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Choosing the right inverter

Inverters are a key component in the production of electricity with grid-connected PV systems, with ACDC conversion efficiency and maximum power point tracking efficiency being among the essential parameters. In this article, Miguel Alonso Abella and F. Chenlo look at the most relevant criteria for selecting a gridconnected PV inverter.

osts must be reduced and efficiencies must be increased: these are two of the main priorities if PV systems are to maximize their potential in carbon-free energy generation. Much effort continues to be dedicated to improving existing PV technology, and to developing new ones, in order to achieve these goals.Yet there are other, equally important considerations in PV development that affect costs and efficiency, namely the balance-of-system costs (BOS), and inverters a central part of grid-connected systems. Inverters are the power electronic devices that are directly connected to the PV array (on the DC side) and to the electrical grid (on the AC side), and essentially convert the DC energy produced by the array into the AC energy required by the grid. In addition to high efficiencies for DCAC conversion and maximum power point tracking, inverters should produce AC energy at the required quality with low total harmonic distortion of current, a high power factor (close to unity) and a low level of electromagnetic interference to maximize the transfer of energy from the array to the grid.Inverters must also comply with safety requirements for users, equipment and the grid itself. The main characteristics that inverters must fulfil, and the testing procedures that they must comply with, are covered by the international standards IEEE 929-2000, EN 61727 and UL 1741.13 The other relevant standard for grid-connected systems is IEC 60364-7-712, and there are further guidelines and requirements applied in different countries.48


PV inverter technology has evolved rapidly over the last decade, in line with general development in the PV sector,
The right back-up: an inverter is essential for every grid-connected PV array SOLARWORLD


Choosing the right inverter

for grid-connected PV systems


Choosing the right inverter

especially in Europe, the US and Japan. In all these regions, a considerable number of PV installations are small-scale, building-integrated systems, connected to the grid. These are owned by private users, but local subsidies and incentives support the generation of renewable energy. Over the last decade, PV prices have dropped by 50%, and efficiency and reliability have increased.To reduce the cost-to-efficiency ratio further, new inverter designs have appeared in the market, as shown in Figure 1.910 A general classification of inverter types is as follows: central inverters string inverters module integrated inverters (AC modules) multi-string inverters.

modular concept, in which PV string arrays are connected to inverters in the power range 13 kW, to feed energy into the AC grid in a parallel configuration. Large-scale PV installations have also been built using string inverters, for instance at the Mont-Cenis Academy in Germany.12

Transformerless string inverter technologies have a growing market share in Europe

AC module and multi-string inverters
An AC module is an integrated combination of a single solar module13 and a single inverter. Recently,10 though, the design concept of multi-string inverters has come onto the market, and these are intended as an intermediate approach between string inverters and AC modules. Multi-string inverters1415 contain, in one unit, various independent DCDC and maximum power tracking converters, which feed the energy into a common DCAC inverter. PV strings of different nominal data (i.e. nominal power, number of modules in each string, manufacturer and so on), different size or different technology, and strings with different orientations (east, south or west), inclination or shadowing, can be connected to one common inverter, while each working at their individual maximum power point. DC cabling reduction and the minimization of shadowing and mismatch losses associated with string, multi-string or AC module inverters are factors that are dealt with by the simplicity and high efficiency of central inverters. One of the unresolved questions is how AC modules can be connected to the network.16 While connection to a regular outlet reduces costs and facilitates installation, safety standards do not always allow this, and utilities can be averse to the idea of having generators connected to normal electrical sockets in users homes. Another factor relating to safety and regulations is whether or not a galvanic insulation transformer is installed (in high frequency, or low frequency).

Central inverters
Central inverters are commonly used in large-scale PV installations, with a power range of 20400 kW, where PV arrays are connected in parallel strings, and the DCAC conversion is centralized into one common inverter. Linecommutated inverters, based on thyristors, were originally developed for the first grid-connected applications, but have been replaced by self-commutated inverters using insulated gate bipolar transistors (IGBTs), or field-effect transistors (FETs) for low power. Pulse-width modulation (PWM) and digital signal processing (DSP)-based conversion controllers have improved the quality of the generated energy, with nearly sinusoidal current output, and this avoids the use of large reactive compensation units. Recently, inverters with a space vector modulation control have also been implemented, and much effort has also been focused on developing new inverter topologies, to obtain high partial-loads efficiency.

