In 2011, DOE awarded Hatboro, Pennsylvania, startup Alencon Systems $3 million to develop a utility-scale inverter system for solar photovoltaic (PV) plants. Since then, this company has taken its innovative product to the manufacturing floor and is helping grow the domestic solar supply chain.
Alencon’s founder, Oleg Fishman, was working for the leading U.S. manufacturer in the heating and melting industry when he decided to apply his knowledge of power electronics to help the solar industry. He wanted to develop a power electronics system for PV plants that could increase the safety and efficiency of PV systems, and reduce materials and costs. With DOE funding, Alencon developed an innovative direct current (DC-DC) optimizer to increase power generation and built a lab to test it in.
In 2016, Alencon commercialized the String Power Optimizer and Transmitter (SPOT) and was one of the first companies to bring DC-DC optimizer technology to the market. The SPOT converts one level of DC voltage to another level of DC voltage in the main solar collector system, which is often called the DC bus. A DC-DC converter converts direct, steady current to a pulsing current and then back to direct current. What makes the SPOT special is that it switches at higher frequency, meaning more pulses of current per second, than traditional optimizers. This reduces the size of converter components and minimizes power losses, which increases efficiency.
To understand how it works, picture strings of connected PV modules. The individual strings may generate at different voltage levels, but the SPOT converts the voltage for each PV string and can connect uneven low-voltage strings to a common high-voltage DC bus. Controlling each string can maximize power output and improve fault tolerance. If an electrical fault occurs, a technique called galvanic isolation enables system operators to isolate the affected module string to fix it while the rest of the system continues operating. The SPOT also provides real-time monitoring data on the PV system’s performance.
The SPOT can be used in new and existing PV systems, solar-plus-storage projects, and microgrids. When retrofitted to repower older PV systems, the SPOT has increased production anywhere from 5% to 15%, without needing to install new PV modules.
The SPOT is also cost-effective, because it can increase voltage using less copper. In solar-plus-storage applications, the SPOT enables power to flow from the PV panels through the DC-DC converter to charge the battery. DC coupling requires only one inverter—as opposed to two inverters in alternating current (AC) coupling—to harvest solar energy and charge or discharge the battery.
Because security is critical as more solar energy is added to the U.S. power system, Alencon integrates cybersecurity features in all its products to assure its customers, which include military bases, utilities, independent power producers, solar plant owners, engineering procurement and construction firms, and companies that integrate battery energy storage systems for electric-vehicle charging and other uses.
Today Alencon has more than 50 megawatts of its SPOT technology in operation and has secured funding to continue the company’s growth. To keep up with its fast-growing manufacturing business, Alencon plans to double its factory size this year. The company hopes the expansion will have a domino effect on its U.S. supply chain, improving business for manufacturing suppliers in Michigan and Tennessee; sheet-metal companies in New Jersey, Mississippi, Pennsylvania, and Oklahoma; and printed circuit board assembly shops across the Mid-Atlantic.