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Smart software for fewer truck rolls

By Larry Busby, Technical Services Manager at APsystems USA

For a PV installer, there’s nothing worse than having to return to a jobsite. Except, of course, having to do it more than once. We’ve all heard the expression “work smarter, not harder,” but you would be surprised how often solar installers get in a truck and roll out to a jobsite to adjust or repair something that probably could have been fixed remotely back at HQ. Many software-savvy solar installers are boning up on best-practices to better utilize the systems and information already available to them—most of it right at their fingertips—to save both time and money.

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For solar arrays, the most critical software typically lies within the power conversion devices, gateways and interconnected online monitoring platform provided by the inverter manufacturer. The online platform not only monitors the performance of the system, but also tracks a profusion of data points simultaneously and stores that information in the cloud. By checking certain performance specs, settings, activity and historical data, installers can quickly troubleshoot and fix common hitches or, at worst, narrow down the problem that’s plaguing a PV system.

Every inverter monitoring interface is a little different, but much of the information and tools available are typically the same. With an MLPE system like microinverters, you’re able to drill down to the PV panel level to see what each module is producing at any given time. When troubleshooting a system issue, or perhaps if you see a PV panel which is reporting low or zero watts, first try rebooting the system remotely if your monitoring platform offers that capability. With some systems, a reboot may help the interface identify the issue or it might reset the array to its default parameters in case an unusual grid event threw a monkey wrench at it. It could also spur the system to begin downloading recent updates which may have stalled when the system encountered the issue. You may even consider rebooting more than once.

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If you’re still troubleshooting the issue, check the DC side of your system. For a microinverter system, you want to be sure each inverter is reporting at its minimal operating range (such as 16V) incoming DC from the panel. Next, check your AC output. If your system shows it registering 0V or 120V, the inverter may not be sensing the grid or enough volts from the grid to register as a 240V grid connection. Without an identified grid connection, the inverter will not convert energy, so if you see this as an issue with multiple sequential inverters, it could be a cable or connector problem. If it applies to the entire string or array, the problem could be a loose wire in the junction box, or a tripped or off breaker.

With a low wattage problem, you can drill down to the panel level online and check the voltage. If it’s registering under its minimal operating range, it’s likely a panel problem and not the inverter. You may still have to visit the site, but at least you know what you’re replacing and exactly where it is on the array which saves you time troubleshooting. When you hit the site, unplug the suspect panel from the inverter and take a live load DC voltage and current reading. If your panel is reading below its minimum startup voltage and 0 current, then the panel is the culprit and needs replacing.

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Also, don’t underestimate the value of historical data. Looking back over a system’s history—especially that of a single panel—may allow you to identify recurring issues that seem to affect that particular panel. Perhaps a chimney shadow hits the panel at the same time each day. You can look back through the production history to see if it occurs often, or if you have multiple installations in a particular area, you can check each of those when you see unusual grid activity to see if and how it may be affecting your other sites.

Understanding what the site metrics are telling you will give you better insight into what’s happening at a job site. Learning what you can do to troubleshoot an issue online can not only save you a truck roll, but also significantly reduce your time identifying the problem if you do have to drive to the site. Most importantly, if you do need to hit the job site, remember that safety is paramount and to always turn off the AC before doing any work on the roof.

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APsystems supports new Emeril Lagasse Foundation Kitchen House & Culinary Garden in Orlando

Good nutrition has been a popular part of the curriculum at Orlando Junior Academy since 2011, with students in grades 5-8 “sowing and growing” fresh vegetables in garden plots and learning cooking skills with each harvest.

But the school’s cooking stations were rudimentary. So Edible Education Experience, a Florida-based 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, dreamed of providing something more grand for students and the greater community.

emeril3-jpgThree years of fundraising and friend-raising paid off this month with the opening of the new Emeril Lagasse Foundation Kitchen House & Culinary Garden in Orlando’s College Park Neighborhood.

The 3,500-square-foot facility features four cooking stations for food pre, hand-washing sinks, and modern appliances. An educational lounge provides additional instruction space, while the Edible Education Experience organization maintains its offices upstairs. A second-story catwalk looks down into the kitchen area.

