January 23, 08
New Solar Inverter Could Save Solar Industry $76 Billion

A former aerospace engineer and his team have come up with a breakthrough inverter technology that could move the solar industry forward in a big way.

1-Solar, in stealth mode since it was founded 14 months ago, just won the Renewables Award at the 2007 California Clean Tech Open. It was selected as one of nine finalist companies out of a field of 140 entries.

"That brought us out of stealth very quickly," said 1-Solar founder and President Tranh Nguyen, a power converter and inverter expert who was lead designer for the Tomahawk cruise missile's power system.

The Rohnert Park startup developed an inverter that doubles or triples the life of current inverters yet costs 25 percent to 50 percent less.

Inverters take DC energy from solar panels or fuel cells and from wind generators and turn it into AC so that it can be fed to the power grid or used locally.

"Inverter/converter technology hasn't changed in over 50 years," said Mr. Nguyen.

DC-to-AC conversion usually involves a two-or-more-step process with intermediary energy storage in capacitors or batteries. Capacitors are notoriously short-lived and need to be replaced in about five years at costs of $3,000 to $5,000, he said.

1-Solar's disruptive technology converts in just one step without the use of short-lived components. In fact, the inverter uses less than half the components of traditional systems and weighs 20 to 30 pounds instead of traditional inverters' 100 to 150 pounds.

According to Mr. Nguyen, the technology could save 40 million tons of iron and copper over a span of 15 years, resulting in a monetary savings of $76 billion.

The patent-pending technology also promises a significant reduction of solid and hazardous waste worldwide – seven million tons over 15 years, he estimates. China alone will have a need for 5 million inverters a year by 2010, according to studies by Sandia National Laboratories, which has identified a severe need for improved inverter technology.

1-Solar has completed functional prototypes and intends to complete a 6kW inverter within six months. Initially its products will be grid-tied inverters, projected to pass regulatory agencies' tests in 12 months.

The company will manufacture the inverters in the U.S. for the U.S. market, said Mr. Nguyen.