Three-phase micro-inverter

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A three-phase microinverter is a type of solar microinverter specifically design to supply three-phase electric power. In conventional microinverter designs that work with one-phase power, the energy from the panel must be stored during the period where the voltage is passing through zero, which it does twice per cycle (at 50 or 60 Hz). In a three phase system, throughout the cycle, one of the three wires has a positive (or negative) voltage, so the need for storage can be greatly reduced by transferring the output of the panel to different wires during each cycle. The reduction in energy storage significantly lowers the price and complexity of the converter hardware, as well as potentially increasing its expected lifetime.

Contents

Concept

Background

Conventional alternating current power is a sinusoidal voltage pattern that repeats over a defined period. That means that during a single cycle, the voltage passes through zero two times. In European systems the voltage at the plug has a maximum of 230 V and cycles 50 times a second, meaning that there are 100 times a second where the voltage is zero, while North American derived systems are 120 V 60  Hz, or 120 zero voltages a second.

Inexpensive inverters can convert DC power to AC by simply turning the DC side of the power on and off 120 times a second, inverting the voltage every other cycle. The result is a square-wave that is close enough to AC power for many devices. However, this sort of solution is not useful in the solar power case, where the goal is to convert as much of the power from the solar power into AC as possible. If one uses these inexpensive types of inverters, all of the power generated during the time that the DC side is turned off is simply lost, and this represents a significant amount of each cycle.

To address this, solar inverters use some form of energy storage to buffer the panel's power during those zero-crossing periods. When the voltage of the AC goes above the voltage in the storage, it is dumped into the output along with any energy being developed by the panel at that instant. In this way, the energy produced by the panel through the entire cycle is eventually sent into the output.

The problem with this approach is that the amount of energy storage needed when connected to a typical modern solar panel can only economically be provided through the use of electrolytic capacitors. These are relatively inexpensive but have well-known degradation modes that mean they have lifetime expectancy on the order of a decade. This has led to a great debate in the industry over whether or not microinverters are a good idea, because when these capacitors start to fail at the end of their expected life, replacing them will require the panels to be removed, often on the roof.

Three-phase

Alternating current (green) repeatedly passes through zero voltage, during which time the energy from the panel must be stored or lost. Three-phase power (blue) remains positive throughout its cycle and thus requires little or no storage. Types of current.svg
Alternating current (green) repeatedly passes through zero voltage, during which time the energy from the panel must be stored or lost. Three-phase power (blue) remains positive throughout its cycle and thus requires little or no storage.

In comparison to normal household current on two wires, current on the delivery side of the power grid uses three wires and phases. At any given instant, the sum of those three is always positive (or negative). So while any given wire in a three-phase system undergoes zero-crossing events in exactly the same fashion as household current, the system as a whole does not, it simply fluctuates between the maximum and a slightly lower value.

A microinverter designed specifically for three-phase supply can eliminate much of the required storage by simply selecting which wire is closest to its own operating voltage at any given instant. A simple system could simply select the wire that is closest to the maximum voltage, switching to the next line when that begins to approach the maximum. In this case, the system only has to store the amount of energy from the peak to the minimum of the cycle as a whole, which is much smaller both in voltage difference and time.

This can be further improved further by selecting the wire that is closest to its own DC voltage at any given instant, instead of switching from one to the other purely on a timer. At any given instant two of the three wires will have a positive (or negative) voltage and using the one closer to the DC side will take advantage of slight efficiency improvements in the conversion hardware.

The reduction, or outright elimination, of energy storage requirements, simplifies the device and eliminates the one component that is expected to define its lifetime. Instead of a decade, a three-phase microinverter could be built to last for the lifetime of the panel. Such a device would also be less expensive and less complex, although at the cost of requiring each inverter to connect to all three lines, which possibly leads to more wiring.

Disadvantages

The primary disadvantage of the three-phase inverter concept is that the only sites with three-phase power than can take advantage of these systems. Three-phase is easily available at utility-scale and commercial sites, and it was to these markets that the systems were aimed. However, the main advantages of the microinverter concept involve issues of shading and panel orientation, and in the case of large systems, these are easily addressed by simply moving the panels around, the benefits of the three-phase micro are very limited compared to the residential case with limited space to work in.

As of 2014, observers believed that three-phase micros had not yet managed to reach the price point where their advantages appeared worthwhile.

Combining phases

It is important to contrast a native three-phase inverter with three single-phase micro-inverters wired to output in three-phase. The latter is a relatively common feature of most inverter designs, allowing you to connect three identical inverters together, each across a pair of wires in a three-phase circuit. The result is three-phase power, but each inverter in the system is outputting a single phase. These sorts of solutions do not take advantage of the reduced energy storage needs outlined above.

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