The first question most homeowners have about outfitting their homes for solar is, “How much will it cost?” Before an accurate number can be determined, many variables must be considered, including the location of the home, the orientation of the system and the amount of electric load that will be covered by the system, to name a few.
In the solar arena, the upfront costs have discouraged many homeowners from making the decision to install solar on their homes. Solar electric systems are expensive because they do something amazing: produce free, clean electricity for 25, 30 or even 40 years.
It turns out that solar electric systems nearly always pay for themselves and then some. Many homeowners would be sold if they could slowly buy into solar, starting with what they can afford today and supplementing when they are financially able, comfortable with the technology and satisfied with the results.
Solar Micro-Inverters Bring Scalability
What is missing from the solar scenario is a situation analogous to that of compact fluorescent light (CFL). When CFLs started making their way onto retail shelves, most of us did not go out and buy the new, more expensive bulbs to replace every incandescent bulb in the house. Instead, most people bought one bulb at a time for $15 or so, considering it a way to do just a bit more for the environment, to invest in future energy savings and to test the waters of the technology. As people became more comfortable with the technology, demand increased and costs went down; now, CFLs are quite common.
Until recently, small-scale solar was difficult due to limitations presented by the photovoltaic (PV) system’s inverter. The inverter converts the direct current (DC) power that a solar electric system produces into alternating current (AC) power that is serviceable to the grid. Commonly, solar electric systems string modules together prior to connecting them to the inverter, which requires system designers to begin with the end in mind when it comes to the maximum power limit the inverter can handle. This design limitation hinders the ability to add on to the system later and causes a decision-making dilemma for the potential solar customer because of cost.
The industry’s solution coincides with the advent of micro-inverter technology several years ago. Microinverters convert DC power to AC power for each module rather than an entire string of modules. Modules manufactured with micro-inverters (known in the industry as AC modules) allow for systems to become scalable, meaning they enable more solar modules to be added when the customer can afford them.
Yet most of the micro-inverter technology still did not adequately fulfill this need for a scalable system until the fall of 2012, when Helios unveiled the SolSimple Module, a revolutionary pairing of a PV module and a micro-inverter. Unlike other AC modules on the market, the SolSimple module produces AC power at the same voltage used in the home and has no exposed DC wiring, making it the only true AC module as defined by the National Electric Code.
The SolSimple Module allows, for the first time, a hasslefree and affordable way for homeowners to start with a small system and add to it at their convenience. SolSimple utilizes a connection system that is inexpensive, flexible and requires virtually no special design. Other micro-inverters require clunky trunk cables that are expensive, call for wire design and Solar Powered Carthave many parts (potential points of failure). These wire systems also change over time, making future expansion cumbersome and costly. SolSimple uses a HomeRun cable— a simple 12-gauge, stranded, three-wire cable that costs less than $2 per foot.
A Bright Beacon of Hope for Renewable Energy
..."We invite Helios customers to our manufacturing facility to watch their modules being assembled," advises General Manager Brent Brucker, who relishes the opportunity to answer questions for visitors, especially those who are curious about why Helios chose Milwaukee for its headquarters. "The first reason is that three of the company's founders are native Wisconsinites," he says, tallying Milwaukee's other attributes: It's a manufacturing city, people have a strong work ethic and show up at their jobs despite inclement weather; and the area is home to a significant number of skilled craftsmen.
The city also benefits from local manufacturing infastructure. "Within a short distance, we can have special glass and machinery built, as well as wire produced. This allows us to expand our support of the local economy and save on shipping," explains Brucker, who also credits the Wisconsin Department of Commerce's State Energy Program, which provided Helios with a $1.4 million clean energy loan.
One of the myths that Brucker enjoys dispelling is that Wisconsin doesn't receive enough sunshine to support the solar industry. "The most successful country in the global solar market is Germany, which gets the same amount of sun as Seattle and Alaska. Wisconsin gets more sun than either," he says.
Milwaukee-based high-efficiency monocrystalline PV module manufacturer, Helios Solar Works is the first founding member of the Coalition for American Solar Manufacturing (CASM), outside SolarWorld to declare itself a supporter of actions that will lead to duties being applied to solar cells and modules from China. Seven firms with manufacturing operations in the US were said to have formed CASM and petitioned US agencies to investigate module dumping allegations, though until now only SolarWorld, which has led the campaign, had declared involvement.
“We have supported these trade cases from the beginning, and we are pleased to publicly declare that support,” said Steve Ostrenga, chief executive officer of Helios Solar Works, headquarterd in Milwaukee.“Our country can’t afford to give up manufacturing jobs in growth industries to nations that engage in illegal and harmful trade practices.”
