Smart, distributed Solar: an interview with Petra Solar CEO Shihab Kuran

Dr. Shihab Kuran
Dr. Shihab Kuran

Dr. Shihab Kuran is President and CEO of Petra Solar, a New Jersey-based clean energy technology company that provides solar and smart grid solutions. Petra Solar's core technology is the SunWave, an integrated utility-grade solar, smart grid, and power management solution primarily designed for deployment on utility distribution and streetlight poles.

In July 2009, Petra Solar signed a $200 million contract with New Jersey's largest utility company, PSE&G, to produce its SunWave systems for installation on 200,000 utility and street light poles throughout the state.

Earlier this year, Ernst & Young recognized Dr. Kuran as the NJ Green Tech Entrepreneur of the Year, and Fortnightly Magazine named him as a “top guru” in the solar industry. He recently delivered an impactful speech on shaping the future with solar energy at the World Energy Forum’s High-Level Conference on Energy at the United Nations.


Solar Server: First off, congratulations on the establishment of your new R&D center in Jordan. Solar Server covered your collaborations with AT&T and PSE&G, and we find your distributed generation PV/smart grid solution to be very interesting. Can you explain in layman's terms how the smart grid component of the system works with the PV generation, and what benefits the SunWave UP system offers?

Shihab Kuran: Sure. The SunWave system that we have is a complete system: it has a solar panel and it has what we call a smart energy module. And the smart energy module has sub-components in it. That is the unit that we attached to the back of the solar panel.

There is an inverter in the smart energy module that takes the DC into AC. We have a complete smart grid radio as well, and that is not any different than what you see from smart grid deployments, in terms of functionality, reliability, range and complexity. In addition we have an array of sensors in the smart energy module, which allows us to sense voltage, current, frequency, even temperature, transience, harmonics. And then we have the reactive power engine that can inject reactive power into the grid.

So our system consists of the solar module and the smart energy module. Then a group of these as they get installed, they communicate to each other through a Zigby network, and they connect to a SunWave communicator. And that has two radios.  One is a Zigby radio that talks through channels, and the other one is, in this case, a GSM radio that talks through the cellular network back to our data centers and the utility centers. This in addition to the all of the software applications, the network operating center, is what we offer to our utility customers and partners.

Petra Solar designs and manufactures the Utility Grade SunWave™ UP Series, the first smart grid interactive solar system specifically designed for installation on utility distribution poles. This innovative technology allows our Utility partners to simultaneously address Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) requirements and invest in a smart grid technology.

As we deploy the panels on the poles or other assets, you are automatically creating a smart grid communication infrastructure, because the hardware of the radios is built in, because of the software that we have developed, because of the network operating center that we have developed, and the portals. So the utilities will be deploying solar equipment, but in effect they are getting smart grid communications infrastructure as well.


Solar Server: Can you talk about how the distributed generation system works, the benefits of having generating distributed throughout a city, and how the reactive power sensors work?

Shihab Kuran: Sure. So, the distributed generation of renewable energy as compared to centralized, if we start at that level first, distributed generation delivers power by bypassing the complex, and typically associated with losses, system of transmission and distribution and substations. So when we deliver power close to where it is needed, we are saving on the average between 10-15% of the losses that are typically associated with a remote centralized generation plant.

In addition, our system, the way that it is deployed, by mounting on existing assets that have already been sited and permitted, and specked and wired, we avoid siting and permitting. You can imagine how difficult it is to find a large piece of land for utility-scale deployment, even if you found a piece of land that is not worth much for commercial, residential reasons that you want to use for solar, that is one thing.

Then, it is so hard, from what we see throughout the world, to extend a transmission line and a distribution line to that land, and find the capital for that, the construction, the time, the expertise, and on top of that, typically there is significant opposition by communities and societies to have transmission lines built in their neighborhoods, or their areas or villages or cities, to run an extension from a transmission line to a piece of land where there is solar.

So the avoidance of siting and permitting is key to what we offer our utility partners. So on the technical side, distributed generation makes it cheaper, and when you think about siting and permitting we save our customers significant time and money. The fact that we are deploying a 40MW project with PSE&G without a single dollar required for the upgrade of the transmission and distribution network is significant.

I am not aware of any other large 40MW or the like project anywhere in the world that you can put on the network that doesn't require a single dollar of upgrade for transmission, distribution, substations or transformers or any of the above.