String inverters
The string inverter concept was introduced11 onto the European market in summer 1995 when SMA launched the SWR 700 Sunny Boy inverter. String inverters are based on a

central inverter
+ =

AC modules grid
= = = + = + = + = = = = = = = =

The inverter market

= =


string inverter grid west

multi-string inverter

PVsize 1

PVsize 2





PVsize 3

FIGURE 1. Basic design concepts for PV installations central, string, multi-string or AC module inverters

Of the available products a full market review has been published in Photon International17 there are more string-type than central inverters. Furthermore, according to world PV market forecasts,18 it is string inverters rather than central inverters that are likely to be the most relevant configuration for PV grid connection in the near future. Transformerless string inverter technologies have a growing market share in Europe,10 being comparable with lowfrequency (LF) inverters; the share for high-frequency (HF) inverters is small, at around 3%, but is also increasing. Nevertheless, with demand for large-scale PV systems increasing, manufacturers are at present reporting a trend towards inverters of a higher power range.19 Various companies



Choosing the right inverter

also plan to offer more central inverters. One new concept is connection of various inverters in parallel in a masterslave relationship.10,17 In this, the master inverter controls how many slaves are operating according to available solar irradiance, allowing increase of the overall system efficiency at low levels of irradiance. Recent design concepts10 include the team, developed by Sunny Team, MIX, from Fronius, and HERIC, developed by Fraunhofer ISE and implemented by Sunways.2022 All of these are for string inverter applications,and are designed to increase partial-load efficiencies. The team design features several string inverters operating in a masterslave relationship.At low levels of irradiance, the whole array of strings is connected to just one inverter, but with increasing irradiance the PV array is progressively divided into smaller units, until every string inverter is operating independently. In the MIX concept (Master Inverter eXchange), the string inverter includes two power stacks placed in one housing, and, in the event of low irradiance, the inverter works in a similar way to a smaller one in a similar way to an inverter in a smaller system. One power stack, the master, assumes the leadership, and the other power stack, the slave, starts working if there are higher levels of irradiance and one power unit cannot manage the work alone. If the master stops working for any reason, the slave can easily take over the masters role, and the system will continue to produce energy. The HERIC (Highly Efficient & Reliable Inverter Concept) is based on a new inverter topology, which has shown greater efficiency (97%)23 than other PWM controls.

Grid-connected installations27 in 2002 totalled 144 MWp in Japan and 22 MWp in the US, compared with 85 MWp in Germany and 30 MWp in the rest of Europe.

DC-to-AC efficiency is the most important parameter for grid-connected PV generation

There is wide variation in price between inverters, as the technology used by different inverters varies considerably. Inverter-specific costs range from 0.5/Wp for transformerless topologies up to 2.6/Wp for AC module inverters,15 and from 1175/kWp for a 1 kW plant to 975/kWp in a 5 kW plant.14 Considering an average price of 3.6/Wp for both monocrystalline silicon and polycrystalline silicon PV modules, and an average of 0.70/WAC (equivalent to 0.56/Wp) for the inverters, the cost of the inverter represents around 16% of the cost of PV installations with a nominal power below 5 kW. (WAC is the amount actually fed into the AC grid, after some losses in conversion from the Wp amount.) This 16% would decrease to around 10% for large-scale PV plants.
TABLE 1. Guide for inverter prices for grid-connected PV applications Nominal power < 1 kW 110 kW 10100 kW > 100 kW Price ( /kW) 1200 1800 600 1000 500 600 350 500

Market share and prices

Figure 2 shows results from a market survey carried out by Photon International;24 23 companies responded, comprising inverter manufacturers selling products in Germany. The data include the total sales record of both on-grid and stand-alone inverter companies. However, it should be noted that more than 20 manufacturers of large and small inverters were not included: amongst these were Sharp, Sanyo, Mitsubishi and Omron from Japan,25 US-based Xantrex,26 and European manufacturers Mastervolt (Netherlands) and Ingeteam (Spain).


