lot today, but how about tomorrow?

LiveFuels: Fishing With the Joneses

Eric Wesoff: August 26, 2009, 12:40 PM

I had a long conversation with Dave Jones, the COO of LiveFuels over breakfast at Buck's last week. LiveFuels recently announced a shift in its business plan – moving from algae harvester and algae fuel company to fish aquaculturist/fish oil/biofuel/co-products supplier. 

I'm working on a larger look at biofuels from algae that takes into account the many recent announcements and my interviews in the algae realm (Exxon, SGI, Algenol, BP, Martek, etc.).  But I wanted to give a quick take on LiveFuels. Mr. Kanellos reported on the LiveFuels fish story here.

It's not unusual for a startup's business plan to shift from its original idea – many successful VC-funded firms have undergone that change.

Nevertheless, I don't think the founders of LiveFuels envisioned themselves as fishmongers in their original startup plans. I imagine the dream was more about crisp clean labcoats and shiny bioreactors producing millions of gallons of algae-derived oil, selling the oil to BP, and saving the world. Anyway, back to the fish.

Given the company's transformation into fish-squeezing ichthyologists, LiveFuels now has to deal with PETA and the like. Here's a video of Lissa Morgenthaler-Jones, CEO of LiveFuels, and her lapels, trying to calm the inevitable agitated animal rights activists from getting their protest on.

LiveFuels is not the first firm to extract fish oil. Nutraceutical firms extract oils from fish (and algae) to produce DHA and EPA, nutraceuticals which sell for lots more than $4 per gallon. If these nutraceutical oils are worth so much, why would LiveFuels sell them into the vicious, commodity transportation fuel market? 

Nor is LiveFuels the first to consider bioconversion as a method of harvesting algae. Scientists and startups like A2BE have looked at Sea Monkeys and Tilapia as bioconverters. LiveFuels is considering using filter-feeders like menhaden, sardines, or anchovies as its crop.

And LiveFuels is going to have to deal with sentiments such as this (taken from our comment boards, in this case from the erudite F. David Doty):

"The idea by LiveFuels of feeding algae to fish and extracting the oil from fish to fuel vehicles is the sickest I’ve heard yet from a humanitarian perspective. I regularly ingest fish oil. I buy about the cheapest I can find, as do hundreds of millions of others. I pay about $150/gal. If LiveFuels can bring the price of fish oil down, maybe more people can have better health, but fish oil will never fuel our vehicles. The world switched from whale oil to petroleum 150 years ago, and that saved the whales. We won’t go back."

And here's a comment from CGA, "Why not feed the fish to bears and squeeze the bears? They could revive the market for bearskin coats as a byproduct... Seems like an awful lot of wasted entropy to me.

In the words of Dave Jones: "We are still a biofuels company. We just have to harvest the co-products to make it work."

LiveFuels now has engineering challenges as well as ethical and public relations issues to surmount in its new incarnation. More on the company soon.

Overcrowding the PV Inverter/Distributed Electronics Field

Eric Wesoff: August 25, 2009, 6:41 PM

The interesting microinverter/distributed electronics field is now officially oversupplied.

The only firm who is actually shipping is Enphase with well over 30,000 units installed. National Semi, Tigo, and Solar Edge seem to be getting some sales traction and forming partnerships with solar module manufacturers and installers. And Petra Solar has booked some orders.

I'm adding a few more startups to the rapidly growing list of entrants in this rapidly innovating sector.

eWatz – According to LinkedIn, eWatz is developing a hardware/software solution using standards based open architecture for measuring, monitoring and maximizing photovoltaic solar panels and other renewable energies.

NavSemi – According to the company's website it builds a "Digital Solar Energy Maximizer for Home and Street Lighting products."

And Sympagis, another distributed electronics for PV firm has changed its name to eIQ Energy. It is funded by cleantech VC, NGEN.

We've heard of another called Annexus but have yet to find out further info.

Here's the updated list:


  • Accurate Solar
  • AzurayEnecsys
  • EnPhase Energy
  • GreenRay Solar
  • Larankelo
  • Petra Solar
  • SolarBridge (formerly SmartSpark)

DC-DC Inverter Architectures

  • Accurate Solar
  • MPPC
  • National Semiconductor
  • eIQ Energy (fka Sympagis)
  • SolarEdge
  • Tigo Energy

Other Inverter Startups

  • 1-Solar
  • Annexus
  • Apollo Solar
  • Act Solar (acquired)
  • Array Converter
  • EOS
  • eWatz
  • GenDrive
  • NavSemi
  • Princeton Power
  • Phobos
  • Sustainable Energy Technologies
  • TerraWatt Power

More details in the GTI Report: The Coming Disruption in the PV Inverter Market.

