UA team building solar inverter for businesses

by Jeff Della Rosa ( 621 views 

The conceptual design of a 300-kilowatt, silicon carbide solar inverter shows a transformer will no longer be needed, allowing it to weigh an cost less.

A team of University of Arkansas professors and students plan to have the first prototype of a 300-kilowatt, silicon carbide solar inverter by the end of 2019, said Yue Zhao, assistant professor of electrical engineering at the UA. The team is developing the commercial-scale inverter with the assistance of power management company Eaton Corp., which has provided design and technical support.

In August, Zhao received $3.4 million to develop the inverter over three years. The U.S. Department of Energy Solar Energy Technologies Office provided $2.77 million of the award, and the university and industry partners gave $713,853 as matching funds. Wolfspeed, the power and radio frequency segment of North Carolina-based Cree, is providing silicon carbide modules and technical support, and Chicago-based NextWatt LLC, a power electronics technology company, is responsible for control tasks.

The team will test the prototype at the UA’s National Center for Reliable Electric Power Transmission at the Arkansas Research & Technology Park in south Fayetteville. Then, Eaton would test the prototype and be responsible to take the completed product to market.

The inverter is expected to cost about $25,000, or 8 cents per watt. Businesses with solar panel systems could use the inverter and eliminate the need for a transformer. Existing systems require a transformer to convert the electricity to a voltage necessary for it to be transferred to the grid. Such systems require a crane to install them because of their weight, but the inverter could be installed by two people, Zhao said.

About 13 people are working on the project, and this includes four professors, principal investigators for each company and four or five students.

“We’re working with industry [partners] to do the actual product research and development, and eventually we believe this project will have some significant influence to the solar industry,” Zhao said.