The Next Generation of Renewable Energy Systems

A lot of people who might otherwise consider building a renewable energy powered home get scared off by the confusing nature of the technology. Let's face it, it isn't like going to Circuit City to buy a stereo or a TV.

Even though stereos and TVs come in different sizes, shapes and capacities, just about everybody knows how to operate them. When you go to an electronics store to buy one you generally base your decision on what you can afford and the features it has. You are unlikely to be too concerned about understanding how it works or what you need to know to operate one (ignoring for the moment the problem of setting the clock on a VCR).

Not so with renewable energy components. The renewable energy market is filled with a myriad of components that can be combined to create a system for your home. The problem is choosing the right components and combining them in a way that will produce the desired result.

The process of selecting the correctly sized inverter, charge controller, safety disconnect, PV panels, batteries and all their various interconnections quickly overwhelms the typical homeowner. Even when someone else designs and installs the system it helps to have a general understanding of what each component is and what it does. That way you'll at least have some idea of what is going on with your system. You don't want to have to call an expert every time something happens with your system.

Imagine having to call an electronics service person every time a speaker comes unplugged from your stereo or you need to change the batteries in your remote control. Worse yet, imagine if you had to literally build your stereo yourself (or have it built), and that not all speakers or CD players would work with all amplifiers. There would certainly be a lot fewer stereos and TVs sold in the world if that were the case.

Manufacturers, installers, and promoters of renewable energy equipment have seemed to revel in the obscurity of their products. Even magazines like Home Power, which actively promotes the spread of renewable energy, are filled with articles about esoteric ways of building your alternatively powered dream home. The majority of discussions and promotions of renewable energy quickly dissolve into so much technical gibberish.

I have always thought it strange that the manufacturers of renewable energy equipment haven't noticed this situation sooner and done something to correct it. But that is now changing. For the last couple of years a man named Joe Bobier has been working on the design of an all-in-one system. He began selling the initial version, called the Infinity 1832, about a year ago through his company, Sun Selector, out of West Virginia.

Now upgraded by Joe and marketed through BP Solar as the BP40 Power Center, it has all the components you need, charge controller, safety disconnects and 4000 watt pure sine wave inverter, in one UL listed box that you bolt to a wall in your house. Add a battery bank and a charging source (PV, wind, hydro) and you're done.

And if that is still too confusing to contemplate, BP Solar has designed a series of complete power generation systems based on the BP40 Power Center, batteries included, that fit in a small shed. You can order these like you might a new car. Get the basic model or upgrade to one with all the bells and whistles you could ever want, like, say, an automatic backup generator system. They even have a setup that is self- diagnosing. If a problem occurs that the unit can't solve itself it will call technical support to report the problem and even send a fax with a description of what happened. A support person can connect to the unit by modem, diagnose it from the comfort of his office, and only send help if it is truly needed.

At the moment these systems come at a relatively high price. The basic unit is certainly affordable but the complete systems can get kind of pricey. This is not unusual in the early stages of an industry. Remember how expensive a really good quality stereo was 20 years ago? Even so, compared to spending $25,000/mile for power poles from the utility company it quickly becomes an attractive alternative.

The biggest advantage I see to the BP40 Power Center over other systems is that all its components come from the same manufacturer. This means all the components are covered by one service call. This is a vast improvement over having to deal with separate components manufactured by different companies.

It has not been uncommon in the past for someone to have a problem with, for example, their inverter. So they call the inverter manufacturer and are told that it couldn't be the inverter, it must be the charge controller or how the system was installed or that the components were wired together incorrectly. This has made it difficult to get quality service on a system and added to the confusion facing renewable energy homeowners who aren't electrical engineers themselves.

Five years from now these kinds of systems will be the norm but at the moment they are just beginning to penetrate an industry that has seemed, to me at least, to be stuck in a rut. If BP can aggressively market these systems, get the prices down, and work to make them more generally accepted in the industry, renewable energy will become a much more viable alternative to the grid for larger numbers of people. And that can benefit not only the industry, but the consumer and the environment as well.

All Contents © 1997
Wagonmaker Press
Thomas W. Elliot


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