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Posted: June 01, 2011

Research rock star: Smart grid star

Robert Erickson, University of Colorado

Allen Best

Robert_Erickson.jpg

If you look at the houses in a typical neighborhood, few have roofs facing directly south. Even when they do, dormers in the house or nearby trees may block the sun, limiting where solar panels can be placed and reducing the effectiveness of those that are.

The architecture of the electrical circuitry also limits a panel's effectiveness. It's a bit like a string of Christmas lights, where one burnt-out or blinking bulb causes all other lights to go dark. Something similar happens in a PV cell. A patch of shade over a very small portion of the panel can cause all of the cells to perform less effectively. All of the cells must be lined up at attention or the whole unit gets sub-par performance.

Robert Erickson, a professor of electrical engineering at the University of Colorado-Boulder since 1982, believes he has answers to curb this slacking of solar panels. Backed by what he identifies only as a Fortune 50 company, Erickson has established a Lafayette-based company called Phobos. The name is an acronym for photovoltaic balance-of-system; the latter phrase strikes at the heart of his breakthrough work.

"We aren't necessarily going to point our panels north, but we can point them to the east or west, southeast or southwest, and they can still be effective,"
Erickson says.

Erickson's specialty, power electronics, is to build electronic circuits that control and change electrical power. Plugging an electrical device into a wall socket employs power electronics. So does an electric car, taking direct current out of the battery and converting it to alternating current to turn the wheels.

"For most of my career, you would do a fun project with solar panels at the school, but when it came time to make a living, you would do other things," Erickson said.

Erickson wants to produce building-integrated photovoltaic systems that will be low in cost, high in power production, and easy to install. If he can connect on all three counts, he and his backers believe it will make economic sense to use Phobos on every new roof.

That would be a huge transformation. Solar, despite its relative profusion, has made only small inroads in Colorado. But an efficient, cost-effective rooftop solar collector on every house - to go with a car in the garage and a chicken in the pot. Well, that's a micro-grid for the new American dream.
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