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The PV-vino connection: Advanced Energy’s solar inverter helps Cline Cellars keep the juice flowing

22 July 2008 | By Tom Cheyney | Chip Shots

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One of my regrets from last week's Semicon West/Intersolar North America event was not being able to go on a winery tour. What does a press junket to wine country have to do with chipmaking or photovoltaic manufacturing, you might ask? Cline Cellars, located in the Sonoma region north of San Francisco, is trying to go 100% solar for its electricity needs, and a recently installed Advanced Energy 333-kW Solaron grid-tie inverter is helping the organic viticulturists in their quest for sustainability and carbon footprint elimination.

AE's Todd Miklos and Bruce Fries updated me on the company's solar activities during the show, albeit without the bright pop of a Cline Zinfandel swishing in our mouths during the lulls in our conversation. The inverter biz represents one side of the company's PV play, the others being in the PECVD subsystems sector and the glass coating area. Since launching the Solaron line last year, several dozen of the innovative inverters have been built and are in various stages of installation, according to Miklos.

One of the key values that AE feels the Solaron brings to the table is its reliability, both mechanically and in its power envelope output. As a result, the stability of the supply chain gets a needed boost.

"Customers expect some percentage of the competitors' inverters to not work when they arrive," explained Miklos. Coming from its years of experience in the high-tech and process industries, such a product-quality vacuum represents a huge opportunity for AE. It doesn't hurt the Solaron's fledgling reputation that it is rated number one in overall weighted efficiency (between 97% and 98%) on the California Energy Commission list, according to Fries.

Since a more efficient inverter harvests more kilowatts and reduces the amount of modules needed in a PV array, the power-handling box can save tens, or even hundreds of thousands of dollars in panel costs on a 1-MW scale project. Although Cline's solar power plant is not quite of that scale--it rates at 411 KW--the SolarCraft designed and built system features a couple thousand 208-W Sharp modules covering more than 34,000 square feet of rooftop space and provides 100% of the winery's electrical needs.

The output wasn't as consistent for much of the system's two years of existence until recently, when a single Solaron inverter replaced the four original Ballard units in March, Fries told me. He also pointed me to a cool feature on the SolarCraft Website, with blurbs about some of its commercial installations--including the Cline job. A link on the case study takes you to a Fat Spaniel "powered" real-time monitoring screen of the electricity being generated, now and historically.

For example, as I write this blog, it's about 3 pm PDT. The irradiance level at Cline is 580 watts per square meter, the cell temperature is 91 degrees F and the ambient temp is 62. More importantly, I can see simple, active graphics showing that the system is sending power back to the grid to the tune of 203 kW of the 295 kW being generated. I can also find out that for the day so far, from midnight on, the array has sent 175 kW back to the utility.

You can drill down for more detail, and look at the system on a weekly, monthly, annual, and lifetime basis as well. A look-see at the annual stats reveals the improvement in the system since the AE Solaron was activated. Of course, the months since then have been progressively sunnier, but a look back to last spring and early summer does show that the system is working more efficiently--and with one inverter instead of a cranky quartet.

As a growing number of wineries convert part or all their electrical systems to PV (including Merryvale, also on the SolarCraft hit parade), the natural symbiosis between good grapes and solar energy takes on a whole new meaning--one that any energy-conscious wine lover can appreciate. Salud!

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