According to a statement from CASM, Helios Solar Works was forced to downsize its manufacturing operations as a result of dumped and subsidized Chinese imports of solar cells and modules.
New Hampshire, U.S.A. -- Helios Solar Works, a small solar panel manufacturer based in Milwaukee, Wisc., said Thursday that it is one of the seven companies that worked to file the original trade complaint against the price of solar panels coming in from China.
Until this week, SolarWorld was the lone public face for the Coalition for American Solar Manufacturing (CASM). The Department of Commerce is expected to announce its preliminary countervailing duty determination as early as March 19 just as the solar industry arrives at PV America-West, a three-day conference and exhibition in San Jose, Calif., that runs March 19-21. The result could impose stiff tariffs on panels coming in from China, and such a move would put severe financial pressure on the rest of the American solar industry that has often benefited from the low-cost panels. It would also make American-made modules more cost-competitive.
The remaining five companies in the seven-member coalition remain anonymous, and there is no requirement that their names ever be made public. However Helios Solar Works decided the timing was right, even as the tariff decision looms and as the rhetoric with the competing Coalition for American Solar Energy (CASE) intensifies.
Helios Solar Works of Milwaukee has been forced to cut jobs as it struggles to compete with imported solar panels from China that are the subject of an international trade dispute.
Helios opened its solar panel factory in the Menomonee River Valley one year ago and expanded to two production shifts by the summer. Its growth path was thwarted because of panels that were being sold in the United States at prices below the cost of production, Helios and a coalition of solar manufacturers contend.
The company is joining a solar industry effort to protest what they see as unfair trade practices, lining up behind SolarWorld, which led a coalition of solar companies that filed a complaint on the matter last year.
In December, the U.S. International Trade Commission voted unanimously that "there is a reasonable indication that a U.S. industry is materially injured by reason of imports of crystalline silicon photovoltaic cells and modules from China that are allegedly subsidized and sold in the United States at less than fair value."
Demand was initially brisk for the high-end monocrystalline silicon solar photovoltaic (PV) panels manufactured by Helios Solar Works at a new, highly automated 50-MW capacity factory on a brownfield industrial site Milwaukee’s city leaders designated for redevelopment and growth. That is until last summer, when founder Steven Ostrenga began noticing “a deep dive in [solar panel] pricing coming out of China that we just couldn’t meet.”
Helios’ silicon solar PV manufacturing business got off to a good start, and the company added a second shift, bringing its workforce to 34 as of last summer. That’s when heavily subsidized imports from China really began surging into the US market, bringing prices below Helios’ cost of production, as well as the cost of production in China, Helios and fellow Coalition for American Solar Manufacturing
(CASM) members assert in anti-dumping and unfair trade petitions filed with the US Commerce Dept. and International Trade Commission.
Competition is fine and good; it's a prerequisite for a healthy, market-based capitalist system, but China's been flaunting agreed-upon international trade rules established by the World Trade Organization (WTO), harming competitors in the US and other WTO countries, Helios and CASM assert.
A manufacturer of crystalline solar modules has opened a new manufacturing facility for the assembly of solar panels by plant staff and robots in Milwaukee as a result of Recovery Act funds from the Energy Department’s State Energy Program (SEP).
Helios USA, LLC is Wisconsin’s first manufacturer of high-performance solar modules for deployment in residential, commercial, industrial and utility-based solar electric systems. The company will supply solar panels to a number of customers.
With a $1.4 million loan from SEP, Helios assembles solar panels in the newly opened facility, located in what was previously an abandoned manufacturing plant in the Menomonee Valley area of Milwaukee, with the help of staff and assistance from robots when “superhuman” precision and sensitivity is needed. As of December 2011, the opening of the Helios manufacturing plant has supported 26 jobs and is projected to create a total of 50 permanent jobs in the state.
The complex process for manufacturing solar modules includes six basic workstations and utilizes the assistance of both operators and automated robots for stringing, interconnection, laminating, junction box attachment, frame press and flash test of solar cells. Two material-handling robots are used in the stringing process and an overhead-mounted robot for the ensuing steps. At the end of the entire process, a robot stacks the modules for shipment. This article in Assemblymag.com explains the solar manufacturing process in depth.
With such helpful robots assisting in the plants, it was necessary to develop names for each one. Children of Helios employees volunteered to get involved and name these robotic supporters of energy efficiency. Optimus, Buzz and Nigel work alongside Helios employees daily to facilitate a smooth, easy production process while supporting the implementation of clean energy efforts nationwide.