The Kitchen House facility was designed to meet LEED standards, including a metal roof and cisterns for rainwater catchment to irrigate the garden, energy-efficient A/C, and other features.

The building also includes a small solar array to power exterior lighting for the building and grounds.
APsystems contributed YC500 dual-module microinverters to the project through area distributor UMA Solar. Superior Solar of Altamonte Springs, Fla., contributed installation and balance-of-system, with modules donated by Solartech Universal.

“The Kitchen House offers Orlando kids a great new facility for learning about healthy cooking and healthy eating,” said Jason Higginson, APsystems Senior Director of Marketing. “We think it’s great that they can also learn about healthy energy through solar power, and we’re proud to be among the solar vendors that came together in support of this excellent project.”

EEE RENDERING 1The $1.2 million Kitchen House facility was built with support from, and named for, the Emeril Lagasse Foundation, established by the popular celebrity chef “to create opportunities to inspire, mentor and enable youth to reach their fullest potential through culinary, nutrition and arts education with a focus on life skills development.”

The building is situated in the middle of a 1,000-sf culinary garden, cultivated by students and volunteers to provide a bounty of fresh produce for cooking classes and events. A veranda and picnic area allow outdoor events, as well.

The Kitchen House & Garden now provides educational programming for K-12 students in both public and private schools, area kids’ clubs and other community groups. Summer and holiday camps will be offered where students will use locally grown food and learn how to cook healthy, affordable meals – developing skills and menus that they can take home, and use throughout their lives.

The mission of Edible Education Experience is to connect kids with seed-to-table, garden-to-classroom, learning experiences to build a healthy future, said Janice Banks, executive director.

“We are so grateful to APsystems and Superior Solar for partnering with us and for ‘setting the stage’ where kids can learn innovative ways of turning Orlando’s sunshine into sustainable energy,” Banks said. “The reduced energy bill will be a monthly reminder of this generous ongoing partnership.”

For information on the Emeril Lagasse Foundation Kitchen House & Culinary Garden project, see www.EdibleEd.org and www.emeril.org.

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Bombard Renewable Energy wins this year’s APsystems Solar Project of the Year Award in the Commercial category

When the state of Nevada established a pilot program to bring solar power to marginalized communities, Bombard Renewable Energy delivered.

The Las Vegas based Solar PV contractor completed a string of projects for prominent area nonprofit agencies, putting the power of solar to work for citizens and agencies not often served by renewable PV resources.

For helping bring solar power to the nonprofit sector, Bombard Renewable Energy has earned the APsystems Project of the Year Award in the Commercial category.

“Nonprofit organizations are an overlooked segment of the commercial solar market, but that’s changing thanks to solar installation leaders like Bombard,” said Jason Higginson, senior director of marketing for APsystems USA. “We’re proud to see our microinverter products supporting the good work of so many worthy nonprofit agencies.”

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Bombard Renewable Energy is honored for a quintet of service-sector projects in the Las Vegas area, including:

  • HELP of Southern Nevada – An 81kW mix of rooftop arrays and solar carports supports an agency that assists families and individuals attain self-sufficiency through direct services, training and resource referrals.
  • Boys and Girls Club of Southern Nevada – An ambitious 242kW system provides nearly all the power needed for this facility, whose mission is to enable all young people to reach their full potential as caring, responsible citizens.
  • Las Vegas Rescue Mission – Rooftop arrays and solar carports totaling 125 kW support the mission complex that provides care, support and meals to the homeless and addicted population.
  • Veterans Village – A 48kW rooftop array powers an important regional center providing transitional and permanent housing for United States veterans in need.
  • Ronald McDonald House Charities – The 28kW shade structure supports the center’s mission of providing temporary housing for families who travel to Las Vegas to receive critical medical treatment for their children.

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The projects were built through Nevada’s Low Income Solar Energy Pilot Program, established by the state legislature several years ago to benefit low-income customers, including, without limitation, homeless shelters, low-income housing developments and schools with significant populations of low-income students.

Bombard Renewable Energy contracted with NV Energy for the engineering and construction of the projects, said Bo Balzar, Bombard Renewable Energy Division Manager.

