Last month during Intersolar, I (along with colleagues Sara and Victoria) was lucky enough to get invited to see a microgrid demonstration featuring the Enphase next-gen IQ8 at their headquarters in Petaluma, California. As I had to sign an NDA as the price of admission, I was unable to write about what I had seen until August 16, when Enphase hosted their annual Analyst's Day. But I am no longer bound by that agreement, and can now tell you about what I saw.
To say that I was impressed would be a gross understatement - quite simply, it was the most astonishing thing I have ever seen in the solar industry. Settle in and let me tell you what I saw...
What Happens Today
Before I launch into describing the demo, let me remind you of what happens today. All of the systems that we have installed are what is referred to as "grid-tied" which means that if the grid goes down, the PV system that is capable of back-feeding the grid also goes down, and remains down until the grid comes back. (This is to prevent your house from being an island of energy, feeding the grid, and potentially injuring a worker trying to restore grid service. As a result, this feature is known as "anti-islanding" and it is required of all inverter systems that are connected to the grid.)
Normally this is not a problem, but during July, when it got super hot out here (think 115° F hot!), both SCE and LADWP suffered dozens of outages, taking down PV systems across large swathes of LA County, and leaving frustrated PV owners without power, or A/C, just like their PV-less brethren. Not good.
What I Saw in the Lab
Which brings us to what I saw at Enphase last month.
The lab looked like an ordinary industrial space, but with a series of household appliances and tools at one side. There was a simulated array feeding a bank of IQ8 inverters, and a display that showed the output of the array (i.e., PV production), the total consumption from the loads, and any power being exported or imported to support those loads. At the start of the demo the only load was a single red lamp, and the display indicated that it was drawing roughly 90 Watts. The PV array was producing roughly 1.9 kWs, so the excess 1,800 Watts was being exported to the grid. All super normal stuff.
But then things got interesting...
One of the engineers switched off the breaker that connected the PV array to the grid... and nothing happened! Well, actually, a lot happened, but what didn't happen was that the red light did not go off. It didn't even flicker to the extent that we could detect it. But then when you looked at the display you noticed something amazing. Not only had the microinverters created a grid on their own in fractions of a second, but they had throttled the output down so that now the production of the PV array exactly matched the load of the red light! And here's the kicker - there were no batteries attached to this system!!!
But what fun is just having a light on? How about some toast? So they switched on a toaster, and it lit up, and the total load jumped by about 1,000 Watts, making the total load now around 1.1 kW, and the PV array scaled up to meet it! Still no batteries. And how about this - there was no central controller, no master-slave relationship between the microinverters. Rather, this was the "hive mind" at work, as the micros sensed the demand and scaled up or down as necessary to meet that load!
But wait, there's more!
The next load to be added was a grinder like you might find on your workbench in the garage. All by itself, that device drew roughly 1,200 Watts, bring our total load to roughly 2.3 kW - more than the maximum output of our simulated array. What would happen when that was added to the mix? Surprisingly little. The grinder spun normally, but the red light dimmed slightly. What was going on? The system's "hive mind" had lowered the voltage slightly (a microgrid equivalent of a brown out) to meet the amperage demand of the new load mix! So slightly slower than normal, cooler than normal, dimmer than normal, but all operating.
Of course, all good things must come to an end. Our already overloaded microgrid faced one more challenge - a vacuum cleaner with a significant in-rush current, far in excess of what the grid could sustain. Indeed, as soon as they switched the vacuum cleaner to "on", everything shut off. Nothing was damaged, the microinverters just shut off to protect themselves.
Turning on the vacuum cleaner served as the "ah-ha" moment for the potential homeowner - I guess I can't run everything in grid outage mode. So what do you do when something you just did produced an undesired result? Well if you can, you undo it! Turning the vacuum cleaner off, immediately restored the microgrid to its previous state of operation! No delay. No human intervention - just turn off that latest (over)load, and the system recovers on its own!
How cool is that? Pretty damn cool, if you ask me!
So what about batteries, how do they play with this new system? Just exactly as you would want.
The engineers added a bank of batteries to the mix, each with an IQ8 installed. Now the display also indicated the battery's overall state of charge, and whether they were charging or discharging. Reset the demo to just the red light as a load and the batteries at 30% state of charge. The PV array output jumped back to its maximum, with the surplus energy being used to charge the batteries. As more loads were added, the PV array remained at maximum output, and as needed, drew power from the batteries. Should the batteries reach full capacity and the PV output is greater than the loads, the microinverters will once again throttle down.
I hope you agree that this was an amazing demo, and the IQ8 (or Ensemble, as Enphase refers to the overall system) has tremendous potential, both for Enphase as a company, and for so many nascent markets. Think of how this product could have helped out in Puerto Rico, or in parts of Africa which have never, ever seen a grid! Makes me want to book a trip to bring power to a village somewhere - hey Laurel, what do you say?
For our own clients, this has the potential to be the answer we have been seeking ever since Elon's whoppers got people thinking about storage for the first time ever.
A point we raised with Enphase management is the need to have a reasonable upgrade path for existing clients, and we will be writing more about that in the weeks to come. We know that current Enphase IQ products (the 6+ and 7+ we have been installing this year) will be compatible with Ensemble. We expect to be able to work with older systems, though there may be a higher retrofit cost. The IQ8 is expected to be available in 1H2019... watch this space!