The DCAC electrical conversion efficiency is the most important parameter for grid-connected PV generation, and the process is representative of different inverters. Of all the design and construction characteristics of inverters, it is the use or not of a galvanic insulation transformer that most influences the DCAC conversion efficiency. In some countries, local regulations require galvanic insulation or its equivalent between the AC on the grid side and the DC generated on the PV side.This can be achieved using 50 Hz LF transformers, or HF transformers. As will be discussed later, the presence or absence of 120 110 LF or HF transformers in the inverters 100 influences not only the size, weight, ease of installation and material costs, but also the 80 earthing and safety measures to be adopted in 70 the PV system, and the control of DC 60 injection feed into the grid. Inverters with an LF transformer can 40 achieve DCAC efficiency of 92%, while those 18.8 16 15 20 12 with an HF transformer typically achieve a 12.2 10.9 10.1 7.5 6 7 6.4 5.5 4.5 3 4.5 2.6 4.5 2.5 3 2.3 maximum efficiency of 94%. By removing the 0 insulation transformer, the efficiency can be increased by two percentage points. Inverters with HF insulation need more electronic components than LF inverters, and in the past 2001 2002 this sometimes meant that the reliability of HF inverters was insufficient (reliability and FIGURE 2. PV inverter market in Germany, in MWp sold per year. Data include inverters for on-grid and stand-alone PV systems. Units sold in 2001 were SMA: 35,000; NKF: 25,000; number of components are usually indirectly Fronius: 5450. Source: adapted from Photon International, March 200224 proportional parameters, especially with new designs). However, this is no longer the case,
Sales (MW/year)

Sp ut ni k Su n Po we r Si em en So s la r-f ab rik Ai xc on Su nw ay s

Fr on iu s


Ot he rs


Ka co



Choosing the right inverter

thanks to ongoing improvements in both designs and components. A second point is that inverters using LF transformers always avoid DC current injection into the grid (by definition, an LF transformer does not allow DC current though it). For HF transformers, therefore, it is necessary to implement DC current measuring devices and corresponding control for the injection of DC current. In countries such as Spain, there is discussion as to whether the standards should allow the use of HF inverters or not,with regard to DC current injection.Should there ever be an inverter fault, LF inverters will never inject DC current into the grid, but there can be a possibility of HF inverters (in devices measuring DC current and/or control fault) injecting DC current into the grid. The issue has been addressed by asking the HF inverter manufacturer for additional certification, in the event that an HF inverter may inject DC current. This normalized efficiency28 is usually known as European Efficiency, E, and is valid for irradiance levels in central Europe. It is defined as a function of the efficiency at defined percentage values for nominal AC power.This is shown in the following equation:

TABLE 2. Experimental inverter efficiencies for different string inverters; values used are representative of state-of-the-art technology AC power Efficiency by inverter type (%) (% of nominal) HF LF (old LF (new Transformerless technology) technology) 5 77.5 84.8 85.1 86.7 10 85.8 90.4 88.9 91.5 20 91.0 92.0 92.3 94.2 30 93.1 92.5 93.1 94.6 50 93.8 90.9 93.4 95.0 100 93.3 90.0 92.8 94.2 92.3 90.8 92.6 94.2

As an example, where this equation has 10%, it represents the efficiency at 10% of the nominal inverter power. It is worth mentioning that,even at this time,it is possible to find inverters available on the market with different efficiencies, as seen in Table 2. It should be mentioned that E is an appropriate way of describing efficiency for fixed (i.e. non-tracking) PV systems. In some countries, the number of tracking systems is increasing considerably for example, almost half of the total capacity installed in Spain with nominal power below 5 kW is mounted on tracking systems and in these cases, the European Efficiency could be redefined as the efficiency value at between 80% and 100% of the nominal power. Inverters introduced onto the market more recently can
Rooftop PV installation at Moltkebahnhof, Aachen in Germany ERSOL

operate at a wide range of DC voltages.The DC input voltage also has a slight influence on the DCAC conversion efficiency for those inverters with a high efficiency at partial loads. Inverter manufacturers would rather increase the DC operating voltage to achieve better efficiency-to-cost ratios and increase the efficiency at partial loads using low-currentcarrying semiconductors.11 That is the main reason extra-low voltage (ELV, i.e. below 120 volts DC4,29) protection is not used, a fact that complicates safety measures.Actually, the tendency in Europe (though not in the US or Japan) has in recent years been to increase the DC operating voltage; for a given inverter design, the effect of decreasing the DC operating voltage is an increase in efficiency, due to low self-consumption in the control circuits. On the other hand, it is easier to design inverters with high efficiency by increasing the operation voltage.


