Executive Director, Renewable Energy Division, Massachusetts Clean Energy Center
Down at the Drydock, in Boston’s booming Innovation District, there’s more than just hip night spots – there are a lot of cutting-edge clean tech businesses moving in. One of the coolest is Satcon, a group of really smart people who have been leading the world in developing intelligent devices that are used to connect solar power plants to the grid.
When you put in solar panels, whether it’s on the roof of your house or a utility-sized multi-acre power plant, it’s not enough to put your panels up and start yanking electrons out of the sunshine – you also have to make sure you’re delivering that power to the grid in a way that cleans it up, optimizes how much you are producing, and while you’re at it doesn’t blow any fuse boxes in the neighborhood. All of this happens in the ‘inverter’ – a piece of equipment that’s between the solar panels and the rest of the electrical distribution system, and converts the electricity into a usable form.
For people who have solar systems at home, the inverter is a small box that usually lives in your basement next to your circuit breakers, and has a little readout on it that tells you how much power you’re making. For larger installations that involve hundreds or thousands of panels, they’re a little more complicated. Ok, a LOT more complicated. And they’re smart. Older inverter technology optimized power production to the lowest-performing part of the system. The inverters made at Satcon can actually detect a fault in a single panel out of thousands, isolate it so it doesn’t affect the performance of the other panels, and let someone know exactly where it is so it can be fixed. Their newest model, “Prism,” is even going to be able to “talk” to the people who run the grid.
Usually, in this blog, we’ve highlighted renewable energy installations in the Commonwealth. This is a different animal – Massachusetts as a producer, exporting renewable energy technology to the rest of the world. Satcon represents the wave of high-value, high-tech manufacturing that is thriving in the Massachusetts, and is part of a sprawling global supply chain for large-scale solar power. You’ll find their equipment used on the roof of the Alpha Grainger Manufacturing plant in Franklin, Massachusetts and at the edge of a utility-scale solar power plant at Intel in Folsom, California. “We want to be working with the customers that are looking to leverage innovation and increase performance,” says Michael Levi, Senior Director of Worldwide Marketing at Satcon. “The market is growing fast and we’re growing with it.” Satcon has grown by over 300 percent globally in the past year and has added 40 jobs in Massachusetts to bring its state total to more than 130 people. And they develop and launch all of their new products right here in Boston.
Pictured are the 425 kw solar array designed and installed by Boston-based Broadway Electrical using Satcon’s advanced “Solstice” technology at Alpha Grainger Manufacturing in Franklin, MA (which also used a Panel Claw mounting system – another Massachusetts company!) and a 1,000 kw plant at Intel in Folsom, CA.