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Solar firm SunPower goes micro

High-efficiency solar-cell manufacturer launches a new line of silicon panels so that the electricity generated from solar can be converted from DC to AC at the source.

SolarBridge Pantheon microinverters are attached directly to the underside of a solar panel, so that the electricity generated from solar can be converted from DC to AC at the source, instead of needing to be routed to a conversion box.

A leading solar manufacturer has decided to offer panels with microinverters for automatically converting electricity from direct current to alternating current.

SunPower, which is partly owned by gas and oil giant Total, announced this week it's adding the E18 and E19 AC Solar Panel series to its line of solar panels. The new solar-panel models will come integrated with SolarBridge Pantheon AC microinverters made by SolarBridge Technologies.

Normally, a solar panel generates electricity in DC (direct current), and needs to be routed to an inverter that converts it to AC (alternating current), the standard used in homes, before it can be used. The conversion box is typically located in the home's basement or on the side of the house and then integrated in the home's electrical grid.

A microinverter embedded in a solar panel does the conversion from DC to AC at the panel immediately, eliminating the need for that extra step of routing all the electricity generated by a rooftop solar system to a conversion box before the home can draw on the solar-generated electricity.

Solar panels with microinverters make installation and wiring a much simpler process, and in many cases enable small installations to become more of a do-it-yourself project for homeowners. The drawback has been developing solar panels with microinverters that offer good efficiency. According to SunPower's own statistics, it seems the company has been able to overcome that hurdle.

The E18 will be a 225-watt AC solar panel while the E19 will be a 240-watt AC solar panel. Both types of solar panels will have an efficiency of 22.4 percent, a very good efficiency for a silicon solar panel. They'll be available in the U.S. starting in early 2012, according to SunPower.

Several companies have been trying to perfect microinverter efficiency.

Most notable is that microinverter manufacturer Enphase Energy raised $15 million in 2008 to further develop its technology, and then raised another $63 million in 2010 to ramp up production. Solar manufacturer GreenRay Solar has also raised $2 million in funds to develop its microinverter technology.