Now when you deploy the system in this fashion, we talked earlier about the sensors, we talked about reactive power, so now we bring tremendous knowledge and insight of the network back to the utility who is in charge of the reliability of the grid. And we sense the voltage, we sense the current, we sense transience, we can sense harmonics, and not only can we sense them, now we can feed this communication or this data back to the utility and they can act upon it.

How can they act upon this? For example, if the utility is delivering too much voltage into a certain neighborhood, before they had no idea how much power they were losing. We can now sense the voltage that is being delivered to the customers and feed that back to the utilities. Now we close the loop through which the substation automation can be implemented. And it removes what is called losses and improves the reliability and performance of the delivery of the power.

We also sense other disturbing components of the grid like harmonics. Which is just kind of noise that can be injected. We can sense outages, let's say a certain neighborhood loses power because there is a cut to wire somewhere. Someone made a phone call. What the utility has to do nowadays is they go, they start from that home, and they try to find out where did that wire get cut off. And they drive around and they look up the poles, and so on.

With our systems, they do not have to wait for that phone call, they know exactly between which two sections of the grid that disconnect happened, and they save on the operation, maintenance and time. So in fact that we bring tremendous data back to our utility customers.


Solar Server: Is that advantage to the utilities accounted for in the sale cost to the system?

Shihab Kuran: Very good question. We engage outside consultants, third party consultants who are experts in the utility cost allocation, and there is a term, LCOE (levelized cost of energy).

We developed this sophisticated model that shows, well when you avoid siting and permitting, how much money is that? When you bring operational benefits, how much money is that? When the installation is so quick, it takes thirty minutes or less, what does that mean? When you avoid putting capital at risk for several years, whether you know your project is going to happen or not, what is the value of that?

So we developed these line items, and we developed a comprehensive LCOE model, and it shows that our solution is, on the average, between 17-25% lower cost to the utilities compared to any other form of even centralized utility solar plant, meaning the large plants, because of all these components when you put them together.


Solar Server: So it sounds as though these benefits more than make up for the cost of installation, the cost of having workers go around and install each of these panels at the utility poles, and that this still results in a lower cost system. Is that correct?

Shihab Kuran: That is absolutely true.

Solar Server: So to talk more about Smart Grid technologies, can you talk generally about what you see as the importance of smart grid technologies for PV generation, and where you see smart grid technologies heading?

Shihab Kuran: Sure. There was a workshop that happened, I believe two to three years ago, and it was hosted by Navigant Consulting. They issued a report based on that workshop, and it is a public report, that asks utilities, solar companies, inverter companies, regulators, other stakeholders about the coupling of smart grid and PV: does that make sense, does it make commercial sense, does it make technical sense for the utilities?

And the answer was overwhelmingly yes. They answer came back from the experts that if you combine solar and smart grid, you would enhance the reliability of the grid, compared to solar without any smart grid features. And let me explain what that means. Solar today as an unmanaged, intermittent source can really be a liability to the grid, you don't know when the energy is going to come in, when it is going to go out.

Typically when the inverters are connected to solar systems, they maximize energy generation and inject that to the grid to provide revenue for the solar owner regardless of whether the grid can take that energy or not, or whether you can blow up a substation or cause a reverse flow of power. When you combine smart grid intelligence and communications and you put the array under the control of the utility now you bring significant reliability, and you can turn the system from being a liability into a reliability asset, just like what we have done with the SunWave system.

And the group that got together at Navigant Consulting said that you can add 70% more PV to the grid if you implement smart grid and PV together. That is what we have done at Petra Solar.

In addition, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has selected Petra Solar three times to a very highly competitive process, through a program called SEGIS, which is called solar electric grid integration systems, they have selected us through a competitive process for defining the future of solar, with enabling reliability and enabling a high level of penetration. Implementing smart grid  with reactive power and the right algorithms it makes the grid more reliable, and it allows you to put more PV on quicker.


Solar Server: Do you see Petra Solar's model of distributed generation and smart grid as a disruptive technology that will replace the market share of centrally located PV power plants?

Shihab Kuran: It is definitely a disruptive model. Our take on this is that the world needs so much solar in all forms and shapes of solar, centralized and distributed, that we have created a significant market segment, pole-mounted and the like, but we see ourselves as the first viable option for anyone who wants to deploy large-scale solar, because of all the benefits we mentioned. So in the short term, yes. We can be displacing a decision of whether to build a large, centralized solar plant or not. 

