New device could put sleeping solar farms to work

Some 1.3 million panels at the Enbridge Sarnia Solar Farm sit idle at night, but during the day produce enough energy to power 12,000 homes, or about half the homes in Sarnia. Glen Ogilvie file photo

Troy Shantz

New technology developed by a Western University professor in collaboration with Bluewater Power could soon put solar farms to work at night by stabilizing Ontario’s electricity grid and increasing its efficiency.

After seven years of development, Western Engineering professor Rajiv Varma unveiled a device last week called the PV Statcom.

“Solar farms are dead in the night but we make them come to life,” Varma said during a demonstration at Bluewater Power’s 12Mw solar farm on Confederation St, where it is currently installed.

“Essentially, with this technology, solar farms can accomplish functions which they were never known to do before.”

Varma said when installed on the inverter at a solar farm the PV Statcom transforms the entire setup into a something able to increase stability of the power grid.

“Just by putting a $100,000 worth of incremental (controls) on an existing solar farm, it transforms a solar farm into a $50-million device” he said.

Stability of the power grid is essential because it prevents blackouts and allows fluctuating power generators (like wind farms) to feed power into the grid even when there is no demand.

Varma said his device uses the existing infrastructure and technology of a solar farm and turns it into a voltage stabilizer, a device that can cost in excess of $1 million.

“It opens up an entirely new revenue stream for the solar farms. Solar farms can now make money in far more diverse ways than just sending real power during the daytime. That is what the real benefit is,” he said.

Bluewater Power’s willingness to participate was integral to the project’s success, Varma added.

“They have supported our students, they have supported our technology. They are probably one of the only utility (companies) in North America who work with university professors and allow them to bring their technologies to their grid.”

Janice McMichael-Dennis, president and CEO of Bluewater Power, said supporting post-secondary institution research is one way to be a good community partner.

“The end result is that it has potential to change the game,” she said.

Bluewater power currently hosts three solar farms, including the Enbridge Sarnia Solar Farm and its 1.3 million collector panels.