Bombard chose APsystems’ YC1000 true 3-phase microinverters for the installations.

“Superior durability combined with a comprehensive warranty and exceptional design flexibility made APsystems the obvious choice for our projects,” Radford said. “APsystems is the only microinverter technology we found which supports both 60-cell modules at 240V and 72-cell modules at 208 and 480V 3-phase systems.”

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APsystems micros and expanded array boost art museum to LEED Gold rating

Bainbridge Island Museum of Art near Seattle has earned the vaunted LEED Gold environmental certification, making it the first new art museum in Washington state to achieve the Gold rating.

The certification is thanks to a newly expanded solar array using APsystems YC500 dual-module microinverters.

This past fall the museum nearly doubled its array to 100 modules. The 28kW system caps a host of advanced sustainability features that extend from the roof down into the earth beneath the museum itself.

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“What’s thrilling about this achievement is that it affirms how deeply Bainbridge Island and the museum itself care about all aspects of community vitality and wellbeing,” said Sheila Hughes, BIMA Executive Director. “We live, work, visit and raise families in a place that invests equally and deeply in cultural enrichment and in sustainability.

“It’s wonderful to see BIMA’s LEED Gold status, made possible through the generosity of its local donors, as a leading example of both.”

The U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED certification – for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design – is a progressive code that rates new buildings for sustainability and promotes eco-friendly construction techniques.

Designed by Bainbridge architect Matthew Coates, of Coates Design Architects, BIMA earned high marks for innovation in design, indoor environmental quality, water efficiency, and site sustainability.

“Art museums are inherently energy-intensive, making LEED Gold designation an extremely challenging goal,” Coates said. “We’re proud to demonstrate that architects, builders and clients can work together to create beautiful buildings for our environment and for our planet.”

General contractor PHC Construction worked with the museum staff to secure LEED Gold certification. The expanded PV array provided the final “points” required under the LEED scoring system.

The array uses APsystems YC500 microinverters provided by Blue Frog Solar, and iTek Energy 240W and 280W modules.

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The inverters were provided free of charge by Blue Frog Solar, Northwest distributor for APsytems USA.

“When the art museum came to us with their solar proposal a few years ago, we could tell it would be a special building in every way,” said Tim Bailey, Blue Frog Solar co-founder. “It’s been an honor to contribute to both phases of their solar project, and support such a great institution.”

Several other private donors stepped in so that the solar project had no effect on the non-profit art museum’s budget.

Installer was Puget Sound Solar of Seattle.

BIMA opened in June 2013 to showcase contemporary Northwest art and has been an unqualified success, recently welcoming its 250,000th visitor.

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Building a sustainable museum

Architect Matthew Coates designed the museum to embody forward thinking in both aesthetics and sustainable materials and systems in a facility-scale building.

That commitment started below ground. A geo-exchange system uses 14 bores beneath the foundation to reduce the energy used for heating and cooling the building.

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Drilled 400 feet, the bores act as a heat sink and source at a constant ground temperature of approximately 50 degrees. The system is designed to reduce heating and cooling energy by 90 percent, and to cut peak heating and cooling loads in half.

Thanks to the musuem’s sunny southern exposure, nearly all of the publicly occupied spaces enjoy generous natural light to further reduce energy usage for lighting.

A sophisticated louver system across the two-story glass façade tracks solar angles to reduce heat gain and glare inside.

Low-flow water fixtures inside and Northwest climate-appropriate landscaping reduce water demand.

During construction, 95 percent of construction waste was recycled, while more than 20 percent of new materials came from recycled sources.  All paints, sealants and materials were selected to be non-toxic.

The site itself, on a prominent corner near the ferry terminal that connects the island with downtown Seattle, was reclaimed from a former automotive business.

During site preparation, numerous scrap automobiles and many hundreds of spent tires were excavated from the property and recycled.

BIMA now is an educational institution whose mission is “to engage a diverse population with the art and craft of our region and our time.”

The art museum exhibits, interprets, preserves, collects and promotes works of proven cultural value as well as new those by emerging artists and craftspeople.

Information: www.biartmuseum.org.

