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Quadriplegic Harvard Grad Chooses Nextek STAR Trailer to Promote Solar Power

Brooke Ellison believes in the benefits of solar power. The Harvard graduate, who is also a quadriplegic, relies on a respirator for survival. She recently received the use of a STAR trailer from Nextek to serve as the primary backup for her equipment, as part of her efforts to promote solar power.

Brook Ellison with some of the Nextek staff who made her use of the STAR trailer possible.

She heard about the STAR (Stationary or Transportable Available Resource) trailer from friends at SUNY Stony Brook. The mobile unit collects solar power via photovoltaic panels, and stores it in a series of battery packs that can be transported to individuals. The STAR has been used to provide power to people living in remote areas that do not have a connection to the grid, such as in the region of Haiti affected by a 2011 earthquake.

Nextek personnel, SUNY Stony Brook, and the State of New York all worked to make the STAR trailer available to Ellison.

Ellison was paralyzed after being hit by a car at age 11, but did not let the accident stop her pursuit of education. She graduated from Harvard in 2000, and was elected to give the class commencement speech.

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Nextek Involved in U.S. Military’s Research into Microgrids

When Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in 2005, it wasn’t just cities and towns that experienced power outages—U.S. military facilities also went offline. For example, the regional relief operations center at the Naval Construction Battalion Center in Gulfport, MS, ran on backup power systems for two weeks, and then needed relief itself. Keesler Air Force Base near Biloxi lost its airfield lights and a hospital generator. The incidents prompted concerns at the Pentagon over the military’s ability to operate during and after a disaster. Perhaps even more important is the military’s ability to function after a terrorist attack. Such attacks don’t have to be military in nature. More and more, terrorist groups and even nations are looking for ways to infiltrate government agencies, utilities and businesses that use the Internet to communicate. Probes from hostile sources have been detected searching for weaknesses in the security of systems such as the electric grid. Should such an attack be successful in shutting down or damaging what may be the nation’s most important infrastructure, the military might be rendered inoperative for a critical period of time.

One of the solutions the Pentagon is looking at to thwart such attacks is the conversion of military power systems from reliance on the AC grid to the use of microgrids. These systems create and store energy from renewable sources like solar power, and use AC grid power only when needed. Because the microgrids are self-sustaining, they can be disconnected from the main grid (called islanding), and will continue to operate even if other systems are down.

Recently, Nextek Power Systems, Inc. completed a Direct Current microgrid demonstration project at Fort Huachuca in Arizona. One of the base’s buildings is 100% powered from solar panels on the roof, which provided electricity without reliance on the AC grid, even during off hours. In fact, the panels produced power to spare that is stored in batteries until it is needed. Since the installation nearly a year ago, the facility has not drawn any power from the AC grid!

The project also showed that expanding the program and implementing microgrid systems on a wider basis could achieve significant savings.

Microgrid technology is a viable solution to the military’s concerns over operational status and security. And they also offer the added benefit of achieving the administration’s goals for cutting energy consumption and switching to renewable energy sources. Nextek is committed to developing this technology for both government and commercial clients.

Further Reading: Fort Huachuca Case Study (pdf) 

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Green Leader Departs UC San Diego in 2012

Internationally renowned scientist and educator Marye Anne Fox, Chancellor of the University of California, San Diego and 2010 recipient of the National Medal of Science, among many other honors and awards, has announced that she will step down as Chancellor in June 2012 to return to teaching and research as a distinguished professor of chemistry at the university.  The seventh Chancellor of UC San Diego, and the first woman to be appointed as permanent Chancellor, Fox assembled a diverse senior leadership team during her tenure which saw the campus and its faculty earn Nobel and Pulitzer prizes; garner top international and national rankings for research, teaching, medicine and the arts; gain international notice of the university’s discoveries, inventions and other achievements; and merit presidential recognition for a superlative record of public service.

 Under her leadership, UC San Diego has become one of the greenest campuses in the nation and is now a living laboratory for climate change research and solutions. The campus self-generates 85 percent of its power needs, mostly from non-renewable natural gas, and is now focusing on renewable energy projects. The campus soon will have more than 2 megawatts of solar photovoltaic capacity, as well as a 2.8-megawatt fuel cell that will convert waste methane gas directly into electricity. Researchers are also investigating more efficient photovoltaics, renewable fuel sources and energy storage, and the campus has established a Sustainability Resource Center; added new green majors, courses and internships; and mandated that all new buildings be designed to meet stringent sustainability standards.  Nextek is proud to be a part of one of the projects at the Sustainability Resource Center.

