Called the Little Box Challenge, Google announced recently that it will be offering a $1 million prize for inventing much smaller solar power inverters. The challenge will be launched this summer, so currently few details have been released to the public.
Note that Google Ventures is an investor in Transphorm, a company that doesn’t make solar inverters but is trying to make gallium nitride more efficient to reduce energy loss in solar inverters, motor drives, power supplies and servers.
Interestingly, an article on Greentech Media appeared to take some issue with focusing on inverter size, “The big question, said Shiao, is whether it’s wise to concentrate on the size of the inverter, rather than on what it’s capable of doing. Inverter materials now make up less than 10 percent of overall solar system costs, meaning that any innovation in this area would likely have a negligible impact on overall cost. Adding smart features and functionality to inverters, on the other hand, could lower integration and installation costs, improve monitoring and maintenance, and lead to a slew of potential revenue-generating opportunities in grid balancing over time.”
Why a much smaller inverter? Would it be for mobile technology, like for a solar power electric car charging system? (This might be a silly speculation.) Another possibility is that much smaller solar power inverters might simply be easier to install. Increased ease could also result in more rapid deployment and the reduction of labor time and costs for solar installations, which is all a big part of installed solar power costs these days. Of course, there are always shipping costs to consider and lighter objects do cost less to transport.
Some of the earliest inverters were rotary converters and motor generators. Rotary converters were used in railway electrification and were rather large devices (pictured above). Later, vacuum tubes and gas-filled tubes were used. The thyatron is an example of such a gas-filled tube. Nothing like solar inverters of today.
While the progress in technological development may sometimes seem slow, if you compare today’s inverters with technology from previous decades, you can see a lot of progress, though inverters typically don’t get the press other inventions do, such as solar panels and wind turbines.
In fact, the Google Little Box Challenge is likely to be the largest prize ever offered for better solar power inverter design, and so will probably generate some much-needed press for the often less-noticed, but essential devices.