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Summary:

A new solar inverter has been developed by a quiet startup called Empower Micro Systems, which could land on the market by the end of the year. The company’s CCO says the tech could disrupt the landscape.

Empower Micro System's box

Inverters are the silent workhorses that convert power from devices like solar panels and batteries into usable power. There’s been considerable innovation around solar panel inverters in recent years, as some solar roofs have started moving from a single large central inverter to smaller “microinverters” embedded on each panel. But now year-and-a-half-old chip startup Empower Micro Systems has been pushing that solar inverter innovation even farther and has developed a new low voltage solar microinverter based on its new chip designs that it said costs less and is more reliable and efficient than the current ones on the market.

Empower Micro Systems CCO Jon Bonanno told me that the company’s inverter tech “is a quantum change in how solar is done.” It can be attached to a solar panel system, on the rack or the frame, or embedded at the individual solar module level. Bonanno says the inverter is five times more reliable, five percent more efficient and costs 20 percent less than traditional “string” inverters, which have been used for decades. The potential of a lower inverter cost, is that the entire cost of the solar system could be lower, in addition to the recent dramatic drop in solar module prices.

Empower Micro Systems doesn’t plan to manufacture the inverter box itself. The company is a fabless chip firm and it sells its integrated circuits and architecture design to manufacturers like inverter makers and solar module producers. In that respect it’s adopting Intel’s mode, churning out the chips inside the inverter devices.

Bonanno is pretty confident of the disruptive power of the inverter tech, called the “Universal Micro Power Inverter.” He thinks it can “replace all solar inversion options, hands down.” The key technologies of the inverter are how the system on a chip synchronizes and controls the power flow at a low voltage, as well as the design of the inverter box itself.

Enphase Energy's tech

Enphase Energy’s tech

Microinverters use energy storage tech to temporarily store the DC power from the solar panel and decouple it from the AC grid power. The Empower Micro System’s inverter uses a next-gen solid state capacitor for this energy storage tech, while other systems more commonly use more traditional liquid-filled electrolytic capacitors.

The next steps for any startup are bringing this hardware to market. Bonanno says the company has already signed one agreement with a “top-three” module maker, and is in discussions with many more module makers and power supply vendors. Just this Sunday, Bonanno said the company’s field trials went live with solar installers. This year the inverter will be certified and could be produced in pilot production by the third quarter of 2013.

The technology has attracted a list of angel investors including Jurgen Krehnke, recent President & General Manager of SMA Americas, Ken Lawler, General Partner at Battery Ventures and Silicon Ventures, Kiki Tidwell, Kauffman Fellow and cleantech investor, and Eugene Zhang, Managing Director at Tsinghua University Executive Entrepreneur Club. Chinese module manufacturers will be key for the company’s market strategy. Empower Micro Systems is currently in the process of raising a $5.5 million series A round.

There’s a lot of competition in the solar inverter space. Not only are there the new microinverters companies like Enphase Energy, and power optimizer tech from the likes of Solar Edge and Tigo Energy, but also the traditional inverter giants like SMA dominate the market. The company will need to launch and scale to prove a competitive edge.

But Empower Micro Systems plans are actually even more audacious than just replacing solar inverters. The technology can be applied to energy storage and electric vehicles, and Bonanno says one day down the road they hope to move into those markets, too.

Updated at 3PM PST, to fix the spellings of Jon Bonanno, and Jurgen Krehnke.

  1. Matthias B. Krause Tuesday, March 26, 2013

    “Microinverters use energy storage tech to temporarily store the DC power from the solar panel and decouple it from the AC grid power.” I have no idea what you mean by this, can you please explain? Do you mean they store the energy in order to hack them into sinus waves? And why would they “decouple” from the grid? And it’s “Krehnke”

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    1. It’s not well worded and I really have no idea what “decouple from the AC grid power” is supposed to mean but I understand inverters. You can think of AC (alternating current) as a “push and pull” flow and DC (direct current) as a constant “push” flow. Inverters just take the “pull” flow and temporarily store it, then convert it into a “push”. They can also be used in reverse to convert a constant 1 direction flow (DC) into an alternating flow (AC). AC in North America changes direction of the flow 60 times per second (60Hz) and elsewhere uses 50Hz.

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  2. Big claims from a company that has not raised their series A. The market is littered with failed microinverter companies, and there are startups beyond the startup phase, like Enphase and SolarBridge that have traction and several generations of products as a learning curve (and companies like SolarBridge don’t use electrolytic caps also). Finally, the big guys are getting into it – SMA and PowerOne.

    This is a case of a little too late.

    And, they are raising their money on KickStarter, while a great new funding source for cool projects, semi companies, even fabless semi companies typically need tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars to get to commercialization.

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  3. Disruptive would be a retail price of under $50 apiece. Is this in the cards? If not, it’s not disruptive.

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  4. Mihir Kumar Pradhan Wednesday, March 27, 2013

    A transformer running at high frequency in a microinverter does the isolation of low voltage DC from solar module with that from the AC grid. Is Empower Microsystem imeaning this isolation as decoupling or are they claiming an isolation without transformer what Ideal Power Converter claims to achieve in high power three phase inverter with a new patented technology ?
    Efficiency improvement of 5 % over the best & efficient microinverter is still not digested .

    Mihir Kumar Pradhan.
    Chennai-India

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  5. Carlyle S. Adams Wednesday, March 27, 2013

    This is a continuimg step in the right direction.

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  6. Big claims. No Details. Sounds like a standard start-up garbage with no view of the real world. This looks like ArrayPower – another failed startup.

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  7. “…inverter uses a next-gen solid state capacitor for this energy storage tech, while other systems more commonly use more traditional liquid-filled electrolytic capacitors” Huh? Solid state capacitor? Liquid-filled electrolytic? I think someone is regurgitating press-release hype without applying necessary critical thinking. Sounds like snake oil designed to attract VC to me.

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  8. Boots on the roof Friday, March 29, 2013

    http://www.mouser.com/ds/2/293/2012fpcap_catalog_nu-5085.pdf

    They exist and based on manufacturer reliability testing will be very robust in a solar application. These devices are currently used in space and military applications, due to their “mission critical” performance under stress and insanely high price. That said, it is amazing that anyone can use them without causing the price of the device to way out of market pricing.

    If these guys have figured that out, then there is serious value in what they are doing. I hope to see more about this technology in the near future. Sounds like a break-through.

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  9. After another week on snow blown rooftops installing solar, if this technology can marry into the module so I can get off faster and not go back…I’m sold.

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  10. Johan Ferris Friday, March 29, 2013

    http://www.mouser.com/ds/2/293/2012fpcap_catalog_nu-5085.pdf

    They exist and based on manufacturer reliability testing will be very robust in a solar application. These devices are currently used in space and military applications, due to their “mission critical” performance under stress and insanely high price. That said, it is amazing that anyone can use them without causing the price of the device to way out of market pricing.

    If these guys have figured that out, then there is serious value in what they are doing. I hope to see more about this technology in the near future. Sounds like a break-through.

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