By Terri Steel
When it comes to technology, Electronics engineer Xiaoyu Li has discriminating standards. The 66-year-old Boulder resident works for NIST (National Institute of Standards and Technologies), a government agency under the U.S. Department of Commerce. Li’s laboratories are responsible for calibrating and certifying laser power standards for the commercial power meters used by manufacturers in the Automotive, Biotech, Electronics and Defense industries.
When Mr. Li’s environmentally-concerned wife Gena suggested the couple look at renewable energy solutions for their home, he did what most scientists do when confronted with a problem: he started researching potential solutions.
“Anything I want to do I like to study very thoroughly,” explained Li, who came to the United States from China as a guest scientist back in 1986. “I thought the concept of renewable energy was interesting, but I wasn’t so sure I could afford it," he said.
So, Li got unearthed information about a phalanx of federal, state and local incentives that could be combined to substantially reduce his up-front costs. Once he realized today’s incentives could make solar a completely affordable reality, he launched into phase two of his research: identifying the best available technology for the job.
“I took time to study what kind of solar panels I wanted. I downloaded the specs from a wide array of solar panel manufacturers: SunPower, SANYO, Sharp and Kyocera. I also researched and considered what kind of inverter I should choose, where I was going to put the array, and how much I should pay,” he said.
His work did not go unnoticed. “When it comes to technology, Mr. Li’s a very thorough, very knowledgeable man. And he was very particular in what he wanted for his home,” said Steve Bauhs, Director of Sales and Marketing for Simple Solar, who designed and installed the solar solution Li selected. “He came to us with a few clarification questions, but overall he was very much on top of what he wanted,” observed Bauhs.
Li indicated to the folks at Simple Solar that his quest for the optimal solar solution required solar modules that were very efficient, very reliable and high quality. So who won the research test of this seasoned NIST scientist? “He wanted the good stuff,” recalls Simple Solar’s Bauhs, “He wanted Sanyo.”
The winning solution features 5.2 kilowatts of SANYO’s HIT Power 200s, one of the industry’s most efficient lines of solar modules. HIT Power modules offer superior efficiency and energy output to provide businesses and home owners with more power per square foot, an important consideration for both installers and property owners facing the challenge of limited usable rooftop real estate.
SANYO’s HIT Power ratings offer 100% or more of their nameplate rated power, enabling owners to (1) generate more kWh per rated watt, (2) quicken investment returns and (3) help realize an unrivaled customer satisfaction experience.
“People tried to push cheaper solar options on me, but I wouldn’t budge,” said Li. He says another benefit that compelled him to go with SANYO is the company’s solar module workmanship warranty--it’s the best in the business. “The workmanship warranty is different from the module performance warranty, a value add many people don’t know about,” Li observed.
“I have a neighbor whose trees shade my roof in the fall and winter,” he added. “I needed a solution that would correct for that, but also allow me more solar output in a smaller rooftop footprint--more power per square foot of rooftop space.”
Li’s research also introduced him to the concept of micro-inverters. “It was a solution he thought made sense, in the way it dealt with shading--and the way it optimized production panel by panel instead of string by string,” explained Bauhs. “Mr. Li was adamant about that.”
Micro-inverters are popular with potential for cost reduction and potential economies of scale in that they connect to the junction box of solar modules. Instead of DC being conducted from each module, current is immediately converted into AC. Less hand-off means more useable power.
“Enphase solutions improve the performance, intelligence, reliability and safety of solar systems by eliminating the ‘weakest link’ paradigm of energy production inherent in central inverters,” noted Raghu Belur, Enphase Energy’s Vice President of Products. Adding to the appeal is the fact that the micro-inverters come with advanced communications technology and Web-based monitoring systems that allow them to build upon the software it has to monitor solar panel performance to introduce home energy management techniques to gauge and address energy costs across the household.
“With a regular central inverter, you cannot specifically identify problems, with these micro-inverters you can,” added Li. “A nd with micro-inverters, you don’t need to bring your whole system down to correct issues.”
Bauhs says that Li’s research and insistence on the emerging micro-inverter technology made him Simple Solar’s first Enphase customer. And the solution has since proven to be a winning play for many Simple Solar clients. “We’re now big fans of Enphase. I’ve lost count on the number of Enphase solutions we provide our customers,” exclaimed Bauhs.
Bauhs is quick to note that there may be some instances where a centralized inverter makes sense for customers. He says Simple Solar’s aim is to provide its customers with the best custom solutions for their needs. “We’re not running away from string inverters by any stretch of the imagination,” he said, “but Enphase’s micro-inverters make the best of any challenging roof situation, whether it involves shading, or multiple tilts or orientation. And their monitoring tool is very interesting as well,” he added. “I look at the Web site and monitor energy production all the time,” said Li.