The DC power input to an inverter depends on which point in the currentvoltage (IV) curve of the PV array it is working at. Ideally, the inverter should operate at the maximum power point (MPP) of the PV array.The MPP is variable throughout the day, mainly as a function of environmental conditions such as irradiance and temperature, but inverters directly connected to PV arrays have an MPP tracking algorithm to maximize energy transfer. The MPP tracking efficiency, MPPT, can be defined as the ratio of the energy obtained by the inverter from a PV array, to the energy obtained with ideal MPP tracking over a defined period of time.This is shown in the equation:

where PDC is the DC input power to the inverter and Pm is the MPP. Many MPP tracking algorithms have been proposed,30 based variously on, amongst other parameters, incremental conductance, parasitic capacitance, constant voltage, voltage with temperature correction, and fuzzy logic control. Nevertheless the perturb and observe-based algorithms are in practice the most commonly used, due to ease of implementation. Such algorithms are based on a perturbation of a PV



Choosing the right inverter

arrays operating voltage by a small increment, V, after particular intervals of time and the resulting change in power, P, is measured. If P is positive, then the next incremental perturbation of voltage is positive; if P is negative, the next incremental perturbation is negative. Nevertheless, this algorithm can have some limitations, and these can reduce the MPP tracking efficiency in certain operating conditions.At very low levels of irradiance for instance, during sunrise and sunset the power curve becomes very flat and makes it very difficult to distinguish the true location of the MPP. Another factor is the impossibility of defining the exact MPP, since the inverter P oscillates around this point.The tracking algorithm can exhibit erratic behaviour under rapidly changing irradiance levels. Partial shadowing can also influence MPP tracking behaviour, but this problem can be overcome by using different times for perturbation, as a function of the power variation in time, or by performing alternate voltage perturbations. (See page 142 for experimental data on this.)


The total harmonic distortion,THD,of the current generated by the PV inverter is regulated by the international Standard IEC 61000-3-2. Electromagnetic compatibility3132 and CE marking is regulated by the EU Directives 89/336/CEE and 93/68/CEE. Inverters for grid-connected PV systems must generate energy at a defined quality.3334 The standards referred to above require a THD of 5% for the harmonic spectra of the current waveform (measured up to harmonic number 49) while the

THD of the voltage is lower than 2%. It is interesting to note that, because of the high commutation frequency of the IGBT in the inverter bridges, harmonics are presented at multiples of that commutation frequency, which is usually much higher than the harmonic number 50 required by the standards.The AC power operation level for which this requirement must be fulfilled is not actually mentioned, so is generally considered to be the nominal power; invertersTHD output current increases at power levels below nominal. Figure 3 presents a typical example of the current THD being below 5% for power levels above 50% of nominal, and considerably increasing as the operation power decreases. The power factor, also related to the quality of generated energy, is close to unity ( 0.999) for power operation levels above 20% of nominal power in IGBTbased inverters.There are not even any technological barriers to voluntary control of the power factor with the objective of generating or consuming reactive energy.The improvement of grid quality (reactive power by phase displacing and harmonics control) has being studied more recently and implemented35 in inverters for new, larger, centralized gridconnected PV, as for instance, in the form of Siemens SINVERT system.

The THD of the generated currents waveforms is related to DC current injection into the electrical grid via the PV inverters. The adverse effect of DC injection into the general grid16,36 by customers can shift the mains transformers operating point towards possible saturation, which might result in high


Choosing the right inverter


100 90 80 Current THD (%) 70 60 50 40 30 20 10 0 0 20 40 60 80 100 AC power (% nominal power) Power factor Current THD