In the mid term, we need really all the available sources of solar to make a significant impact on the grid – as you know, solar makes up less than 1% of electricity generation today throughout the world. So we have a long way to go. We can be a very meaningful answer in the renewable portfolio standard. But at the same time we support and advocate frankly the deployment of solar in other shapes.

However, when you compare our solution with others, it is lower cost, it is more immediate, it brings all these other benefits, because it is a no-brainer to be the first choice, but we never say it should be the only choice.


Solar Server: To go back to your research and development center in Jordan, there is not much news about the solar industry in Jordan, and installed capacities aren't very high anywhere in the Middle East. Can you talk about where you see Jordan and the region being at right now in terms of development, and also the future potential of Jordan and the region?

Shihab Kuran: That's a good question. I see the region and the Middle East split into two camps. One camp, which includes Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Kuwait, who have abundant sources of fossil fuels, basically oil and gas, and the others are like Jordan, possibly Lebanon, Turkey, some others who don't have as much in terms of oil and gas.

What we have found are two fundamental data points. One, obviously the region is known for its high solar insolation, so they have a lot of solar energy coming naturally. But the second point is, we found that both can benefit equally from the development of solar projects.

So a country like Jordan, who from my understanding, about 40% of Jordan's imports are for energy, we import about USD$5 billion a year. Close to USD$2 billion of the USD$5 billion is for energy. That is a huge pressure on the national economy. So if they can replace that and start generating their own power, it is huge job creation for them, it is a huge saving for the economy.

But let's move over to a country, say Saudi Arabia or Kuwait or the UAE, well they have a source of energy, so why would they be interested in solar? For the very simple fact that if they don't burn a barrel of oil to generate electricity and sell it at a discounted price to their citizens, they can take that barrel of oil and sell it at market price. So there is that avoided cost, they can save, it is environmentally friendly, but at the same time, they can command an international market price for that energy that otherwise they were heavily subsidizing.

So we found both oil producing and non-oil producing countries to be very interested in solar. However, we found at the same time that the grid structure is actually different and unique. We found that they have their own design, their own natural effects, they have dust issues, they have their own communications setup, they have the aging of the infrastructure.

And so far, we are arranged with multiple countries, Bahrain, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and a few others, and they have welcomed our local presence, where we are helping them innovate locally and we come up with solutions to their problems and hopefully manufacture locally as well.


Solar Server: Is there anything that we haven't covered that you would like to talk about, regarding your company, smart grids, and distributed generation, or other topics?

Shihab Kuran: There is a subtle point, but we found it to be critical and we learned this through interaction in the market. If you look at our strategy, it is focused on utility-owned solar, smart grid, it is engaging the utilities. We are not necessarily saying, let's go and engage the consumers without the presence and the support of the utilities.

There are actually multiple reasons for that. And I should note that the DOE talks about that through SEGIS. Let's talk about the inverters which interface between the utilities and the grid. Just like the utilities own the meter at your house today, because it touches the grid, because it impacts reliability because it must be a certain utility grade, well inspected.

When you think about any electronics which inject powers through the grid. We believe that the utilities should be the controllers of that. Why, because let's give a simple scenario. Take a given city, anywhere in the world, where homeowners deploy solar equipment. And let's fast forward, say, ten years, when some of the electronics start to go out of warranty, and some of them start to malfunction.

Now you've got hundreds, maybe thousands, of rooftops that inject DC power into the grid. Which is a problem, it can blow up transformers, or can wreak havoc, or inject noise in the grid. In this case the utility who is responsible for the reliability of the system, they have no clue where the power is coming from, and even if they found it is one of those three homes, well good luck convincing the homeowner to go and spend $2,000 to do a test on the system, and what if they don't have the financial means?

So from a technical reliability perspective, we strongly believe in the utilities owning and at least controlling whatever interfaces to the grid, so that we all benefit from the reliability.

What does that mean? The utilities mostly are regulated, meaning that they collect money from the ratepayers, typically there is a regulatory body to cover their investments, to make sure it is prudent. So when there are problems introduced 5-10 years from now, it is us, the consumers, who are going to foot the bill for the utility to go and fix it.

So we might as well do it right from the get-go. And these kinds of utilities have been around for 100 years, delivering power to us, we expect them to be around at least for the next 100 years. So we believe in positively engaging the utilities in the deployment of solar and smart grid.


Interview by Solar Server International Correspondent Christian Roselund conducted January 23rd , 2010