Find a problem and solve it. It’s the mantra, shared by so many engineers, that Terri Fiez used when she co-founded the solar energy startup Azuray Technologies two years ago. Fiez, a professor and head of the School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at Oregon State, knew she and her team could use their technical expertise to solve the most difficult problems plaguing the solar energy industry. And she knew that when they did, they’d be helping people move closer to energy sustainability.
“In terms of solutions, we looked at some of the issues in solar energy that needed to be addressed. And we realized our skills could be applied to solve them,” Fiez says.
Specifically, Fiez and her Azuray team looked at solar panels’ inverter systems, which harvest energy to be synchronized with the electrical grid. In the existing system, all solar panels in an installation are wired through a single inverter. Fiez’s team found the panels weren’t harvesting as much energy as they could be. And they also found that a critical component in existing inverters was consistently failing.
The Azuray solution is “micro-inverters, “ which are placed on each solar panel in an installation. The system, Fiez says simplifies installation, allows more energy to be harvested and reduces cost.
“You still lose some energy in the conversion process,” says Fiez. “But by putting inverters on every panel, you optimize the output from each panel.”
Azuray also addressed the reliability issue. Existing inverters use electrolytic capacitors, which serve as an energy storage unit for existing inverters. They’re also the parts that tend to fail. “We developed a way to eliminate the highest failing component, and created an critical piece of our company’s intellectual property.”
The way Fiez sees it, a combination of technologies will be needed to fully address the energy issues we have today. “I think it’s pretty well accepted that we need multiple sources of alternative energy,” she says. “It’s very complimentary to have, say, wind and solar. Peak wind energy generation is usually at night, and peak solar energy generation is during the day.”
Every little bit, though, makes a difference. “If solar provided 20, 30 or 50 percent of your energy use, collectively it would start to make a big impact. Especially if you think about industrial buildings and utility-sale installations,” Fiez says.
For the next six months, Fiez will be on a special assignment at Oregon State as part of the College of Engineering’s Sustainable Energy and Infrastructure (SENERGI) initiative, which aims at discovering high-impact solutions to sustainability, energy problems, commercializing breakthroughs and developing engineering leadership in renewable energy.
“I’ll be looking at how we increase impact. And how we make a difference in the world!” Fiez says.