1.2 1 0.8 0.6 0.4 0.2 0

FIGURE 3. Current THD and power factor vs AC power (AC voltage THD < 2%)

primary current that could trip the fuses and thus cause a power outage to that section of the network. Transformer lifetime and efficiency may also be reduced, while DC causes cathodic corrosion of cabling.The protective operation of typeA residual current devices (RCDs)4,37 are adversely affected by DC as well, and type-B (AC- and DC-sensitive) should be used instead. PV inverters usually include a large, heavy 50 Hz LF transformer, which inherently avoids DC being injected onto the grid and also provides galvanic insulation. LF transformers are an important part of the total material cost of an inverter (around 15%), as well as considerably increasing the inverter weight and decreasing its DCAC conversion efficiency. As a result, manufacturers have looked at ways of removing LF transformers in more recent years, and though the design of transformerless inverters to avoid DC current injection does have some technical complexities, these are being solved with new techniques for current sensing and electronic control. Inverters with HF galvanic insulation offer an intermediate approach as far as safety,38 earthing and system configurations are concerned, as the use of LF or HF or indeed, no transformer has an influence on the type of device used to protect against indirect contacts on the DC side, and the method of installation. In any case, the manufacturers of both transformerless and HF inverters must provide the certificates of compliance required by the national and international requirements. Even though LF transformers are inherently protected (in terms of DC current injection) against any possible inverter fault, transformerless or HF inverters depend on an electronic control circuit for this function.Manufacturers must guarantee that there will be no DC current injection in the case of any possible fault, but this is a controversial point at present that is regulated differently from country to country. While some national standards do not make reference to the point, others do not permit the installation of transformerless inverters, and HF inverters are only allowed with additional certificates. Limits of 5 mA (0.025% of the rms output current for a 5 kW system, based on the IEC 61000-3-239) or 0.5% (UL17413) are being adopted in the UK and US respectively.

Power factor




Choosing the right inverter

Islanding40 is the electrical phenomenon that occurs in a section of a power network disconnected from the main

supply where the loads in are entirely powered by PV systems. Still a controversial subject in the international standardization of grid-connected PV systems, islanding is undesirable in terms of public safety and that of the electricity distributors staff, the


Experimental daily values for MPPT, obtained from inverter tests in the CIEMAT PV Laboratory, are typically in the range of 80%98%, as shown in Figure A. While there is not a great deal of difference between products from different manufacturers in the field of DCAC conversion efficiency, this is not the case for the MPP tracking efficiency. For most of the tested inverters, MPPT should be improved for inverter operation at low levels of irradiance (sunrise and sunset), when it is difficult for the inverters to find the optimal value for MPP voltage. This can be clarified by representing it in terms of operating and MPP voltages, as in Figure B. In some cases, this behaviour can be improved by limiting the wide tracking range of the MPP voltage to a narrower range close to the possible MPP voltage variation as a function of the configuration of the installed PV array. This can only be performed for inverters that allow the default internal operational parameters to be modified through the control and monitoring software supplied. Nevertheless, choosing an inverter for a defined installation needs to be done carefully. Some inverters available on the market demonstrate MPP tracking algorithms which should be considerably improved, being the cause of considerable energy generation losses. Figure C shows two examples of this. Inverter A presents a general tendency to operate close to the MPP, but shows unstable behaviour that can cause inverter stop start cycles.

300 250 DC voltage (V) 200 150 100 50 0 7:40:09 10:45:40 13:50:36 Local time VDC (inverter) VMPP (theoretical) 16:55:31 20:00:26

FIGURE B. MPP voltage variation along a day corresponding to Figure A. Ideal (MPP voltage of the PV array, VMPP[theoretical]) and operation (voltage at the inverter input, VDC[inverter]) values are presented

of the intrinsically dynamic character of the MPP tracking algorithms. Sampling frequency and the selected period of evaluation can seriously influence the results. Inverters with anomalous behaviour can reduce daily MPP tracking efficiency to 50% 60% (meaning 40% 50% energy losses), or even lower if the inverter stops. Daily MPP tracking efficiency depends on irradiance profiles as well; efficiency also decreases on windy or cloudy days, and is better on sunny days. Table A presents a summary of test results. TABLE A. Daily measured values of MPPT efficiency from tested inverters Type of day MPPT efficiency Maximum Minimum Sunny days 96% 86% Cloudy days 94% 42%

100 MPP tracking efficiency (%) 80 60 40 20 0 0

afternoon morning

400 500 1000 DC power (W) 1500 2000 DC voltage A (V) 350 300 250 200 150 100 50 0 Local time (arbitrary units)

90 85 DC voltage B (V) 80 75 70 65 60 55 50 VDC (operation) inverter A VDC (operation) inverter B VDC (operation) inverter A