In California, a bellwether state for solar trends, the share of residential solar installations that have micro-inverters has tripled over the past year, a sign validating Mr. Li’s research.
“In this business, roughly two-thirds of clients are all ears when it comes to our recommendations for solar energy solutions. They need the advice and appreciate the guidance,” noted Bauhs. “The other 25% may have an inkling, but there’s still more explanation to be had. It’s the remaining 5-10%--the caliber of client that Mr. Li represents--who are adamant about what they want.”
“Typically, those who know what they want, want something like Sanyo,” Bauhs continued. “They want high efficiency, a more elegant look. Maybe they’re building a custom home, or worried about HOA (Home Owners’ Association) regulations--or they are concerned about resale values,” he observed. It’s a testimony to the value of research, to be sure.
Li’s research convinced him of the need to use Enphase Energy’s advanced micro-inverters in tandem with his SANYO modules. But because their first generation product was not compatible with SANYO, he patiently awaited an Enphase solution that would accommodate SANYO’s HIT Power modules. He received a bonus for his discriminating standards: While awaiting Enphase’s SANYO-compatible offering, the US$1,500 tax credit cap on solar solutions was lifted. By adhering to his impeccable standards, Li received thousands more in tax incentives than he anticipated!
Li installed his power-packed SANYO-Enphase Energy solar solution in late May, 2009. The results were something worth noting in any research diary. He zeroed out his electric bill. Further research revealed that Xcel Energy, the local utility, offered optional incentives for grid-tied, solar-generated electricity (also known as distributed generation).
If Li produced more electricity then he needed, he could receive a cash rebate of 30% of the market value of his electricity at the end of each calendar year. Or, he could roll all that surplus electricity over into the new year, at which point he would essentially receive a full 100% of its market value in the form of ‘banked’ electricity. He chose to roll it over, not only to get more for his SANYO dollars, but to cover the higher electricity bill he knew he would incur to warm his home during those chilly Colorado winters.
The time Li spent considering all of this produced another breakthrough idea: Why not convert use of traditional gas appliances to electrically-powered products to heat their home and cook their food and then use all that banked electricity to power it?
Li bought an induction cooker to use instead of his gas stove. “I use it every time I go home for lunch to boil my Chinese noodles. I rarely--if ever--turn on the gas stove,” he said. Li heats his Colorado home not with forced air, but with a gas boiler that is augmented with portable ceramic electric heaters. Why? Because there’s tremendous environmental benefit, and it’s practically free.
Li says that without making the time to properly research important investments like this, people can make costly mistakes. Today, he has reaped thousands of dollars in tax credits and incentives, he’s generating copious amounts of clean, renewable energy that asserts energy independence and benefits his bottom line, and his electric bill (which previously ranged from US$45 to US$120 monthly) is virtually nonexistent.
Xiaoyu Li is making enthusiastic plans to leverage his solar investment in yet another way: by exploiting local solar credits to power his new electric vehicle--the much anticipated Nissan LEAF--for free.
Li says he enjoys talking with neighbors about his clean energy discoveries, and he invites friends and neighbors to visit to see the benefits first-hand. Even friends and family in China are interested in his solar energy solutions.
“I’m a person who likes new technology. It’s more than just economics for me,” said Li. But the superior technological performance of the SANYO HIT modules and the Enphase micro-inverters has contributed to economic returns that cannot be denied.
“Since Xcel’s smart meters went online this summer, I can manage my electrical consumption and production on a single spreadsheet. I really love it!” Li exclaimed.
The gift of scientists is that they are never truly satisfied, and Li wanted to find additional ways to exploit his new solar treasure. He and wife Gena Simpson-Li are fortunate enough to be among those on the waiting list for the much-anticipated LEAF PEV (Nissan’s Plug-in Electric Vehicle).
“You know, I think about how this vehicle will be powered in the future. How many charging stations there will be over several states...when they will be available and how much it will cost to produce a charge,” said Li. “At home, I’ve developed a solution to fuel my vehicle with banked electricity from my SANYO solar solution. When I retire, I’m looking forward to driving my Nissan LEAF for free.”
“This solution has not only performed as expected, it’s saved us hundreds of dollars on our utility bills,” Li continued. “Clean energy has made my wife happy about our lifestyle choices. And articles about rate increases no longer bother me. Solar takes the stress out of the prospect of rising energy bills,” he exclaimed. It’s a better way of life. “My wife is very pleased! And so am I.”
Terri Steele is a San Diego-based freelance writer and marketing expert who covers newsmakers in the solar photovoltaic, EV and PHEV space.
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