Additional information regarding Fox’s tenure at UC San Diego may be found at www.mafox.ucsd.edu.

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The US Department of Energy: Recognizing The Need For An Energy Efficient Future

These days it seems that everyone is focused on energy efficiency and its pivotal role in the economic and environmental future of our state, country and world. The US Department of Energy is thankfully no exception, and Secretary Steven Chu is wisely promoting and supporting all manner of energy improvements that will help us as a nation pave the way for better, more energy efficient future. Just this week, in fact, Secretary Chu announced his plans to provide $256 million from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to support energy efficiency improvements in major industrial sectors across the American economy. The funding is targeted at reducing the energy consumption of America’s manufacturing and information technology (IT) industries, while creating jobs and stimulating economic growth. These programs will help create manufacturing jobs quickly, along with jobs for technicians and experts who will be needed in the long-term to maintain and operate the new equipment.

Of course we EMerge Alliance members already know that one of the main and most effective ways to increase energy efficiency is to use low-voltage DC power in commercial building interiors. DC power distribution not only reduces energy usage and improves sustainability, but it also offers unprecedented design and space flexibility. People in the green building industry already understand the many benefits and advantages of the widespread use of DC power, and they are working hard to spread the message at different venues around the country (like at this week’s Green Building Power Forum in San Diego) so that the manufacturing and IT industries, for example, can hear about and adopt this new, better way of using and distributing energy.

What’s exciting is that Secretary Chu is going global with his message and he recently met with energy leaders from around the world to launch the International Partnership of Energy Efficiency Cooperation (IPEEC). This is a high-level forum, consisting of G8 members and other interested countries, for facilitating improvements in global energy efficiency and encouraging market implementation of energy efficient technologies.

At Nextek we couldn’t be more pleased with the recent goings on at the DOE. They are taking long-awaited and important steps toward a greener and more energy efficient future that will provide us all with a better way to do more with less energy. What’s encouraging is that the “Big Guns” in Washington are finally realizing what we’ve known all along: that improving energy efficiency (and saving energy) is one of the quickest, most cost-effective ways to address energy security, climate change and ensure future economic growth here in the US and abroad.

For more information or to view the Funding Opportunity Announcements visit: www.energy.gov/recovery

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Nextek to Discuss DC Power Networks At The Green Building Power Forum

As an Emerge Alliance member we will conduct a presentation about DC power networks and on-site power sources in buildings at the upcoming Green Building Power Forum. The main purpose of the event, sponsored by the Darnell Group, is to identify the challenges, progress and opportunities of DC power distribution. Energy industry representatives such as design engineers, component and equipment makers, distributed generation system makers, industry organizations (such as Emerge), utilities and government departments will be there to contribute to the discussion of all aspects of building power including both high-voltage and low-voltage DC power distribution, hybrid AC and DC distribution architectures and DC microgrids.

“We’ll be there to give a contemporary explanation of which DC power generating technologies are available to power Green Buildings today, and we’ll also be there to promote the EMerge Alliance mission of creating a new global standard for DC power distribution and device control in commercial buildings,” says Nextek CEO, Paul Savage. This is because, Paul continues, “ the use of DC distribution provides building owners with unprecedented design and space flexibility, lower energy costs and greater long-term sustainability.”

Redefining efficient power for buildings is the theme of the Green Building Power Forum, which will be held June 1-3, 2009.

For more information about the Forum, visit www.GreenBuildingPower.Darnell.com

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Green Today, Jobs Tomorrow: Nextek's Role In Michigan's Growing Economy

On Monday, Nextek attended the extremely important Michigan Green Jobs Conference in Lansing, MI. Notables such as President Obama’s advisor on green jobs Van Jones and U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis were there, and the event focused on driving Green Job Initiatives in Michigan and how a green future will promote workforce development and economic growth in our state. As the auto industry continues to decline, Michigan is wisely embracing the emerging green economy as an opportunity to create much needed jobs in the state. Innovative programs such as “No Worker Left Behind” are helping to retrain former manufacturing workers into fields such as Alternative Energy Production and Efficiency, Green Building Construction and Retrofitting, Agriculture and Natural Resource Conservation and much more.