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New 32-home San Antonio project powered by APsystems micros

When it comes to solar growth, it doesn’t get much hotter than San Antonio.

The market ranked no. 6 nationally for metropolitan growth in 2015, and no. 7 for the spread of solar, setting the pace for the Lone Star State.

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Those trends converge at 330 Clay Street, a 32-home planned-solar neighborhood by PSW Real Estate now underway in the San Antonio’s arts and culture district, at the south edge of downtown.

Billed as “an oasis in the heart of the city,” the New Urbanism-inspired project features geometrically distinct homes clustered around a winding pedestrian path and drought-friendly, native vegetation. The modern designs are stylish, with acute angles, dramatic roof slopes, and accents of corrugated metal and cedar.

Efficiency features abound, from eco-friendly siding to high-performance windows, tankless water systems with “smart” fixtures, and the latest heat-pump systems for indoor climate control. Sustainable, low-impact materials are used throughout.

Topping it off is solar, with a compact array designed onto every single roof.

Austin-based installer Lighthouse Solar is pairing APsystems YC500 dual-module microinverters with Phono Sun 310W modules. Capacity across the whole neighborhood will be about 73kW from 234 modules at buildout.

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Lighthouse chose APsystems equipment on the recommendation of regional distributor The Power Store, said Burke Ruder, procurement manager.

The Lighthouse installation team found the dual-module microinverters made for a quick install, and less time on the roof under the punishing Texas sun.

“Pretty easy wire management – just plug n’ play, man,” said Josh Bernard, one of the three-man crew at Clay Street.

Elijah Zane Echeveste, PSW Real Estate sales consultant for San Antonio, said PSW has been including a solar component on its homes for about three years.

Individual arrays at 330 Clay Street are modest – seven or eight modules per roof – putting solar onto every home while keeping price points attractive to a range of buyers. Home start at $295,000 for 1,250-sf, two-bedroom unit.

The energy package is paying off in early interest from buyers.

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“Solar was important, and green-built was important,” said David McDonald, 330 Clay Street’s very first resident. On a recent afternoon, the expatriate Briton was taking delivery of appliances even as the half-finished neighborhood around him thrummed with the sounds of construction.

“We do a lot of green builds back in the Britain,” McDonald said, “and this might be one of the first ones in San Antonio with the option of solar and all of the sort of ‘green’ things around the house.”

Several other projects are also planned or underway in the corridor, including a sprawling former Lone Star brewery complex slated for mixed-use redevelopment on the banks of the San Antonio River.

The influx of stylish new residential and commercial development amplifies Southtown’s reputation as the city’s hot “bohemian” center for galleries, nightlife and culture.

“The area was important – we didn’t want to go outside of downtown,” McDonald said. “You can walk to all the restaurants and bars, even walk into downtown. We were the first to sign up, and it’ll be a good investment for us.”

The 330 Clay Street project reflects a fast-growing local solar market.

San Antonio is the top-ranked market in Texas, according to a recent report by Environment America. Solar capacity within the city limits jumped 23 percent year over year, from 88 megawatts to 108 megawatts – with significantly more capacity coming online in surrounding areas thanks to utility-scale solar farms.

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About 207 megawatts were installed statewide in 2015, according to Environment Texas. Solar advocates credit a successful incentive program, which has fed consumer interest despite the state not having a net-metering law.

“Solar is an attractive feature for our buyers,” said Echeveste of PSW. “One of the largest reasons is that the solar panels reduce cost in energy bills and also increase the value of the homes. There is an environmental responsibility aspect with buyers wanting to be a part of this.”

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APsystems microinverters powering multifamily solar at Grow Community

Condos, apartments, townhomes – three flavors of multifamily construction, each with its own challenges for reaping the power, and financial benefits, of solar investment.

Asani development company is tackling all three at once at Grow Community on Bainbridge Island, across Puget Sound from Seattle.

On buildings dubbed the Salal, the Juniper and the Elan, now complete in the project’s expansive second phase, solar arrays will benefit both homebuyers and renters alike.

One roof apiece, with many beneficiaries beneath.

