Solar Power World editors pick the Top Products of 2020

Coronavirus may have halted solar installations for a short time this year, but R&D and product development continued uninterrupted. With at-home and on-site power now more important than ever, many new products of 2020 aimed to make solar installations quicker and the user experience simpler for easier solar power consumption.

There weren’t any in-person tradeshows for SPW editors to attend and see new products, but we kept an eye on everything happening in every corner of the market this year. These are our top choices for the most innovative products announced and coming available soon. We expect these products to transform the solar installation market — all for the better.

Be sure to check out an even more extensive database of this year’s Top Products here.

Making whole-home backup a reality with smart circuits

As seen in Lumin

When it comes to solar and energy storage, descriptive words can sometimes be confusing. A common misconception about battery backup is that the battery will actually back-up the entirety of a home’s loads. Most of the time, a battery has to be hooked up to its own protected loads panel that will support only a few circuits. But a handful of “smart circuit” products are coming to market to make whole-home backup actually mean what it says.

For example, the software/hardware combo Lumin is a physical box that taps into the main electrical panel to make all circuits “smart.” Now instead of only being able to support five circuits through a protected loads panel, Lumin’s software allows for load toggling, giving homeowners the ease of choosing which loads to support during a grid outage.

Smart circuit setups can also monitor charging levels while providing load control. If a battery is low on power, fully charging an electric vehicle probably isn’t of the highest priority. Instead, apps like Lumin’s can monitor energy consumption and automatically shed large loads during an outage to protect the battery from draining. Smart panels and smart circuits give consumers the flexibility to back-up everything or just a few important loads — and on varying schedules. The whole house might not be humming at full power during an outage, but at least homeowners don’t have to settle for a few circuits every time a grid interruption occurs.

Squeezing extra production out of single-axis trackers

As seen in Nextracker’s NX Navigator

Tracking solar systems undeniably produce more energy than their fixed-tilt counterparts. The GPS technology directing their path every day is standard across the industry because it’s been long determined where the sun will be at any given time. But there’s still room for monitoring and management software to help project owners optimize other tracker considerations like radiant light, compatibility with bifacial modules and compensation for increasingly frequent weather events.

Nextracker’s proprietary monitoring software, NX Navigator, gives site managers control over their arrays, providing data down to the production efficiency of individual trackers. The software, which works in conjunction with Nextracker’s TrueCapture control system, adds safety measures for extreme weather events and heavy snowfall. Site managers can adjust panels to stow at a safer angle for falling hail, as well as plan snow shed actions. Users can even schedule maintenance through NX Navigator.

Incremental improvements for utility-scale tracker projects can increase profits and minimize downtime. Predicting potential faults and keeping the array in motion is any site manager’s goal, and the tools are available to do so on smartphones and laptops.

Design software that helps utility-scale solar developers save on soft costs

As seen in PVComplete’s PVSketch Mega

Residential installers have had access to tools to assist with designing and selling solar arrays for a while now. Software like Helioscope and Aurora help them automatically view many iterations of module layouts, kilowatt sizes and product types to determine the best fit for each home.

Even commercial projects up to 20-MW can be modeled using existing advanced software. But anything larger than that, and the only option for most developers has been AutoCAD. Typically, a developer would give a team of engineers specific parameters and get a layout back in a few days, according to Daniel Sherwood, president of PVComplete. Then, if developers wanted to see the project with different parameters, it would take another handful of days of work. And so on.

PVComplete is launching an antidote to that labor-intensive design process in the form of PVSketch Mega.

PVSketch Mega lets users input multiple parameters for the computer to assess, including fixed-mount or tracking systems, different types of modules, alternative row spacing measurements and more. The software then exports a chart that displays each different layout along with how many kilowatt hours it could produce. The company is also working on building in more LCOE factors, such as fixed costs, maintenance costs and more.

“That layout that took three or four days for an engineering team to do, you can now do in three or four minutes, but you can do a thousand of them in three or four minutes,” Sherwood said.

PVComplete is best known for PVSketch, an AutoCAD software for utility-scale solar. Its new browser-based PVSketch Mega tool communicates with the company’s AutoCAD software, so designers can export parameters from the web browser into AutoCAD and finish designing the project offline.