Many key Michigan lawmakers were at the Conference, including Governor Granholm who addressed the 2500+ audience with remarks about Michigan’s very promising Green Future. She spoke of the smart, efficient office building of the future, which will run on a safe, low-voltage DC power platform – which is the very core of what we on the EMerge Alliance are promoting. “It was exciting to hear these comments from the Governor, because it finally feels like she and others are ‘getting it’”, said Nextek Power Systems Operations Manager, Brandie Kaminski. That is, leaders in the community are catching on to the fact that renewable energies and the adoption of clean DC power in a standard platform are pivotal for job creation, energy efficiency and the environment.

So where does Nextek fit into all of this? As important players in the energy efficiency business we are innovators of a new, different energy strategy. And it is our unique Power Gateway – called Direct Coupling® -- that serves as the crucial point of connectivity between these new green, renewable energy sources to the DC loads that consume them. So when you talk about constructing a new, green building or retro-fitting an older one, it is our intelligent routing device that will enable renewable energy sources to be more easily used and to become more mainstream.

The green, renewable energy movement won’t move forward successfully unless we rethink the way energy is generated and used. And Nextek is helping to shift the paradigm – by offering an easier more effective way to harness and use energy.

People are starting to catch on our way of thinking and, as a result, we feel the opportunities for growth here in Michigan -- and the rest of the world -- are endless.

For more information about the conference and Governor Granholm’s thoughts about Michigan’s Emerging Green Economy visit: www.michigan.gov/greenjobsconference and blog.jennifergranholm.com

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How Feed-In Tariffs Inhibit the Efficiency of Distributed Generation

Part of our vision at Nextek Power Systems has been that the way to get the most out of power generated on site is to use that power on-site; where, when, and how it is generated.  For us this has meant establishing direct current (DC) power networks that are open to accept any dc power that is generated on-site. An important benefit to our customers is that these systems are also directly compatible with electricity storage systems like batteries making un-interruptible power cheaper and easier to deliver to critical building loads. We use these networks to support electronic loads in the building, of which lighting, computers and motor controllers are the largest. The unique feature of our power systems is that each has a point of connectivity where the grid, any DG, and any stored power come together to work in-concert to support the loads.  Our stock-in-trade has been to compare this system and method to the alternating current (AC) based paradigm.  When the integrated efficiency of an AC-paradigm system is compared to our Direct Coupling paradigm, we show an improvement in the utilization of the DG (often solar PV) of 10% to 50%.  This advantage is made-up of 2 savings:  avoiding the inverter, which amounts to a 4% to 10% gain, plus avoiding the rectification at the load which accounts for another 8% to 40% gain depending on the quality of the product.  Nextek's Direct Coupling power systems use the DG at 98% efficiency because they only have to minimally regulate the power produced for the stability of the network.

Improving the efficiency of DG inputs has been enough for us to bring customers and manufacturers to our systems and make them partners in our business where everyone benefits.  There is, however, a trend in regulatory policy that could inhibit this technical innovation and the improved efficiency it brings to the entire system (the grid and its customers).

In the same way Nextek has promoted the analysis of integrated efficiencies of sources and loads, the foot-hold that feed-in tariffs have recently gotten in our hemisphere (Ontario, Canada) has led me to reflect on a more comprehensive understanding of the system benefits of handling the integration of DG through dc power networks. When we deliver precious power that we generate on-site to the grid we doom those kilowatts to 2 more losses: those embedded in the transmission and distribution of power to our neighbors, plus the almost inevitable rectification that takes place at the point of use.  The Department of Energy tells us the transmission and distribution (T&D) portion of the equation will lose between 7% and 11% ; we know that the majority of power supplies manufactured today range between 60% and 85% efficiency, but that the best conventional lighting products (a very small niche) do achieve a 90% efficiency rating.

Therefore the feed-in tariff imposes a haircut of 11% to 21% on the power that any customer delivers to it versus keeping the power generated in the currency of direct current (4% to 10% at the inverter + 7% to 11% at the load).  When we combine this potential loss with the losses racked-up in the dc to ac to dc excursion we are faced with an ugly reality:  choosing a feed-in tariff that excludes dc kilowatt hours generated to be used on-site, or favoring net-metering over Direct Coupling may waste up from 19% to 59% of the clean energy customers have spent so much to produce.  Further analysis appears on our website: www.nextekpower.com

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Photovoltaics: Distributed Generation or Energy Efficiency?