“Our investors said, ‘let’s go for it,’” said Greg Lotakis, Asani president and Grow Community project manager. “Without their desire to be the largest solar community in Washington, and wanting to plant the solar flag in the ground, we wouldn’t be doing this. Without their support, it wouldn’t be possible.”

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The Salal condominiums, with 12 units spread over three stories, is effectively a “community solar” project on a rooftop. Solar was included in the purchase price – no buyer option – and incentives from the State of Washington will be apportioned equally among condominium owners. Each will own a one-twelfth interest in the array.

Asani worked with state officials and the local utility provider to craft a program that satisfies the complicated provisions of Washington law.

The opening was a provision allowing common use of single roof for solar in multifamily buildings. Asani banked on prospective buyers seeing shared solar as a good investment as they bought their condo units, one that promised annual paybacks while lowering operational costs of their building through solar harvest.

Solar was designed into the Salal building. A single production meter monitors total system output, while 12 sub-meters track consumption in individual units for utility billing.
Buyers are rolling the cost of solar, about $15,000 per unit, into their mortgages to take advantage of low interest rates at the time of purchase.

“We wanted it very clean and divisible by all the owners,” Lotakis said. “I think it would be pretty difficult for six, 10, 12 people to come together and agree upon how the system would work after the fact. This gave us a chance to just deliver it.”

Lotakis expects the 44kW array to produce about $1,500 in incentives per unit annually – cumulatively much higher than the state’s $5,000 cap on incentives for a single-family residence.

Next door at the 12-unit Juniper apartment building, the 44kW rooftop array is similar but the equation is different. Renters will enjoy the benefits of solar production through net-metering, but not the annual state solar rebate. That will go to the building’s single owner, and will max out at the state’s $5,000 cap. The Juniper building array includes APsystems YC1000 true 3-phase microinverters.

The two-story Elan townhomes presented the most straightforward challenge. Individual 6-9kW solar packages are offered for each section of the common roof. No modules will cross the “virtual lot lines,” making each system self-contained within the owner’s patch of rooftop. Three systems have been installed so far, including APsystems YC500A microinverters.


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From project inception, Asani set out to build the most environmentally friendly development possible.
Relentless sourcing of renewable materials and low-impact fixtures, and close connection to the island’s town center, have positioned Grow Community in the marketplace for healthy lifestyle-conscious buyers.

The project’s first phase is noted for its shared pea-patch gardens and winding footpaths through close-set homes. The second and third phases are oriented around a woodland grove and open greenway.

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The project has earned recognition in national magazines and won awards from local and national homebuilder associations. It is only the second planned community in North America to be certified under the rigorous One Planet Living standards.

Grow’s first phase of 23 detached units sold out immediately, and every homeowner chose to add the solar package.

Asani has also showcased Made In Washington components to support the state’s solar industry.
Modules at the Salal are by Itek Energy of Bellingham, WA, while the Juniper and Elan arrays include APsystems microinverters manufactured and distributed by Blue Frog Solar of nearby Poulsbo.

Using a mix of in-state and out-of-state components allows Asani to achieve different price points for buyers while optimizing local incentives where possible.

Lotakis cautions that Grow Community’s multifamily solar program relies on particularities in Washington law. Multifamily programs elsewhere would face their own challenges, although he believes Grow offers a useful model for developers nationwide to consider.

With the Salal building only recently certified for occupancy, new residents have no comparative data on their energy savings. But the solar component was attractive, as it has been to buyers throughout the three-neighborhood, 142-home project due to be completed in late 2017.

“Solar was a factor,” one new resident said, “along with a development that encourages a sense of community.”

Between the federal tax credit and annual rebates from the state, Lotakis said, owners buying into the Salal condominiums could have their share of the common array paid off within five years.

“And because they’ve rolled the cost of solar into their mortgage, they don’t really see it,” he said. “Those production checks will be like a dividend.”

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APsystems YC1000 supports electric vehicle charging station at Intel HQ

APsystems microinverters support a hybrid solar/grid-tied electric vehicle charging station at Intel corporate headquarters in Santa Clara, Calif.

