As Photovoltaic Technology Nears Grid Parity, What Does Solar Technology Really Promise?

As Photovoltaic Technology Nears Grid Parity, What Does Solar Technology Really Promise?

Solar electricity generation is becoming a viable alternative energy source, largely because of rising energy costs. Up until 2007, the German solar market was the world’s largest solar market driven by a law encouraging the use of renewable energy through incentives (the “Energieeinspeisungsgesetz”).

Other countries have taken Germany’s lead, and in 2008, Spain had the largest number of newly installed solar plants. Large growth in installed solar capacity is expected to come from Italy, France, and the United States. The demand driven by these incentives has stimulated an increase in production capacity.

The start of the recent world economic crisis and the sudden withdrawal of incentives from the Spanish solar market in 2008 have led to the supply of solar silicon exceeding demand at historic prices resulting in a price reduction of around 40% to 50%.

This brings photovoltaic (PV) technology closer to so-called “grid parity” where the cost of creating solar electricity equals the prevailing market price for electricity paid for by the consumer. Grid parity is now expected to occur sometime before 2015 for Germany.

Solar modules generate a dc voltage. A solar inverter converts this dc power into ac power, which is then connected to the electricity grid.

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One important trend is the movement toward higher power levels. Solar power farms with a peak capacity of more than 100 kW are becoming more popular. This trend is also emerging for lower-powered systems, as their average power is increasing from 5 kWp to 10 kWp.

For solar inverters, one very popular topology is the boost plus H-bridge, which is a two-stage, non-isolated topology (Fig. 1). The first stage is a boost stage, which increases the variable output voltage of the modules (e.g., in the range of 100 to 500 V) to a higher intermediate voltage, which must be more than the actual peak mains voltage (e.g., 230 V x sqrt(2) or >325 V).

This boost stage has a second important function. To maximize efficiency, solar modules need to be operated to generate the maximum possible power. Multiplying the output current and the output voltage characteristics provides the power curve of a solar module. There is a maximum point in the power characteristics known as the maximum power point, or MPP.

This precise point varies with factors such as the type of module, the temperature of the module, and the shading of the module. The input stage of the inverter tracks the MPP using a software technique called maximum power point tracking, or MPPT, with the help of customized algorithms.

The second stage of the inverter converts the constant intermediate voltage into a 50-Hz ac voltage, which is fed into the mains supply. The output is synchronized with the mains supply phase and frequency. Since this stage is connected to the mains supply, it must achieve certain safety standards, even under fault conditions.

In addition to this, there is a new draft proposal of the German VDE Standard 0126-1-1 linked to the Low Voltage Directive that requires solar inverters to actively support the mains supply network in case of a reduction in power quality, minimizing the risk of a more general power blackout.

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Under current regulations, inverters that protect themselves by simply switching off during power outages are permitted. But if solar inverters become popular and provide a significant share of the generated power, simply switching off the connected solar inverters when there is a power outage could cause a larger mains blackout, as one inverter after the other switches off and rapidly reduces the power available to the network. So, the new draft directive will improve the stability and power quality of the mains distribution network at the cost of a slightly more complex inverter output stage.

Solar inverters need to be reliable to minimize the cost of maintenance and downtime. They also need to be efficient to maximize the amount of electricity generated. The designers of solar inverters expend a considerable amount of effort to maximize this efficiency.

There are many ways to improve the boost converter efficiency. The boost converter can be operated in continuous or boundary conduction mode (CCM or BCM), leading to different optimization approaches.

In CCM mode, the reverse recovery current of the boost diode is one major source of losses. Here, silicon-carbide diodes or Fairchild Stealth diodes are generally used.

BCM mode is more often used in solar inverters, even if CCM mode is generally recommended for such power levels, because the forward voltage of the diodes used in BCM mode is a lot lower. Also, BCM mode has a much higher ripple current in the electromagnetic interference (EMI) filter and the boost inductor. Good high-frequency design for the inductor is one solution.

A new approach interleaves two boost stages instead of using one boost stage, halving the currents flowing through each inductor and each switch. Further, the interleaving removes the input ripple current over a wide operating input range as the ripple current from one stage cancels out that of the other. Controllers such as the FAN9612 interleaved BCM power factor correction (PFC) controller can handle solar boost stages without any problem.

There are two choices for boost switches in the inverter: insulated gate bipolar transistors (IGBTs) and MOSFETs. Input stages requiring switch voltage ratings of higher than 600 V commonly use fast-switching 1200-V IGBTs such as the FGL40N120AND. Input stages where voltage ratings of 600/650 V are sufficient use MOSFETs.

Designers of the output H-bridge stage have historically used 600/650-V MOSFETs. New draft regulations have led to a renewed interest in using IGBTs in this area. These new regulations require four-quadrant operation of the output stage.

MOSFETs have built-in body diodes that have poor switching performance compared to the co-packaged diodes used in IGBTs. New field-stop IGBTs can switch voltages at a rate of 10 V/ns, which greatly improves the turn-on losses compared with older versions.

The excellent soft recovery performance of the integrated diodes helps to reduce EMI caused by the high di/dt levels exceeding 500 A/µs. For 16- to 25-kHz switching, IGBTs such as the FGH60N60UFD are recommended.

Also, the input voltage range is increasing in solar inverters, which results in a reduction in the input current at the same power level or an increase in the power level with the same level of input current. Higher input voltages result in the need to use higher-rated IGBTs in the range of 1200 V, resulting in higher losses. One way of getting around this problem is to use a three-level inverter (Fig. 2).

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The high input voltage is divided in two by using two electrolytic capacitors in series. The midpoint is connected to the neutral line. 600-V switches can now again be used. The three-level inverter can switch between the three levels: +VBus, 0 V, and –VBus. In addition to being more efficient than a solution built from 1200-V switches, the three-level inverter has the additional advantage that the output inductors are much smaller.

For unity power factor, the three-level inverter plays a key role. During the positive half-wave, Q6 is always on, and Q5 and Q4 are always off. Q3 and D3 form a buck converter that generates the output sine-wave voltage.

If only unity power factor is needed, Q5 and Q6 can be implemented as 50-Hz switches using a very slow, very low-VCE(sat) IGBT such as the FGH30N60LSD. If the power factor needs to be lower, Q5 and Q6 must operate at the switching frequency for a short time.

The diodes of Q3 and Q4 should be fast and soft recovery diodes. Q3 and Q4 could either be implemented as a fast recovery MOSFET such as the FGL100N50F or as fast IGBTs (FGH60N60SFD).

Based on these observations, it is likely that the three-level inverter topology will become popular for non-isolated inverters with power levels above 5 kWp because of the possibility of achieving efficiencies of over 98%.

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