In the past, Photovoltaic Solar Panels have been a key part of a distributed generation program. It seems obvious, doesn't it? New technologies, though, are enabling solar electric panels to become a part of energy efficiency programs. This distinction can have a significant impact on the funding of, and the future of solar installations. The typical solar electric system consists of solar panels which create Direct Current (DC) electricity and an inverter which changes the DC to Alternating Current (AC) to be compatible with the grid. When the solar panels generate more electricity than the building is using, unused electricity is sent back to the grid. Utilities usually pay for this electricity through 'net-metering' programs. In effect, this system uses the grid as a place to 'store' unused electricity.

It turns out that this 'storage' of unused electricity is quite expensive. The cost of the inverter and its maintenance is a factor, as is the efficiency losses of the inverter. In addition, the net metering programs are expensive themselves and may not be sustainable for utilities in the future.

Inverting DC electricity to grid-compatible AC electricity is complex and expensive. To be compatible with the grid, the AC produced must meet strict requirements and the inverter itself must be capable of shutting down instantly in the event of a power failure. This regulation, called 'anti-islanding' protects linemen who might be working on a downed power line but also shuts off the whole solar electric system when you need it the most; during a power failure. Typical inverters consume up to 15% of the solar power generated and carry warranties of only five years, a quarter of the estimated life of the solar system.

Net metering is the great advantage of an inverter because it allows a building owner to sell back unused power. Systems can be designed so that, over the course of a year, the electric bill 'nets out' to zero. But is net-metering sustainable? Is it fair to the utilities to mandate net-metering? In effect, we're telling the utilities that they have to buy their own product from their customers at retail. Could a grocery store survive if it had to buy vegetables from local gardeners at the retail price?

Many utilities have gone to a more reasonable 'avoided cost' structure. This means that, if you generate electricity and send it back to the grid, the utility will credit you whatever it costs them to generate electricity, or wholesale cost. It's as if the grocer were paying you for your vegetables whatever they pay the farms. True, this sounds fair, but frankly, as a gardener, it would make more sense for me to eat my own broccoli then sell it to the grocer at half of what I'll need to buy it back for later.

The first point here is that storage is expensive. The most effective way to deal with power you generate is to avoid storage altogether and use it all, where and when it is generated. This means that an optimal solar electricity system will never generate more power than will be used. The challenge with this is that building electricity usage changes throughout the day, as does the availability of sun (except in California where it's always sunny).

The solution, at least for most commercial office and retail buildings, is lighting. In most offices and almost all large retail establishments, the fluorescent lighting is 'on' all day, every day, and often uses as much as 60% of the total building's electricity. The optimal solar system, then, provides just enough electricity to power the fluorescent lights.

The second point here involves the fluorescent lights themselves, and a fact that few realize. Each fluorescent light ballast contains a small, rather inefficient, AC to DC converter. This means that the fluorescent light itself is a DC device and can be powered directly from the solar cells without an inverter. If we can do away with the inverter (which is unnecessary anyway because we're not trying to put AC power back into the grid), we can avoid inverter losses, maintenance costs, and complexity. And because we don't have to shut the system down to comply with anti-islanding laws, we can keep the lights on during a power failure!

The concept is called 'Direct Coupling' of DC generation to the load. Here's how a system works. It uses power where, when, and how (DC) it is generated: DC power from the solar panels is sent through a 'power router' directly to DC fluorescent ballasts in the lighting. When there isn't enough solar power being generated, the power router takes electricity from the AC grid, converts it to DC, and adds it to whatever is being produced by the solar panels. The power router takes all the electricity from the solar panels and whatever else is needed from the grid to keep the lights operating during the daytime, on cloudy days, and at night. If the grid fails, then power from the solar panels and, optionally, batteries, is used to keep the lights on.

A system designed like this is less expensive initially because the solar array tends to be a little smaller. It's ideal for retail use because it keeps the lights on (and customers in the store) during a power failure. Utilities tend to support the idea because it doesn't involve complex and expensive bi-directional interconnection to the grid; to them it's an energy efficiency measure, not energy generation. It's more efficient during the day because all of the solar energy gets used and it's at least as efficient at night because the centralized AC to DC conversion in the power router is better than a similar conversion at each fluorescent ballast.

It may be that the best way to design a photovoltaic system in a commercial building is to direct couple the lighting load. This system will have lower up-front costs, be more efficient, keep customers in the store during a power failure, and save the occupant the largest portion of his electrical expenses.

A graphic demonstration of this technology can be found at www.DirectCoupling.com and at Nextek Power System's website at Direct Coupling Demo.

Mark Robinson is VP Sales & Marketing of Nextek Power Systems. Formerly, he was involved in the design and service of inverters for solar systems. He is a licensed master electrician and a LEED accredited professional.

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