Powered by APsystems YC1000 true 3-phase microinverters and Suntec 285-watt modules, the 4.2kW solar array supplements the charging station’s grid-tied power. A 45kW storage system by Powin Energy backs up the array, further reducing demands on the AC grid.

Intel employees can top up their electric vehicle cells at an OpConnect EV Charging System station. The OpConnect pedestal charges up to four vehicles at a time, and supports 120V and 240V service.

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University of Kansas architecture students take solar construction into the future

Powering old homes with solar is only half the renewable-energy equation.

Designing and building new homes that make the most of that renewable power – achieving ultra-efficient “Net Zero” construction, and beyond – is the next frontier for sustainable living.

Graduate students in the University of Kansas Department of Architecture, Design and Planning are pushing construction into the future through Studio 804, a nonprofit organization that tests their drafting-board skills against real-world challenges.

Where conventional construction ends, the Studio 804 program begins.

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“If a group full of students who have never worked construction or designed and built a project can accomplish these highly sustainable buildings, it shows what the industry as a whole should be capable of,” said Taylor Pickman, now in his fifth and final year in the colloquially known “M-Arch” program. “We like to think we’re setting an example in that sense.”

Their most recent success: the East Lawrence Passive House, an innovative solar home set among the tree-lined streets of a quintessential college town, a mix of modest historic homes, and even the mansions of nineteenth century industrial tycoons.

Outside, the home was designed to fit in with the scale and aesthetics of the neighborhood, while maximizing square footage on a prominent but narrow corner lot. Cut-cedar siding offers a look familiar to the neighborhood while carrying a low carbon footprint. Generous windows maximize passive solar potential.

Inside, the home boasts a laundry list of energy-saving features. A triple-thick blanket of insulation achieves dramatic “R” values, while an advanced air barrier wrap further reduces heat loss. A low-energy HVAC system and energy-recovery ventilator supplies fresh air without energy waste, while the plumbing includes an insulated hot-water recirculation system for more efficiency still.

The home meets the rigorous standards of the LEED Platinum, Net Zero and Passive House certification programs – a trifecta for sustainable construction.

Net Zero, for instance, requires that all heating, cooling and electrical needs must be met through energy-conserving design features and onsite renewable sources.

That’s where solar comes in. The East Lawrence home features a 6kW rooftop system powered by 20 Trina modules and 10 APsystems YC500 dual-module microinverters.

Studio 804 students approached APsystems for help with the project, and the Seattle-based solar technology company offered the microinverter units as a donation.

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“These students are really leading the way forward for energy-efficient design and construction,” said Thomas Nelson, APsystems vice president for sales, USA. “As a leader in innovative solar technology, we were glad to sign on to the project and be included in this showcase home.”

Pickman said microinverters represent “a huge innovation” in the solar field, helping students meet their project goals even without real experience as solar installers.

“I have to say that those microinverters were very simple to install, very simple to work with and very simple to use,” Pickman said. “We had more trouble getting the panels up onto the roof than we ever did working with the micro inverters.”

Bigger, more ambitious projects

KU’s Studio 804 program is committed to the research and development of sustainable, affordable, and inventive building solutions, from the standards of human comfort to the nature of urban spaces.

Two education tracks are offered: a three-year Master of Architecture program for students who already hold undergraduate degrees, or a five-year program that melds both undergraduate and graduate studies and also culminates in the master’s degree.

The final year is a rigorous practicum in which students tackle all aspects of design and construction: from site selection to negotiating building and zoning codes, to working with neighborhood associations and project engineers, to pouring concrete and pounding nails.

“A lot of our projects are speculative, so we are also in charge of making sure the project gets sold,” Pickman said.

To date the studio has completed seven LEED Platinum buildings and two with Passive House certification, meeting the most rigorous environmental standards for materials and construction.

Solar has become a regular feature of Studio 804 work, Pickman said, because it is one of the most effective means of achieving onsite energy production in the Midwest.

“Solar is relatively simple and it functions relatively well with different housing configurations,” he said. “And every year the technology gets better, so every year, we can demonstrate that technology as well.”

Studio 804 produces one building per year, and they keep getting more ambitious.