FIGURE A. MPP tracking efficiency as a function of DC operating power for a string inverter

In this case, although there is no significant effect on energy generation ( MPPT = 91%), the continual stopping and starting cycles can leave the user with a bad impression of the technology. Inverter B also presents operation instability, and it is operating far from the optimal MPP voltage of the PV generator, MPPT= 86%. MPP tracking efficiency is often a difficult parameter to evaluate, 9, 42 even in laboratory conditions, by conventional monitoring systems based on data averages over time intervals of the order of minutes, because

VMPP (theoretical) VDC (operation) inverter B FIGURE C. Inverters with MPP tracking problems VMPP (theoretical)


Choosing the right inverter


quality of supply, and the possible damage to equipment in the event of automatic or manual re-closure of the distribution system to a power island. (A good recent study of the issues can be found in Progress in Photovoltaics: Research and Applications 2003.41) Islanding prevention is therefore also usually included in the inverter. Passive techniques (detecting voltage and frequency changes) are not sufficient to prevent islanding under perfectly balanced load conditions in both active and reactive power, and should be combined with active techniques (based for example on frequency shift, impedance monitoring by current injection, monitoring of phase jumps and harmonics, positive feedback methods, or unstable current and phase controllers). Many different prevention methods are documented and applied, and are being improved over the course of time, and at least 16 patents have been granted or are still pending worldwide.41 Some of these, for example grid monitoring by current pulse injection, have proved to be inconvenient, particularly when there are multiple inverters operating in parallel, degrading grid quality and having a negative influence on detection of islanding due to mutual interference. In other cases, the limits of voltage and frequency operation range are extended these parameters are usually software configurable by the installers, and even ENS (a sophisticated mains monitoring device which is mandatory in Germany) is disabled in order to operate on weak grids. Islanding laboratory tests4243 as required by the standards IEEE 929 (2000) and UL 1741,23 are based in resonant simulated load circuits,44 with a defined quality factor, the Qfactor. Nevertheless, these tests are difficult to perform, especially for high power level inverters which need large laboratory

infrastructures.Testing circuits and their parameters vary according to country, and test results largely depend on testers technical skill. Several studies have been performed to evaluate the probability of islanding and associated risk,41, 45 and these conclude that, for low density of PV generation, islanding is virtually impossible as load and generation never match. Nevertheless, for grid sections with a high density of PV generation, active islanding protection methods are needed in addition to voltage and frequency control, to keep the risk of PV introduction onto networks negligible (compared with the estimated annual risk by electric shock without PV). Most PV inverters incorporate both active and passive islanding protection, but there are not many instances in which the PV penetration in grid sections is high enough, although standard requirements should not be relaxed in relation to this.


The optimal ratio between the nominal power of the PV array and the inverter has been largely analysed in the literature.4647 The differences between nominal power and operation power of the PV array require that inverters should be protected from over-power operation for instance when the power generated by the array is higher than the maximum DC power input for the inverter. Power limitation losses can be minimized, if not considered in the PV system design and sizing, by inverters with internal algorithms necessary to maintain maximum DC power input by moving input power away from the MPP in those cases where the PV array MPP is higher that the inverters maximum input power.




Choosing the right inverter

Some other inverters on the market do not have these power limitation features, and in such circumstances simply stop operating, and at best try to restart after some time. Power limitation control can be performed by different procedures, which are in some ways inter-related, namely keeping the temperature in the inverter bridge, the current or the working power below maximum, predefined values. Figure 4 shows an example of this power limitation behaviour. First when DC power input reaches a defined value, the inverter limits the power to a constant value. After some time, the inverter temperature increases, and a second process is necessary to maintain the temperature at a constant, maximum permissible value.

contacts, or to make potential contacts safe. These include insulation of live parts, protection by means of enclosures or barriers, double or reinforced insulation (class II IEC 60417-1), and use of extra-low voltage (SELP or PELV). Other methods, meanwhile, are based on power shutdown by automatic protection devices. Generally speaking, however, systems must use a combination of both types of method.The effects of the current on people will depend mainly on its intensity, its frequency, their exposure time, their body resistance and the contact voltage (issues covered in IEC 60364 and IEC 60479-1).

