PV Powered In the News


PV Powered Rising as Central Oregon Powerhouse
BY SETH ZUCKERMAN
Sustainable Industries Journal Northwest - July 2004 Issue

A home-grown firm headquartered in Bend, Ore., is challenging the dominance of German and Canadian companies in the market for a crucial ingredient of solar photovoltaic installations.

PV Powered is one of several Oregon companies taking advantage of opportunities created by the blossoming solar electric power industry. Boosted by tax credits, utility price supports, and a growing interest in renewable energy, the amount of solar-generated power flowing to Oregon's utility grid roughly tripled in the last year.

The firm designs and manufactures inverters, devices which convert the direct current produced by solar panels into the alternating current supplied by electric utilities. Six months after releasing its first model, PV Powered has a line of three inverters sized for residential and commercial installations. The company ships 200 to 300 of the devices per month according to company spokeswoman Kathie Kapple, and it hopes to soon be shipping 1,000 per month. The company employs a staff of two dozen, most of whom are in Bend.

'Magic inverter'

Bill Taylor sowed the seeds for the company four years ago, when he reunited with three former colleagues to design a new series of inverters. "We made huge leaps in the early stages," Taylor said.

It wasn't the team's first foray into the renewable energy field. In the 1980s Taylor and his teammates worked for a leading California inverter firm, which merged with Washington-based Trace, and which in turn was swallowed up in 2000 by British Columbia's Xantrex Technology Corp. Ironically, Taylor's company is about to go head-to-head with Xantrex this year, when it releases a series of inverters for the commercial three-phase industrial market, the sector in which Xantrex competes most vigorously.

Installers and distributors lavish praise on PV Powered's products, which range in price from $1,500 to $2,900, according to one reseller. "They're more reliable and more efficient," said Bob Maynard of Grants Pass, Ore.,-based distributor Energy Outfitters.

"We refer to it as the magic inverter," added Gbryal Wisehart, president of New Path Renewables, a Bend-based solar contractor. "Every time we've installed it, it has performed at or beyond specifications."

Although inverters garner less attention than the photovoltaic panels which capture the sun's rays and produce electricity, inverters represent 10 to 15 percent of the cost of most solar electric installations. Inefficient inverters can sap the output of a solar array, and safety considerations are also critical. If utility power fails, the inverter must disconnect the system from the grid in a fraction of a second to avoid sending potentially lethal jolts of electricity upstream to utility workers.

"PV Powered has done some unique things," Maynard said. "For instance, it has 400 fewer components than its nearest competitor."

PV Powered achieved its innovations with a design team that was linked only in virtual space. Taylor recounts how his three colleagues were dotted across the country - in Virginia, New York, and California - but they were able to collaborate readily thanks to Bend's broadband Internet connections.

"I have better bandwidth here than I had in Silicon Valley, especially once the software engineers started showing up to work," Taylor said. "Sending files over the Internet can be faster than walking to the next cube."

Around the Bend

Now that the firm is assembling and selling its product, Taylor said, other advantages come into play. "They call Bend 'minimum wage with a view,'" he said. "You can get a lot of work for a little money."

And for employees the company recruits from farther away, the quality of life in the central Oregon town is a major draw. "People jump at the opportunity to come work here," he said. "Bend has skiing, kayaking, paragliding, mountain biking - any activity that active people do. It's a perfect place for people who work hard and play hard."

PV Powered's location is a selling point for some of its customers as well. It isn't the freight costs that matter so much, at least for a 75-pound device with price tag of nearly $3,000. Instead it's the less tangible benefits.

"I love that the PV Powered folks are local," said Paul Israel of Sunlight Solar in Bend, who relishes the convenience of picking up the equipment he needs from the PV Powered loading dock when he needs it. Because of PV Powered's proximity, the bill for the inverters would come due later than if the equipment were shipped from several states away.

By setting up shop in Bend, PV Powered has placed itself in the epicenter of Oregon's boomlet in solar electric systems. Central Oregon leads the rest of the state in solar installations, according to Kacia Brockman of Energy Trust. There's a simple climatic reason for that. Of the three solar zones defined by the state, the one in which Bend is located is most productive. That is, if it's installed in the best possible orientation, a solar panel will yield more energy in an average year in this part of the state than anywhere else.

Penciling out incentives

Surprisingly, though, an analysis of the incentives driving the market for solar photovoltaic systems shows that in much of Oregon, the cash value of the energy produced is probably not the most important factor.

Consider a 3-kilowatt system that costs about $20,000, including installation. In the territory served by Pacific Power, the Energy Trust of Oregon administers a $3 per watt incentive underwritten by a portion of the 3 percent surcharge on utility bills which funds a variety of "public-purpose programs" (in Portland General Electric's area, a similar incentive is offered at $3.25 per watt).

The incentives cover $9,000 of the cost, which is paid directly to the contractor after the system passes final inspection. In addition, the state offers an income tax credit of $3 per watt for the first 500 watts, for a total of $1,500. That leaves the homeowners' net cost at about $9,500.

Such a system would be expected to produce about 4,200 kilowatt-hours of electricity each year in Bend. When homeowners produce more than they're consuming, the excess is fed into the grid; when they consume more than they produce, the utility makes up the deficit.

At the end of the month, the homeowner pays only for the difference, thus saving the full retail price of electricity their system generated (If they generate more than they consume, the utility actually sends them a check, albeit at a lower rate per kilowatt-hour than the retail cost).

In Pacific Power's service territory, those savings would amount to 7 cents per kilowatt-hour, for an annual total of about $300. At that rate, it would take more than three decades to pay back the capital investment.

Given the rapid rate at which customers have taken advantage of Energy Trust's incentives, however, it's evident that other factors are at work. "Partly, it's an investment in something they believe in," said Brockman. "In part, they see it as a home improvement, similar to a granite countertop, which has no payback except in the equity it adds to the house. And the third way to look at it is that they value the electricity at higher than retail rates, in the same way that some people are willing to pay more money for green power."

Since the program's inception in 2003, more than 100 systems - all but a handful of them on homes - have benefited from incentives totaling more than $1 million. The program has been so popular that its 2004 budget was exhausted in March, until its allocation was expanded by special dispensation.

Washington State has no comparable program for solar electricity. Next to Bend, the other leading area for solar homes in the Northwest is the Rogue Valley in southwestern Oregon, according to Brockman. But both of those areas pale next to California, where a combination of utility incentives, sunny climate and high retail electricity rates have driven the market to dizzying heights. Roughly 80 percent of the new grid-connected photovoltaic systems in the United States last year were installed in California. "California drives the market," said PV Powered's founder Bill Taylor.

Ultimately, it will be the demand in areas that lead in photovoltaic installation - California, Japan, and Germany - that will shape PV Powered's prospects of attaining its sales goal of 1,000 inverters per month.

Where to go for more info:

A listing of incentives for renewable energy at the federal, state, and local level is available at
www.dsireusa.org

About PV Powered

Founded in 2003 and based in Bend, Oregon, the privately funded company designs, manufactures and markets the solar industry's most efficient photovoltaic solar inverter solutions. With thousands of its products in use nationwide, PV Powered brings together one of the most experienced design teams in solar power electronics.

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MKTX, Inc.
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