MegaWatt Storage Farms: Energy Storage Developer

Eric Wesoff: August 20, 2009, 4:09 PM

MegaWatt Storage Farms is a storage developer, a new entity – like a solar developer, except with energy storage. And like a solar developer, they are somewhat technology agnostic.

Some background. California, like many states, is in a race to reach ambitious Renewable Portfolio Standards and is increasingly bringing solar and wind farms online. Both of these energy sources are less than consistent. 

Here's an example of a "spaghetti chart" on a wind farm's output. The average is steady but the hour to hour change is striking. 

And here's an example of solar on a minute to minute basis. 

These are just some of the sources of volatility that are straining the electrical generation, transmission and distribution system. Utilities cannot work with this level of variance. Power needs to be available when we turn on the switch whether or not there is some cloud cover in the desert or if the wind stops blowing.
Ed Cazalet, the VP and Co-Founder MegaWatt Storage Farms believes that if California is to come close to achieving a 33 percent RPS by 2020, we are going to need at least 4 gigawatts of storage – or roughly 5 percent of the 75-gigawatts peak system demand. Cazalet is a former board member of the California Independent System Operator and the former chief executive officer and co-founder of Automated Power Exchange. I spoke with him before he presented at a recent SolarTech event.

MegaWatt, a startup with a very experienced team, looks to develop, own and operate large electricity storage facilities that connect directly to the wholesale electric grid and provide electricity storage services to utilities and other parties. 

Stalled by Regulatory Agencies

But merchant owned storage – owned by the customer or independent parties is a "substantial regulatory challenge," according to Cazalet. Is it transmission? Generation? Distribution?

Like transmission, storage moves energy from one place to another with some losses.  Is energy storage a transmission asset?

Storage competes with generation. Is is a generation asset?

Is it a distribution asset?

Or is it a fourth category?

The problem is, according to Cazalet, "If a utility doesn't  know whether to call it transmission, distribution, or generation – they're not going to use it." And that debate is going on right now in the California PUC and at the FERC.

Storage Technologies

We have covered the variety of energy storage technologies many times at GTM. Here's a link to a related blog and an EPRI powerpoint discussing energy storage prices.

Some energy storage technologies:

  • Compressed Air Energy Storage (CAES)
  • Pumped Hydro
  • Batteries
  • Flow Batteries
  • Flywheels
  • Supercapacitors
  • Superconducting Magnetic Energy Storage (SMES)
  • Thermal Storage

Each of the technologies has its' virtues, its' drawbacks, and its' suitable niches.

Although Cazalet is agnostic on the specific storage technology he does seem to like Soldium Sulfur (NaS) batteries.

"Japan is way ahead of us in storage, Japan has over 300MW of storage, much of it NaS, on the grid," said Cazalet. This includes 34 megawatts on an acre at a Japanese wind farm in their quest to find energy storage at its lowest price. Some of Japan's NaS batteries have operated for over a decade. NaS is also being deployed at scale in the MidEast and has been deployed at scale on the distribution grid in the U.S. by utility American Electric Power.
With regards to Flow Batteries: "Many firms going after it, you have to get the engineering right. Not yet up to multi-MW scale," he said.

And, "Li-ion is making vast strides." with "trailer size installations providing 2 megawatts for 15 minutes."

How Does California Meet the 33% Renewables Target?

Cazalet's answer: "Put the storage near the load centers and deliver it on peak;" and, "Combine that with dynamic pricing."
Cazalet adds in a recent editorial:

Battery storage has no air, water, or noise emissions. Four gigawatts of distributed storage will provide 8 gigawatts of dispatchability (4-gigawatts charge rate plus 4-gigawatts discharge rate) to integrate variable wind and solar. Batteries can respond almost instantly over their full range of dispatchability. 
Four gigawatts of distributed storage can also absorb 4 gigawatts of nighttime over-generation from wind and other sources, bringing it to the load centers at night on existing transmission,
and then delivering it during the day when we need it. 
He emphasizes, "Distributed storage is the only practical, large-scale and clean option for integrating a 33 percent variable renewable energy portfolio."  And adds, "It is now up to California’s PUC, Energy Commission, ISO, and perhaps the Legislature, to establish a portfolio standard for storage to complement the standards they have set for renewables and demand response."