In contrast to conventional electricity generation, PV generation is not centralized but distributed, and opening the DC electrical circuit for example, will not in itself prevent the presence of dangerous voltages. PV arrays are not readily turned off by opening positive and negative poles at the inverter input: as they are generally distributed across an area on an array frame, roof, or the exterior surface of a building, they are live while exposed to light.38 Safety measures for conventional AC electrical installations have been widely studied48 and are fully standard. Prevention of electric shock basically depends on the kind of earthing system used in the distribution network (such as that defined in IEC 60364). The most commonly used is referred to as TT (earthed neutral). Indirect contact protection is usually performed by RCDs, as is earthing for the frames of loads and electrical equipment. For some special applications where a high level of service continuity is required (for instance, in hospital operating theatres) the IT (insulated neutral) is used,and in this case, the first fault is secure and a permanent insulation monitoring device (or IMD) is used to signal the risk and protect against indirect contact. The standards have made it mandatory for electrical installations to protect against direct and indirect contacts. Some protection methods are designed to avoid

Protection of the DC side of an installation is a controversial issue in the PV community

The protection of the DC side of a PV installation is at present one of the most controversial issues amongst the PV community, in part due to the lack of explicit regulations, and also because it is not of immediate practical concern. Some standards are being developed that address this issue, under IEC 62109-1 and EL-042, DR 03389,4950 while system configurations for earthing and insulation have also been analysed.38,50 Different combinations of earthed and unearthed PV arrays and inverter DCAC insulation transformer are also possible. In each of these, reasonable safety levels can be achieved with regard to electric shock, fire hazard and equipment safety, with different associated advantages and disadvantages. In the US, the National Electrical Code, NEC,51 requires all PV installations with system voltages above 50 V DC to be earthed. Ground fault protection (GFP) devices are used to measure the earth leakage current, in order to disconnect from the ground (that is,unearth the installation),in the case of fault. Stray leakage currents may be an issue in the sensitivity of this protection. Floating PV arrays and inverters with insulation transformers are commonly used in Europe. PV installations using extra-low voltages are 400 power break point 2300 intrinsically safe from electric shock, though 380 this does limit the number of modules that can 2100 be connected in series, and would have 360 1900 noticeable economic impact (in terms of 340 1700 temp. break point cabling size) for relatively high power systems 320 1500 (i.e. 2.5 kWp). Furthermore, as it is easy to 300 obtain better inverter DCAC conversion 1300 280 efficiencies at 300500 V DC, building1100 260 integrated PV installations usually operate at 900 240 voltage levels in this range. Personnel safety 700 220 requirements are addressed by using a floating 200 500 PV array configuration combined with class II9:36:00 10:48:00 12:00:00 13:12:00 14:24:00 15:36:00 16:48:00 reinforced insulation for materials and Time installation and an IMD, usually with a built-in inverter.An external device of the same type as PDC (theoretical MPP) VDC the IMD used in the IT (impedance-earthed PDC VDC (theoretical MPP) neutral) arrangement for standard AC installations could also be used. Floating PV FIGURE 4. Power limitation is performed working away from the PV array MPP as a function array configuration is safe with respect to the of the input power or inverter temperature first earth fault, but requires immediate
DC voltage (V) DC power (W)


Choosing the right inverter


maintenance after that, as a potential second GPB fault cannot be made safe.At the same time, when an insulation fault is detected LV/MV (between either pole or between both of DC them and the earth) the IMD provides a AC visual and/or audible alarm, and no other (1) action is taken. In that way, the installers (2) IMD Uc RF pass on to the users themselves the responsibility for immediate detection and RG RN fixing of the fault, or asking the maintenance team (if there is one) to carry this out. During the time between a fault FIGURE 5. Illustration of an earth fault in a PV system with floating PV array and an inverter occurring, the operator being alerted, and with insulation transformer. Other system earthing and insulation configurations are the repair, the system does present a number possible,38 and different protection devices should be used in each one. (1) is the first of hazards. It is worth mentioning that, with insulation fault, (2) the second; MV/LV is the medium voltage/low voltage transformer, and GPB AC, conventional IT systems, the continuous is the general protection box presence of a skilled maintenance team with the necessary equipment is required for immediate action against the first fault. would not in itself be completely safe, in terms of protecting Despite the system earthing and insulation configuration, against indirect contact. Furthermore, putting the PV array in and because of the difficulty of turning off the PV array, the an open circuit does not eliminate but increase the voltage main questions that are raised are as follows: source if the array is still exposed to the sun. Therefore, additional measures should be investigated in order to increase what protection device or method should be used? the degree of safety in the case of the first insulation fault, as what shutdown methods should be used? this fault might be a short circuit to the ground of both of the where should these methods be applied? arrays poles at the inverter input. The influence on potential hot spot damage in the PV array should also be looked at. Hot In the event that there is no immediate maintenance spots can be produced when the PV array short circuits to the equipment available, the existence of an automatic device to ground, and are a risk for the PV modules.While the separation open the PV array (and stop the inverter) at the inverter input of the PV array into small, extra-low voltage zones which can




