MOSCOW, Idaho — Pocatello, Idaho-based Inergy Solar is setting out to make a compact, portable solar energy system that can power an entire home, and University of Idaho researchers are providing their technological expertise to help make the product a reality.
With a one-year, $178,000 grant from the Idaho Higher Education Research Council’s Idaho Global Entrepreneurial Mission (IGEM) program, Inergy Solar is collaborating with researchers in the UI College of Engineering to design a 5-kilowatt generator that weighs less than 100 pounds and can power everything in a typical home, from the lights to the refrigerator to the clothes dryer.
Inergy Solar currently sells portable solar generators designed for camping or off-the-grid use, or as backup power in emergencies or disasters. Its 1-kilowatt Kodiak system is notable for its industry-leading small size. CEO Sean Luangrath said customers have requested a whole-home system that maintains the Kodiak’s size and portability.
The challenge lies in the power inverter: the part of the system that turns DC power from the sun into the AC power most home appliances require. Conventional inverters make up a large portion of the weight in existing solar power systems.
At a 2015 IGEM-sponsored workshop that introduced Idaho energy entrepreneurs with faculty studying related topics, Luangrath met Herbert Hess, a UI professor of electrical engineering. In 2015, Hess became a partner on a $1.6 million grant from the Office of Naval Research to develop a 250-kilowatt inverter, which is enough to power a small town, incorporating advanced materials. These same materials can be applied to Inergy Solar’s technology to dramatically reduce the weight of the inverter.
“I actually took a flight the following week out to Moscow to go visit them because I was so excited. Professor Hess’ program is the exact expertise and resources we’d been looking for,” Luangrath said.
Hess will lead the IGEM grant, along with Brian K. Johnson, a professor of electrical engineering and the Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories Endowed Chair in Power Engineering.
“This university was founded on the basis of putting advanced technology into the hands of Idaho citizens and business owners,” Hess said. “This project takes the advanced technology we develop on a routine basis for the military, and now we’re able to put it into an Idaho company to supply homeowners, campers and businesses worldwide.”
The IGEM grant also includes a cybersecurity component. As home solar systems increase in popularity, they need to be able to feed electricity back into the central grid or share it with other systems and homes. But this connection introduces the risk that hackers could disrupt or damage the system.
Gregory Donohoe, a professor of computer engineering, will connect Inergy Solar with the cybersecurity expertise of UI’s Center for Secure and Dependable Systems. Donohoe will oversee the design of a system to allow Inergy Solar’s generators to connect to the existing power grid — or to other neighboring systems, creating a local “nanogrid” — with minimal risk. This system will incorporate software developed by the Idaho National Laboratory.
Donohoe said he’s excited to work on a project that advances an alternative energy system and allows people to generate and share electricity where they live.
“The future of alternative energy has to include the distributed generation of energy,” he said. “The old model of central power transmission and distribution just doesn’t scale very well to solar. The more efficient way to use that is to just use it locally.”
The University of Idaho, home of the Vandals, is one of only 72 land-grant research universities in the United States. From its residential campus in Moscow, UI serves the state of Idaho through educational centers in Coeur d’Alene, Boise, Idaho Falls and Twin Falls, and extension offices in 42 counties. Home to more than 11,000 students statewide, UI is a leader in student-centered learning and excels at interdisciplinary research, service to businesses and communities, and in advancing diversity, citizenship and global outreach. UI competes in the Big Sky Conference and Sun Belt Conference. Learn more at http://www.uidaho.edu.