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Playing Translator Between Solar & Utilities

With last week’s solar trade show Solar Power International conference over and done with, let’s move from the latest advances in solar power technology to how to keep all that new solar tech from crashing the grid. The answer is communications — and in my weekly update at GigaOm Pro (subscription required) I lay out the most important grid “phrases” that will enable future solar systems to speak the same language.

Last year, the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) hooked up with the Department of Energy, Sandia National Laboratories, and the Solar Electric Power Association to define how inverters could help utilities manage grid stability. Most inverters are capable of communications via proprietary technologies, but without standards to link diverse systems, utilities won’t be able to tie them together in any meaningful way.

On one hand, solar monitoring technology and services from companies such as SunEdison, Fat Spaniel and Echelon (s ELON) can track basic status reporting and manage and calculate data on power produced and how much power earns. But these systems can’t generally perform more complex control tasks, EPRI analyst Brian Seal said.

Echelon is working with big inverter maker SMA Solar Technology and Fat Spaniel was bought by inverter maker Power-One (s PWER) earlier this month. Some inverter manufacturers have been working on a Modbus specification called SunSpec that could bring monitoring, at least, into a common framework, Seal noted. And big players like General Electric (S GE), Siemens (S SI) and Schneider Electric have experience in power generation controls that will likely play into the effort.

EPRI and partners have asked two key standards groups — DNP3 for utility-scale systems, and the ZigBee Alliance’s Smart Energy Profile 2.0 for homes, businesses and other end users — to convert this preliminary work into a set of real-world standards, EPRI’s  Seal says. There’s a long way to go, but since EPRI tends to ask questions that utilities want answered, there’s little doubt that the solar inverter makers, and the industry in general, are paying attention.

To learn more, check out my GigaOm Pro update, and stay tuned for next steps from EPRI, including work on how to start testing gear built to emerging standards.

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Image courtesy of Clean Energy Resource Teams.