Choosing the right inverter

Grid-connected PV systems need an inverter to convert their DC output into the AC required by the grid ISOFOTON

frequent and can damage the inverter, while other domestic electrical loads are not affected. Further efforts should be made by inverter manufacturers to increase the MTFF. In some countries, varistors (an electronic component for protecting circuits against excessive voltage) additional to those included in the inverter are installed on the DC side. Inclusion in the AC side should also be investigated. Further important aspects of maximizing the energy yields (kWh/kWp) fed into the grid by a PV system regarding the inverter are grid fault immunity and automatic restarting, and a low level of self-consumption during no-load operation. Other aspects to consider include polarity inversion protection, and resistance to AC and DC cycling. The inverter should have a minimal influence on the systems number of peak sun hours in a given location, having both high efficiency and reliability.

be opened in case of fault would increase the level of safety incrementally, this would also considerably complicate the installation and increase the costs. Figure 5 illustrates the case of a system with a floating DC side, class II-reinforced insulation, and an inverter with a DCAC insulation transformer.The inverter feeds the energy to a TT electrical distribution network with the medium voltage/low voltage (MV/LV) transformers neutral point connected to the ground. An RCD should be installed in the general protection box (GPB), in order to protect the AC side against indirect contact. After the first insulation fault (1), the IMD provides a visual and/or audio alarm. If a second fault (2) happens due to indirect contact before the first is repaired, a defined contact voltage, Uc, can be higher than the conventional voltage limit (the maximum acceptable contact voltage).This limit is known as the safety voltage (IEC 60479), UL, and is a function of the number of PV modules between the two faults, creating an unsafe situation. In the case of the PV array short circuiting to the ground when the first fault is detected by the IMD, additional protection is given unless a cable in the DC circuit is broken and there is a risk due to PV module voltage.

The inverter is a key element in grid-connected PV systems. Its operational characteristics, as analysed in this article, can influence the overall performance of the system considerably, and two equivalent systems, with PV generators of the same nominal power installed in the same way in a given location, exposed to the same solar radiation, can still generate quite different energy values if different inverter models are used. Differences in DCAC conversion efficiency curves are not so relevant among inverter models, nor among manufacturers representative of the state of the art, and essentially these depend on the use or not of an insulation transformer and its type. Nevertheless the maximum power tracking efficiency can demonstrate behavioural differences, and this will cause considerable energy generation losses on a daily basis. Miguel Alonso Abella and F. Chenlo are respectively researcher and head of the PV laboratory, at CIEMAT, Madrid, Spain. e-mail:


Grid-connected inverters usually have software for setting parameters and monitoring which allow recording of system operation and remote on-line visualization, and this can include monitoring of such external signals as irradiance and temperature. Different manufacturers products have different capabilities in these fields. The degree of physical protection of electrical apparatus IP,as defined under IEC 60529 is also an important parameter. While inverters with IP65 protection can be used outdoors, it is recommended that these be located out of direct sunlight, while other types of inverter need to be installed within additional protection boxes or even indoors. There have been significant improvements in PV system reliability over the past 10 years.The mean time to first failure, MTFF, of an inverter should theoretically be about 50 years,52 provided it is not exposed to excessive temperature. However, values have been reported in the range of 510 years5254 a shorter lifespan than other major PV system components, which are designed to operate in excess of 25 years. Some inverter faults, as yet not documented, seem to arise on the AC side; on some weak grids, AC over-voltages and outages are
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