You’ve heard of smart grids, but what about smart solar panels? Today, Portland-based startup Azuray Techologies announced a partnership with solar panel maker Suntech to work on just that.
In a solar industry that’s growing increasingly competitive, Azuray is making what could be an enticing offer: technology that can boost solar energy harvested by up to 25 percent.
Here’s the rundown of how it works: When shade or dirt falls on solar panels, or one panel in a string stops working, it compromises the overall power generation of the system. Azuray fixes the issue through its maximum power point tracking (MPPT) technology, which uses computer algorithms to figure out how to extract the maximum amount of power from each panel, as well as the overall system — up to 25 percent more than it would have otherwise generated without the technology.
Solar panel optimization is starting to heat up, with a number of startups announcing products addressing the issue. In Azuray’s case, its technology recoups energy that would otherwise be lost due to an under-performing panel. Solar panel systems rely on one consistent current among all of the panels, so if one starts to fail, it drags down the overall system by forcing other panels to reduce their currents. MPPT technology monitors and adjusts the voltage coming off a failing panel or, in bigger systems, turns it off entirely.
Azuray has integrated the technology into the solar junction boxes made by Chinese company Renhe Photovoltaic Technology. The resulting product, called the AP300, effectively merges the MPPT technology with the panel itself — hence, smart panel. (Azuray’s other MPPT product doesn’t use a junction box; rather, it requires additional wiring and must be mounted to the solar panels. The junction box solution eliminates the wiring costs and extra space occupied.)
“We believe this is the future for distributed solar electronics,” said Gil Miller, Azuray’s vice president of business development and marketing. “[MPPT] ultimately speeds up an owner’s returns on investment, because panels affected by shading are producing more energy than they would otherwise.
Today’s news publicly marks Azuray’s exit from what has mostly been stealth mode, and it’s clear these are carefully calibrated partnerships. SunTech, a Chinese company, is the world’s largest maker of crystalline silicon panels, and Renhe is the biggest junction box player in China — it also has relationships with solar manufacturers that can help sell Azuray’s products.
“When major solar panel manufacturers learn we are collaborating with Renhe, it gives them the confidence to know that not only is our technology outstanding, but it is now a part of current technology they are already familiar with and using,” Miller said.
The partnership with Suntech is light on details, but the companies say their research will center on Azuray’s smart panels technology and ways to harvest more energy out of new solar installations. “Through collaboration with Azuray we hope to support solar installers and owners in their quest for greater power generation and faster returns on investment in any environmental conditions,” said Shijun Cai, Suntech senior vice president, in a press release.
Miller added that part of Azuray’s appeal to customers is that it does not compete for labeling rights or end-game consumers — rather, the company partners with solar equipment makers and sells them the technology under a white label.
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