One size doesn’t fit all: why clean energy technologies need bespoke power electronics
By Richard Harwood
The energy transition is transforming grids into dynamic, distributed networks with diverse power sources and sinks. Innovation in power electronics – traditionally an afterthought in cleantech – could unlock greater system performance and flexibility. Here’s how.
The energy transition calls for the rollout of a huge range of technologies: solar PV, wind turbines, electrolysers, grid-scale batteries, and more. All of these depend on power electronics – the tendons and ligaments of complex electrical systems.
But we have moved away from simple, static systems in which a small number of fossil fuel-fired power stations put power into a grid and end users take it out. Our electrical systems are incorporating more varied generation and storage technologies, but also active management of supply and demand and sometimes are not even connected to a traditional grid. This move to smarter power networks calls for smarter power electronic solutions which play a more sophisticated role in power conversion and control than ever before.
In this context, power electronics cannot remain at the bottom of priority lists for cleantech companies. I believe they must be considered at an earlier stage in their business plans to ensure they meet all the needs, and exploit all the opportunities of the new technology.
Always the afterthought
The excitement of solving novel physical and chemical challenges – breaking new scientific ground and saving the planet in a tangible, media and investor-friendly way has meant the lower-profile engineering that holds power systems together has been neglected comparatively. Core IP in the cleantech sector is rarely in the power electronics domain, and many companies in the sector do not have specialist staff engineers working on power control and conversion.
Instead, these companies tend to rely on off-the-shelf power electronics solutions provided by a handful of engineering giants.
These have always been considered ‘good enough’, and, so far, they have been. However, we are now at a critical phase in the fight against climate change in which renewables and other clean energy technologies must be rolled out on a massive scale and at speed. One of the biggest challenges for the sector today is demonstrating that these technologies can compete with oil and gas. This means optimising every aspect of design.
Off-the-shelf power electronic solutions are not optimised for the variety of systems in which they are incorporated. This can compromise cost, scalability, lifetime, and efficiency, all at the expense of competitiveness – but I think they are also a missed opportunity to innovate.
Why go bespoke?
Bespoke power electronics are optimised for the technical and business needs of a particular system. This has obvious benefits, ranging from extended system lifetimes to reduced operating costs. Taking the time to consider what you want – not just what you need – from your power electronics opens up opportunities beyond pure power conversion.
As power systems are transformed by the energy transition, no two systems will look quite the same. For instance, an offshore electrolyser presents distinct challenges and opportunities to an onshore electrolyser. Its harsh saltwater environment must be considered, but such a system also negates the need to convert to standard grid frequency. A bespoke power electronics solution could connect a turbine to the electrolyser with no unused capacity, all within a single box – the alternative could mean linking together a series of existing devices to achieve a lesser result. Meanwhile, as costs continue to fall, larger and larger renewables installations will need connecting to grids, with increasingly demanding specifications for their power control and conversion systems.
The energy transition will bring into being many more systems like these with complex power electronics needs – year by year, off-the-shelf products will become less fit to fully meet them.
Investing in custom power electronics also permits much more configurability, such as with modular devices. The market for module-level solar power electronics is on the rise, growing 33 percent from 2019 to 2021, according to S&P Global. Rather than purchasing a single device for an entire solar farm, the hundreds of panels are often equipped with their own miniaturised power electronics devices. This eliminates the safety concern associated with high DC voltages and reduces the disruption of maintenance work, while generating granular data for health monitoring. I’m hopeful that miniaturised-modular designs applied to other technologies, such as electrolysers, will help bring about similar benefits and render them more competitive.
Finally, when a company commissions a bespoke power electronic solution, it owns the IP and gains all the independence associated with that ownership. Relying on off-the-shelf devices can mean adjusting business plans around lengthy lead times and discontinuation of products. A company with its own power electronics IP, however, is free to source components from a range of suppliers. Given ongoing disruption to supply chains for critical components like semiconductors, this is more important now than ever.
Where TTP fits in
TTP is a hub of multi-disciplinary engineering expertise ready to be placed at your service. Our engineers are already working with clients across the clean energy sector to help take their products from concept to market.
We begin by considering our client’s requirements – in this case, what they need to connect, where, when, and for what purpose. We go back to first principles when looking at how best to meet those requirements – we consider it vital to get the basics right at an early stage to avoid problems emerging years down the line once the product has been launched and adopted. After a process of concept generation and modelling, we can build a full-scale demonstrator which can be used to show investors, generate real-world data, and identify potential technical challenges.
In addition to providing engineering expertise, we provide business expertise. We examine our client’s business plan and ensure our solution fits within it, considering factors such as lead time and operating costs. We believe power electronics are worth taking seriously – we help clients integrate them into their roadmap, such that they can reap the greatest benefit from their investment.
Renewables, electrolysers, batteries, and other technologies are transforming power grids into ever more sophisticated networks. You don’t have to compromise your smart new technology or power system with off-the-shelf power electronics that are merely ‘good enough’ – a bespoke solution could cut costs, improve performance, and put you in control.
Get in touch to find out more.