Twenty years ago, the first Studio 804 project put a simple metal roof over a historic farmhouse. Two years ago, students designed and built a lecture hall and auditorium addition to Marvin Hall, a treasured, 1908-vintage engineering building on the University of Kansas campus.

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Pickman said their next challenge may be achieving the WELL Building standard, which considers interior design and the ergonomics of the living spaces and fixtures – anything that will “reduce wear and tear on the human body.”

“Every year we set slightly different goals,” Pickman said, from building scale to advanced materials and construction and renewable energy techniques.

“And great architecture, or at least very good architecture,” he added. “There’s not a lot of it in Kansas.”

East Lawrence Passive House
East Lawrence, Kansas
Designer/installer: Studio 804, graduate students in the University of Kansas Department of Architecture, Design and Planning
System output: 6kW
No. of modules: 20
Module type: Trina TSM-290
Microinverters: APsystems YC500 dual-module
No. of microinverters: 10
croinverters: 10

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Community solar project hits 50kW with APS microinverters

Demand for shares in an eastern Washington community solar installation was so strong, sponsoring utility Inland Power & Light boosted capacity with a second array.

The project’s second phase, completed in late March, added a 20 kW ground-mount array to the existing 30 kW array that went into service last fall

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The arrays are powered by APS YC500 microinverters, distributed by Blue Frog Solar of Poulsbo, Wash. Installation was by Brimma Solar of Seattle.A member-owned utility, Inland Power made units in the solar installation available to its ratepayers through a lottery.

“The project sold out immediately,” said John Francisco, chief of energy resources for Inland Power.

Unit holders will get credit for their portion of the array’s power production, along with a pro rata rebate from the state under Washington’s Renewable Energy Cost Recovery program.

Inland Power & Light serves about 39,000 residential and commercial customers in 13 counties in eastern Washington and northern Idaho. Founded in 1937, it is the largest electric cooperative in Washington.

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Seattle project produces solar-savvy graduates

A new PV array on the roof of a Seattle-area college is a clean-energy investment with a different sort of payback: solar-savvy graduates.

The Education Building at North Seattle College now sports a 7.4-kW PV system, its primary array perched atop a rotating armature that tracks the sun across the sky each day.

While the array will only yield a small fraction of the building’s energy needs, “power” per se wasn’t the point.
“This isn’t really about generating electricity,” said Mark Weber, faculty and program coordinator for the college’s HVAC and Sustainable Energy Program. “This is an educational tool for our students. It’s a dynamic learning environment rather than a static one, where we can do all sorts of experimentation with module orientation, the effects of weather, all kinds of things.”

About half of the $75,000 system cost was funded by a grant from the Portland, Ore.-based Bonneville Environmental Foundation, which promotes renewable energy and resource conservation. The college made up the balance.

Artisan Electric of Seattle was selected from among three local installers submitting proposals. The combination of a solar tracker, 3-phase output and a mentoring component for students set Artisan’s design apart in the bidding process.

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An APS YC1000 is installed on the underside of the array.

The primary array includes thirty 240-watt modules by Talesun. A secondary, fixed-position array of three modules is planned to serve as a system “control,” allowing students to compare the output of the two designs – one that continually aligns itself with the sun to optimize solar harvest, the other pointing eternally south.

Anthony Sarno, system designer for Artisan Electric, selected APS YC1000 microinverters for their true 3-phase output. The APS units tied into the building’s 480-V circuit without the need for step-up transformers, in an electrical room that would have been too small to accommodate a central “string” inverter.

“When I saw the 480 panel, the light bulb went on,” Sarno said. “I saw potential savings by using the YC1000 microinverter, and there was an element of allure to having a cutting edge product in the mix.”

APS and its Washington state distributor, Blue Frog Solar, provided the YC1000 microinverters below cost as a donation to the college.

“The chance to help students learn about PV system design and train for the renewable energy trades was compelling,” said Paul Barlock, APS Senior Vice President. “This project is a showcase for true 3-phase microinverters in a commercial setting, but the fact that it’s in a college environment provides much greater benefit still.”

Tracking the sun
Marketed under the name SolarTrackr, the “smart tracking” system was designed and fabricated by Wovn Energy of Seattle.

