MUSKEGON — One West Michigan entrepreneur aims to change the traditional model of solar energy storage and distribution.
Energy Partners LLC, which is based in Spring Lake but operates from Grand Valley State University’s Michigan Alternative and Renewable Energy Center (MAREC) in Muskegon, recently secured patents for technology that executives believe will increase the efficiency and safety of solar energy.
While most solar fields rely on one central battery site to collect, store and distribute energy, Energy Partners’ Solar 24 Power Systems will integrate individual batteries, power inverters and control software into each solar panel.
“We looked at the current model and said, ‘There’s a better way to do it,’” said Jim Wolter, president and founder of Energy Partners. “(We) break that central battery box maybe into 10,000 individual smaller batteries and associate them directly with elements in the field.”
By integrating storage and controllers with every panel, operators have better control over energy distribution throughout the day, particularly at night and during inclement weather when the sun isn’t shining, Wolter said.
Using the company’s system, a solar utility could set two thirds of a solar field to provide electricity to the grid during daylight hours while holding the remaining third for nighttime hours when electricity use tends to be lower, Wolter said. Having that level of control over a solar field will allow utilities to deploy their energy in the most efficient manner, while solving the intermittency issue that has plagued solar technology from the start.
“Solar is a very reliable system,” Wolter said. “It’s just that it isn’t on all the time and that’s been the Achilles’ heel for years.”
In addition to added efficiencies, the company’s technology is also safer and less expensive in the event of a failed battery cell compared to traditional central battery systems, Wolter said. If an individual cell in a central battery fails, it has the possibility of destroying the rest of the cells and taking the system off line. By contrast, if a cell in Energy Partners’ technology fails, only one panel is knocked out of service.
“The batteries are physically isolated from everything else,” Wolter said. “We don’t get anything more than a $75 battery replacement and we don’t lose a $1.5 million central battery system.”
Energy Partners also integrates software into each of its panels to actively monitor individual photovoltaic cells, batteries and components to ensure their integrity before charging.
Wolter projects the company’s technology also likely will cut in half the cost of installing and operating a solar field compared to the traditional central battery model.
CONCENTRATING ON I.P.
While many entrepreneurs get wrapped up in product development and avoid intellectual property protections, Wolter made sure to begin the patent process for his system on the front end.
“If you don’t have the intellectual property nailed down and you do something that is very unique, it quickly gets copied,” Wolter said. “That’s not always bad if you have good competitors, especially on a new idea, which makes it grow faster. But it’s also kind of a pain to see that what you’ve done has been simply knocked off.”
In addition to launching the patent process, Wolter invested approximately $750,000 into the technology over the last four years. Energy Partners also received approximately $50,000 from theMichigan Economic Development Corp.’s business accelerator fund program.
Energy Partners is currently courting manufacturers in Michigan and elsewhere in the U.S. to produce its products.
Energy Partners will likely be able to tap into a larger pool of customers in coming years as renewable energy capacity and consumption increases.
Because of a combination of federal regulations cutting fossil fuel usage and lowered installation and production costs on solar projects, solar energy has become an increasingly popular option for both commercial and residential customers. Total solar power capacity in the U.S. reached approximately 22,700 megawatts (MW) in the second quarter of 2015 — a 34-percent increase compared to 2013, according to data from the Solar Energy Industries Association.
Industry forecasters expect solar use to increase through 2040. In its annual energy outlook report for 2015, the U.S. Energy Information Administration predicts solar photovoltaic consumption to rise 6.1 percent annually from commercial users and 8 percent annually for residential users through 2040.
While Energy Partners’ technology has the possibility of fitting into numerous large- and small-scale domestic solar operations, Wolter also sees it as a “classy” form of energy generation in developing countries that lack other types of modern energy. As such, Wolter plans to partner with larger organizations to integrate the technology into communities in the developing world. Wolter believes that with reliable energy comes more educational opportunities for people in the third world, which translates into improved quality of life.
“We’re quite confident that we’re going to play some role in that,” Wolter said.