This is a guest article by Chris LaForge.
Chris is teaching an in-depth 6-week technical training on designing battery based solar PV systems that starts in September. You can read the full description and get a limited-time discount here. If you need to learn how to design, quote, and commission a battery based solar PV array, this is the best course for you.
In the past three years, three trends have converged to create higher demand for battery-based solar arrays: battery prices are declining, the penetration of grid-tied systems is exploding, and homeowners are becoming more interested in backup power.
Retrofitting existing solar PV arrays to include batteries is becoming an opportunity for added revenue for contractors.
Enter Chris LaForge —
Since the advent of high-voltage battery free (HVBF or grid-direct) solar electric systems, some clients have been frustrated by not being able to use their systems during power outages. The re-work necessary to move to a grid-intertied system with battery back up is costly (GTBB or DC coupled system), inefficient, and, in some cases, unworkable.
Ac coupling can be used in both utility-intertied systems and in off-grid applications. This article will discuss the utility-intertied aspects of AC coupling.
With the advent of AC coupling as a means to introduce battery back-up to an existing HVBF system, an efficient and more workable solution has come to the fore.
AC-coupled systems use the HVBF system while adding a battery-based inverter that works in tandem with the HVBF inverter. It maintains the efficient operation of the PV system while the utility is available and then allows for its operation during power outages by having the GTBB inverter disconnect from the grid, power the back-up load panel and use the power from the HVBF system to power the critical loads in the back-up load panel. It also provides power to the GTBB inverter to charge its battery bank. If this sounds a bit complicated, well, it is.
Courtesy of Schneider Electric
AC coupling provides the following advantages over traditional DC-coupled GTBB system designs:
- Retrofit-able with existing HVBF systems (within manufacturer requirements and limitations)
- Allows for employing the efficiencies of HVBF equipment while achieving back-up power for utility outages
- Can reduce the number of components used in DC coupling
- Can reduce losses do to low-voltage aspects of DC-coupled systems
- Can provide for more flexible and efficient wiring configurations
- For designs requiring long distances between the renewable energy resources and the balance of system components
As with any innovation, AC coupling has some notable challenges, especially when the design utilizes multiple manufacturers.
For several years, system integrators have completed AC-coupled designs using one manufacturer’s equipment or by using multiple brands of inverters.
SMA pioneered the AC coupled concept with its “Sunny Island” Inverter. Initially built to provide for the creation of microgrids on islands and other non-utility environments. The design lends itself to grid-intertied AC-coupled systems as well.
As shown in the diagram below, SMA’s design allows for multiple HVBF inverter outputs to be combined with the Sunny Island inverter to connect to the utility and have battery back-up.
Courtesy of SMA America
SMA’s design provides for an elegant method of regulating the battery state of charge as long as all the inverters can be networked with cat-5 cable. In this design the HVBF inverters can have their outputs incrementally reduced as the battery reaches a full state of charge. If the distance between the HVBF components and the Sunny Island is too great to network with cat-5 cable, the Sunny Island controls the output by knocking out the output of the HVBF inverters with a shift in the frequency of the inverter’s AC waveform. The HVBF inverter senses an out-of-spec frequency and disconnects until the frequency is back in spec for five minutes.
This frequency shift method of regulating battery state of charge is often used when different manufacturers’ inverters are used to create the AC-coupled design. This has several drawbacks that we will discuss.
Several other battery-based inverter manufacturers have developed designs for using their inverters with other HVBF inverters to create AC-coupled designs. These include OutBack Power, Magnum Energy, and Schneider Electric. Both SMA and Schneider provide for single manufacturer AC-coupled systems because they manufacture both HVBF inverters and GTBB inverters. This presents the basic advantage of having one manufacturer provide and support the entire AC-coupled design.
OutBack Power and Magnum Energy manufacture only battery-based inverters and therefore require the mixing of manufacturers in AC coupling in order to bring in HVBF inverters.
Both companies provide design information and support for AC-coupled designs.
With Schneider Electric’s AC coupling, the battery is regulated by the frequency shift method. Schneider itself recognizes the drawback of this method in its AC-Coupling Application Note (see appendix): “Unlike its normal three-stage behavior when charging from utility grid, the Context XW does not tightly regulate charging in a three-stage process when power is back fed through AC inverter output connection to the battery. In this mode charging is a single-stage process, and the absorption charge and float stage are not supported. Charging is terminated when the battery voltage reaches the bulk voltage settings, which prevents overcharging of the batteries. Repeated charging of lead acid batteries in this way is not ideal and could shorten their useful lifetime.”
This can be improved by employing a diversion load controller added to the design. The diversion load controller will limit the battery voltage by “dumping” excess power into a DC load during times of excess generation for the PV system. While this re-introduces the 3-stage charge regulation into the design it negates some of the benefit of AC coupling because it re-introduces the cost of a charge controller and adds the cost of the DC diversion load(s).
Magnum Energy also provides for frequency shift method battery regulation but in their White Paper titled “Using Magnum Energy’s Inverters In AC Coupling Applications” (see appendix) they indicate that frequency shift regulation should only be used as a back up to the employment of a diversion load controller. They are developing an innovative addition to their product line the ACLD-40, which will provide for diversion control using AC loads. One aspect of using diversion load controllers is that DC loads are often difficult to find and expensive. Magnum intends the ACLD-40 to be a solution to this issue by allowing the use of more common AC loads for diversion controlling such as AC water heaters or air heaters. This product is under beta testing at this time and is due for release in late 2014.
OutBack Power’s design provides for frequency shift method battery regulation. The disadvantages to this method can again be overcome by the introduction of a diversion load controller and this comes with the same issues as with the other manufacturers. OutBack Power’s AC coupling white paper discusses both on and off grid applications for AC coupling (see appendix).
Disadvantages to AC coupling:
- Frequency shift methods of regulating the battery state of charge are coarse and may create significant power loss if there is a miss-match of equipment leading to nuisance tripping of the HVBF inverter
- Battery optimization may not be possible without re-introducing a charge controller as a diversion load controller
- Complexity in systems mixing manufacturers can create systems that are difficult to operate
- Care must be take not to void warrantees by using equipment that is not designed for this application
In many ways, AC coupling is a good tool for working with both the difficulties of retrofitting battery storage in existing HVBF systems and systems with long distances between resources and loads. As with any innovation in this field, be sure to get the right design and make sure that the application does not void product warrantees.