The flood of solar startups in the distributed electronics sector used to divide itself up neatly between parallel AC microinverter firms like Enphase, Petra Solar and SolarBridge and their distributed MPPT and DC-boost brethren like SolarEdge and Tigo.
Startup eIQ adds another facet to the distributed electronics category -- parallel DC. VC-funded by NGEN and Bosch Venture Capital, eIQ Energy has a staff of 30 and a different slant on the distributed electronics angle.
I spoke with CEO Oliver Janssen and VP of Business Development Michael Lamb recently.
"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."
"You're tiling your roof without regard to panel orientation and roof pitch," according to the CEO, who added, "It's a huge simplification."
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. eIQ claims that the added benefit of a parallel architecture is that eliminating the string enables system design without regard to panel voltage -- allowing the design to be optimized for site conditions rather than dictated by string requirements.
Essentially, eIQ makes each panel do a DC boost onto a bus. 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. "We fix the voltage for maximum efficiency," said Janssen.
The company is focused on commercial and industrial (C&I) applications, rather than the residential market, and recently announced the deployment of a 50-kilowatt rooftop system.
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. With the addition of their vBoost converter module, each panel becomes an independent, efficient contributor of power to the array. Designers gain flexibility regarding PV panel location, orientation and overall system size. Installers have a safe, simple wiring scheme with easy expansion and per-panel monitoring. And importantly, system operators improve their expected output and payback.
"There is substantial cost savings in optimizing the power capacity of the copper plant; you could connect 100 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). Janssen said, "We believe we have a compelling value proposition for commercial applications."
In addition, 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 CEO said that the company started selling product in the first quarter of this year and is now receiving repeat orders in the 100-kilowatt range.
The company is engaged with a number of module and inverter companies to develop optimized solutions that will take full advantage of DC bus -- however, the focus of the company's near-term sales efforts are commercial-scale installers and PPAs.
CEO Janssen writes in his blog: "We’ve been hearing from module companies that the electrical balance-of-system (BOS) component of solar arrays is emerging as a primary focus area for cost reduction and efficiency improvements. This is due in part to the fact that so much of this work has already been done on modules and inverters, and in part to the creativity of vendors, who are doing some very innovative work. The wiring companies are making the installer’s job easier, with custom-built cable harnesses, while also building in system electronics, combiner boxes, and other components that would otherwise have to be custom-wired on site."
(photo by Ed Gunther of the Gunther Portfolio)