“The amount of money you could save by being smart about these decisions early on in a really big site, it could be millions of dollars. It’s no joke,” Sherwood said.

Mounting over the shingle without causing problems under it

As seen in QuickBOLT’s QB2

It should be any mounting manufacturer’s goal to ensure ease of use of its products for solar installers when they’re up on the roof. Reducing trips up the ladder, the number of components and tools installers must carry, the amount of steps to install and the time it takes to install each piece of the system should all be on a manufacturer’s mind — and sometimes a single product design can manage to accomplish all of that.

QuickBOLT, formerly known as SolarRoofHook, was the company that popularized the viability of top-mounts for solar arrays back in 2012. Its namesake product skips the traditional method of prying up composition shingles to slide aluminum flashing underneath for waterproofing. Instead, QuickBOLT goes straight through the shingle and uses a rubber puck dubbed “Microflashing” to keep water out. No pried shingles, meaning fewer chances of roof leaks.

QuickBOLT’s latest iteration, QB2, is three pieces: Microflashing, an L-foot and a lag bolt, and the company claims it can be installed in 30 seconds. The lag secures the L-foot set atop the Microflashing, driven straight into a rafter through the shingle. While it’s reserved for rafters, QuickBOLT is soon releasing a top-mount that can fasten to decking.

Installers and manufacturers see pitched rooftop solar mounting trending toward top-mount solutions, with several companies releasing their own versions in 2020 alone. And given the temperamental nature of asphalt shingle rooftops, any opportunity to reduce potential damage to them is a positive.

Big-wafer solar panels that smash output records

As seen in Trina Solar’s Vertex line of modules

Unfortunately, current solar panel technologies are reaching their limit at improving efficiency. The only way to make solar panels more powerful is to go bigger. But rather than have a massive solar panel that needs to be installed by crane, one way to create a more powerful module in the same-sized footprint is to switch to bigger silicon wafers. Silicon wafers are the building blocks of crystalline silicon solar cells, which string together to become solar panels. The bigger the wafer, the more power it can generate because of its larger surface area.

Many companies have adopted this simple concept and released large-format panels to the utility-scale market in the last year, but one of the first was Trina Solar with its Vertex bifacial modules using the largest wafer size (G12/210-mm). The dual-glass, 12-busbar panel only uses 50 tri-cut cells to reach over 500 W and 21% efficiency. That’s a 100-W and 0.5% efficiency increase over Trina’s Duomax bifacial module that uses 72 smaller wafers. And Vertex modules are relatively the same size — give or take a few inches in either direction — as what the utility-scale market is used to.

The key selling point for these larger-wafer panels is to generate more energy in less space. By using fewer panels, one can reduce balance-of-system costs. This is an easy sell on multi-megawatt ground-mounts, but some more tweaks are needed to bring big wafers to the non-utility sector. Don’t worry though, Trina is already working on that with its Vertex S line, a more compact version of the original Vertex modules.

Inverters that safely maximize precious solar output

As seen in Yaskawa Solectria’s XGI 1500

Solar installers have to strike a delicate balance to ensure they’re getting as much power as possible out of systems without overloading inverters. That typically means oversizing arrays and using inverters that can tolerate more power than they’re rated for, with the warranty to back it up.

More inverter manufacturers are now advertising their ability to oversize and accept more power than traditionally thought. Yaskawa Solectria, for example, assures customers that its reliability testing has proven its XGI 1500 string inverter can withstand oversizing without breaking, and its warranty will provide peace of mind should any issues arise. The company has found oversizing capability to be especially important to utility-scale installers who need to get as close as they can to their allowed export amount so projects are profitable.

“Being able to hit that limit without having to do other things in the system has immense value to our customers,” said Eric Every, product manager at Yaskawa Solectria.

Every said since modules are so affordable, adding a few extra strings to max out production barely makes a dent in a project’s budget.

Maximizing solar energy output in a smaller footprint is made easier with bifacial modules. Module manufacturers aren’t able to give an exact wattage of the backside gain these modules can be expected to produce since it varies based on the amount of diffused light at each specific site. An inverter that can handle a lot of extra DC energy without faulting, like the XGI 1500, is attractive for such projects.

“Being able to have the higher loading ratios allows our customers to actually take advantage of that backside gain,” Every said.