Putting the 2-ton apparatus atop a three-story building added a layer of design complexity, the first question being whether the roof could support it.

The structural engineer responsible for the building’s original plans was still in practice, Sarno said, and provided new calculations proving that the roof could bear the load.

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The team from Artisan Electric begin attaching modules to the tracking system’s steel armature. The array will rotate and incline to track the sun through the sky. Photo Credit: Wovn Energy

Next came the question of ballasting. Fortuitously, the rooftop featured several low concrete parapets that extended down through the building to the ground. These walls became the foundation for the massive steel armature that was assembled over five days in March.

The completed array rotates around a circular steel rail, inched along by a small electric motor, while a second motor and a piston provide inclination. Together the two motors draw about the same power as a 100-watt light bulb, said Alan Tilley, Wovn Energy vice president and tracking system designer.

Wovn’s solar tracking software uses algorithms provided by the National Renewable Energy Laboratories, and also accounts for local weather and atmospheric conditions to optimize the array’s positioning. Solar harvest is projected to be about 45% higher than a static array. Computer control can be manually overridden so students can set the array to other positions for research and data collection.

“Compared to a static system, this thing has so many more opportunities for learning,” Weber said, “not just for solar, but also for engineering. The control system is going to be way cool to play with. We can bring in people from other disciplines, not just our program.”

The founders of Wovn Energy set out on a mission five years ago to provide distributed-energy management systems, out of which the SolarTrackr system evolved, Tilley said.

The product was designed to offset the then-high cost of modules, allowing buyers to achieve greater yield from a smaller array, Tilley said. As module prices have come down, the SolarTrackr is now marketed as a way to make full-sized arrays more powerful still.

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Workers assemble the circular steel track on which the 30-module PV array will rotate at North Seattle College. The tracking system was designed and fabricated by Wovn Energy of Seattle. Photo credit: APS USA

The North Seattle College project was the company’s fifth installation, and the first on a rooftop. The biggest challenge previously was a ground mount perched on the side of a mountain.

“That one was a real bear,” Tilley said. “This one is tame by comparison.”

Wovn expects to have about 15 installations in its portfolio by midyear, he said, with two more already underway in the Seattle area.

For students, by students

Befitting an educational venture, the North Seattle College project engaged students from the start.
Students from nearby Shoreline Community College, which offers a two-year degree in Clean Energy Technology, were brought in to do a solar site assessment. Their report became the baseline against which formal proposals were evaluated.

North Seattle information technology student Christoph Strouse was a key member of the solar project team, and system designer Sarno is a graduate of Shoreline program.

“Artisan kind of plucked me out of the program, and things have fallen into place very well,” Sarno said.
Because the array shoots up 25 feet above the roof of an already tall building, it has become a billboard of sorts for North Seattle College. The array is visible from adjacent neighborhoods, from a popular commercial center a mile to the east, and to passing motorists on the busy I-5 freeway.

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Alan Tilley, engineering vice present and tracking system designer for Wovn Energy. The North Seattle College project is the Seattle company’s fifth installation. Photo Credit: APS USA

It is also becoming both a valuable asset and a recruiting tool. Weber said the college is in talks with other area schools and a major research university to share solar performance data collected by students. The colleges are also beginning to collaborate on programs to meet the evolving demands of the clean-energy and construction industries.

Weber and Strouse envision a hybrid program in “High Performance Building Technology.” Students might someday take electronics and IT classes at one school, HVAC or facilities management at another, and PV system design at a third toward an integrated degree.

Having an advanced solar installation could make North Seattle College the program’s logical hub, and the investment is already paying off for students.

“I’m very lucky to have been here at the right time to be a part of this team and experience this project from paper to completion,” Strouse said. “As a learning experience, it doesn’t get much better than this.”

Project Details
North Seattle College 3-phase 7.4-kw PV system
Designer/installer: Artisan Electric, Seattle
Tracking system and racking: SolarTrackr by Wovn Energy, Seattle
Microinverters: 8 APS YC1000 true 3-phase
Monitoring: APS Energy Communication Unit/Energy Monitoring and Analysis software
Modules: 30 Talesun 240W