In this episode of the SunPower Business Broadcast, guest Zach Campeau explains the basic parts of a typical commercial solar panel installation.
Listen and learn about the basics of solar for business or read the full transcript below.
Jeff Allen: Dedicated to expanding your knowledge about sustainability, renewable energy, and solar for your business, this is the SunPower business broadcast. Hello, my name is Jeff Allen. Many of us, maybe even most of us, as consumers, have a fair understanding of what solar power is as an alternate source of power that can help us save a substantial amount of money, both at home and at our businesses. Much of that knowledge comes from our conversations with our neighbors who are fellow business owners, for that matter. But how do those panels we see on the roofs of buildings actually work to turn sunlight into the electricity we need to power our lights, office equipment and machinery? On this edition of our program, we’re going to find out by learning about the components of a typical solar installation system, and how they all work together to deliver our power that our businesses require. And who better to help us understand than Mr. Zach Campeau, a product manager at SunPower and long-time expert, with many years of experience in the solar and renewable energy industry. Zach, welcome. It’s good to have you with me.
Zach Campeau: Great. Nice to be here, Jeff.
Jeff Allen: Zach, let me start with kind of a scenario here whereas I’m a businessperson and I’m considering solar for my business for the first time. I’ve seen these solar panels on the rooftops of buildings of homes and businesses and I’ve even passed a couple of "solar installations," I hear them called, out in the middle of nowhere presumably. That’s kind of the extent of the experience that I have had with solar power. So my first question would be, What do these panels actually do? I mean, the sun hits them. Then what?
Zach Campeau: Sure. As you said, the sunlight hits these panels and it’s converted to electricity. To go into that in a little bit more detail, we can talk about what a panel is made from. We start with silicon, the element which is just like what we make chips out of in our mobile devices or TVs and whatnot, except for, of course, we treat it a little differently. We make it very receptive to photons and receptive to this photovoltaic effect which creates electrons from that process. We have these silicon chips. We make a bunch of thin slices of them and we lay them out. That’s what you see in the solar panels—those little squares that are within a larger solar panel. At that point, we laminate them, which you can think of almost like making a grilled cheese and tomato sandwich, where you’ve got glass on the front, a polymer backsheet, and the tomatoes are the cells. The cheese is encapsulant, which gets a little melty as we heat it up. Apply a little pressure and it forms a very, very robust packaging to protect those cells for decades.
Jeff Allen: So it kind of helps to hold them together and, at the same time, protects them with that covering that you’re talking about.
Zach Campeau: Exactly. It’s a really nice way to do it because, at that point, a solar panel is quite elemental. You have just the glass which protects the front and helps trap light; you have the cells which are encased in this very durable polymer encapsulant; and then a backsheet to protect. It’s a very simple, simple product really.
Jeff Allen: Let me ask you about the difference between what I know to be the electrical current that comes through the walls of my home and the walls of my office building. That’s AC, right? I mean, that’s alternating current. Is that correct?
Zach Campeau: That’s right. It’s interesting because the solar panels actually output DC electricity. So exactly, you’ve got a conundrum there because everything in your house is looking for AC electricity and that’s the power that’s running through the walls but your panels have put out DC electricity.
Jeff Allen: So how does the system—how is it all converted from DC to the AC current that my machinery and equipment and appliances would use?
Zach Campeau: Well, that’s the job of an inverter. The inverter is a piece of equipment that you can mount inside or outside; it’s not terribly obtrusive. It converts that DC energy into AC energy and then it makes it available for you to use in your building.
Jeff Allen: So now that the DC electricity from the solar panels has been converted to AC, where does it go from that point? Does it directly power my building from there?
Zach Campeau: Yes, it directly powers anything you’re using at that point. Of course, electricity is kind of an instantaneous thing and so unless you have onsite storage for that electricity, which is becoming more and more popular these days, then anything that you don’t use is sold to the grid. That’s part of what makes up the economics of a solar system.
Jeff Allen: I’ve heard of that but how do I know how much electricity that my solar panels will actually produce and when it’s being produced? I mean, is there a regular meter that is attached to this equipment, kind of like a meter that I may have on my home or my office building at this time?
Zach Campeau: Frequently, it’s actually the same meter. Meters can count how much you’re consuming but they can also count how much you’re producing. We refer to that, kind of jokingly, as when the meter spins backwards is when you’re producing more than you’re consuming.
Jeff Allen: Is that power that goes back to the grid, the stuff that I don’t use? Correct?
Zach Campeau: Exactly. That’s what’s sold back to the grid. It should also be noted that in addition to this meter which is basically just counting kilowatt hours for the utility company, you yourself can also have monitoring equipment put into your system which gives you very, very good visibility; not just on when and how your system is producing, but additionally, how you’re using energy within your building. Many energy companies can help you provide that type of analytical service on your energy needs as well.
Jeff Allen: Zach, we’ve talked about panels, which are the things that I think most people are really kind of familiar with—those solar panels that we see. We’ve talked about the inverter, which essentially converts the DC into AC current. We’ve talked about the meter and monitoring equipment as well. We have all of those in mind. Are there any other components that are essential to kind of a basic solar installation that we should be concerned about or at least have a little knowledge of?
Zach Campeau: Sure. The last component is actually … think of it as a group of components. This is things like the racking which holds the panels to your roof. That could be in a home, a retrofit over shingles or, on a flat commercial roof, a ballasted system that doesn’t even need to penetrate. It also includes things like the cables that run between the panels and the inverter and connecting to the grid. It’s kind of this catch-all bucket. It’s important because, ultimately, the energy is going through these components and they are holding your panels to the building. So we consider it a key component to any solar system.
Jeff Allen: Zach, I appreciate you kind of boiling it down that way. I think it’s really important, not only for me, but I think for our listeners, to kind of get a better understanding of how a solar installation system works. I guess my last question might be: Should I, as the user or the owner of the building where this installation is installed, should I be concerned about anything that I need to service or maintain in this installation, this network of panels and inverters and meters and monitors and things like that?
Zach Campeau: That’s one of the great parts about solar is—it’s just so simple. I mean, think about it. Yes, we went through a lot of different components to a system but there is no real moving parts. This stuff is just static up on your roof, sitting there. It really doesn’t require any maintenance. In the commercial sphere, typically the installers will provide, say, annual check-up or cleaning services but these aren’t really even necessary. It’s really very simple to own a solar system.
Jeff Allen: Zach Campeau, I appreciate you taking time out of your busy day, your calendar, to chat with us a little bit about the important, essential, and really basic components of a solar installation system. To be honest with you, it really does sound, I think, much simpler than we tend to think of a solar installation as being. You really did kind of simplify the whole thing and I do appreciate that. Thank you so much for sharing all of your wisdom with us today on this edition of the program.
Zach Campeau: Great. Well, it’s been a pleasure. Thank you so much for having me.
Jeff Allen: That’s Zach Campeau. He’s a member of the product management team at SunPower. For more information on sustainability, renewable energy, and the solar industry—visit the SunPower Business Feed at BusinessFeed.SunPower.com. I’m Jeff Allen. Until next time, we invite you to join us in helping to change the way our world is powered. So long for now.