Smarts for Solar Arrays

Start-ups are vying to squeeze more energy out of solar panels, with distributed intelligence

3 min read

More than a dozen venture-capital-backed start-ups are vying to bring some smarts to solar farms in the hope of boosting photovoltaic arrays' ability to deliver carbon-free energy. The offering by Tigo Energy, based in Los Gatos, Calif., may be the simplest and most cost-effective of these distributed intelligence schemes. The three-year-old firm is exploiting wireless communications to minimize the added cost and complexity of PV arrays' energy-harvesting electronics, an approach that could quickly win over risk-averse system installers.

Tigo's strategy is getting its highest-profile test at the El Cerrito, Calif., headquarters of sports foods producer Clif Bar & Co. Solar installer Sun Light & Power, of Berkeley, Calif., is festooning Clif Bar's carport and rooftops with nearly 2000 silicon solar panels. Sun Light & Power is betting that by individually monitoring, controlling, and optimizing each panel, Tigo's system will squeeze 6 to 8 percent more energy from the 530-kilowatt array.

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This photograph shows a car with the words “We Drive Solar” on the door, connected to a charging station. A windmill can be seen in the background.

The Dutch city of Utrecht is embracing vehicle-to-grid technology, an example of which is shown here—an EV connected to a bidirectional charger. The historic Rijn en Zon windmill provides a fitting background for this scene.

We Drive Solar

Hundreds of charging stations for electric vehicles dot Utrecht’s urban landscape in the Netherlands like little electric mushrooms. Unlike those you may have grown accustomed to seeing, many of these stations don’t just charge electric cars—they can also send power from vehicle batteries to the local utility grid for use by homes and businesses.

Debates over the feasibility and value of such vehicle-to-grid technology go back decades. Those arguments are not yet settled. But big automakers like Volkswagen, Nissan, and Hyundai have moved to produce the kinds of cars that can use such bidirectional chargers—alongside similar vehicle-to-home technology, whereby your car can power your house, say, during a blackout, as promoted by Ford with its new F-150 Lightning. Given the rapid uptake of electric vehicles, many people are thinking hard about how to make the best use of all that rolling battery power.

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