Friday, June 30, 2023

It *is* possible to have an RF-quiet home PV (solar) electric system!

Figure 1:  Half of the array on my garage - the other half is
on the west-facing aspect.
There's a bit of shade in the morning around the end of June,
but it detracts little during the peak solar production
of the day - the hours on either side of "local" noon.
Click on the image for a larger version
For the past several years an incremental nemesis of amateur radio operation on the HF bands is solar power and the cover article of the April 2016 issue of QST magazine, "Can Home Solar Power and Ham Radio Coexist?" (available online HERE) brings this point home.

Personally, I thought that the article was a bit narrow in its scope, with an unsatisfying conclusion (e.g. "The QRM is still there after a lot of effort and expense, but I guess that it's OK") - but this impression is understandable owing to the constraints of the medium (magazine article) and the specific situation faced by the author.

Solar power need not cause QRM:

I can't help but wonder if others that read the article presumed that amateur radio and home solar were incompatible - but I know from personal experience that this is NOT necessarily the case:  There are configurations that will not produce detectable QRM on amateur bands from 160 meters and higher.

Before I continue, let me state a few things important to the context of this article:

Expertise in HF radio interference and home solar installations seems to mutually exclusive - which is to say that you will be hard-pressed to find anyone who is familiar with aspects of both.  This means that in the solar industry itself, you will not likely find anyone who can offer useful advice in putting together a system that will not contribute to the crescendo of electrical noise.
I have heard that many installers (at least in my area) will strongly pressure their potential customers to use microinverter-based systems - and this my experience as well:  From the very start of the process, I was adamant that the design of my system would be series string using SunnyBoy inverters which were known to me to be RF-quiet.  If your installer will not work with you toward your goals, consider a different company.
Designing an "RF-quiet" system as described here may incur a trade-off in available solar production as the use of microinverters can eke out additional efficiencies when faced with issues such as shading and complicated roofs that present a large number of aspects with respect to insolation (e.g. amount of light energy that can be converted to electricity).  Only in the analysis of proposed systems appropriate for your case can you reasonably predict the magnitude of this and whether or not you find it to be acceptable.
What is presented here is my own experience and that of other amateur radio operators with similar PV (PhotoVoltaic) system.  The scope of this experience is necessarily limited owing to the fact that when spending tens of thousands of dollars, one will understandably "play it safe" and pick a known-good configuration.
I will be the first to admit that there are likely other "safe" (low RF noise) combinations of PV equipment that can be demonstrated to be "clean" in terms of radio frequency interference.  I have anecdotally heard of other configurations and systems, but since I have not looked at them first-hand, I am not willing to make any recommendations that could result in the outlay of a large amount of money.  For this reason, please don't ask me a question like "What about inverter model 'X' - does it cause RFI?" as I simply cannot answer from direct experience.

An example system:

The system at my house consists of two series-string Sunny Boy grid-tie inverters:  I can unequivocally state that this system, which has both a SB 5000TL-US-22 (5 kW) and an SB3.8-1SP-US-40 (3.8kW) does not cause any detectable RF interference on any HF frequency or 160 meters - and I have yet to detect any interference on 6 meters, 2 meters or 70cm.  Near the LF and lower MF band (2200 and 630 meters, respectively) some emissions from these inverters can be detected - but none of the switching harmonics (about 16 kHz) land within either of these bands.  

Figure 2: 
One of two inverters in the garage. 
The Ethernet switch (upper right) produces
more RF noise than the inverter!
Click on the image for a larger version
This PV system is very simple:  I have a detached garage with a north-south ridge line meaning that the roof faces east and west.  While this orientation may seem to be less than ideal compared to a south-facing roof, it actually produces equal or greater power during the summer than a south-facing roof - and there are two usable surfaces onto which one can place panels (east and west) whereas one would typically not place any panels on a north-facing roof.  This means that one may be able to put twice as many panels on a symmetrical east-west facing roof than a south-facing roof.

Simple roof configuration can equal low noise:

The "simple" roof also has another advantage:  All panels on the faces are oriented the same and a larger number of panels may simply be wired in series.

This simple fact means that known-quiet series-string inverters may be used and known noise-generating components may be omitted from the system - namely, many models of "microinverters" and optimizers.  Both of these devices - despite being very different in their operation - are installed on a "per panel" basis and able to adjust the overall contribution of each panel to maximize the energy input of the entire solar power system.

Having each panel individually optimized for output power sounds like a good idea - and in most cases it is - but this nicety should be taken in context with the goals in mind - but considering that the panels themselves represent a rather small portion of the overall system cost, efficiency losses from not having optimizers can often be offset with the addition of more panels.  To be fair, it is not always possible to simply "add more panels" to make up for loss of production - but this must be carefully weighed against a major goal, which is to produce a "noise free" PV system.

The options have changed:

Since the 2016 article was written, the number of options for series-string inverters has significantly increased and the prices have gone down, allowing options to be considered now that may have been dismissed at that time.  Take the article as an example.

From the photographs accompanying the article, there appear to be two different aspects of panels:  A large array consisting of 30 panels, all seeming to face the same direction;  a smaller array of 8(?) panels:  There appears to be an array of 4 panels, but let us presume that this is an independent energy system.

Assuming that each panel is rated for 300 watts (likely higher than a circa-2016 panel) and that one would wish to limit the maximum open-circuit potential to about 450 volts, this implies the use of at least four MPPT circuits:  The 8 panel array and three arrays consisting of 10 series panels, each.  The maximum output of this system would theoretically be about 11.4 kW - but since one can optimistically expect to attain only about 80% of this value in a typical installation the use of an inverter system capable of 10 kW, as stated in the article, is quite reasonable.

Back in 2016, it would be reasonable to have a 10kW series string inverter with two MPPT inputs representing two separate inputs that could be independently optimized.  If such an inverter were used, this would mean that one input would have just 8 panels and the other would have all 30 panels on the main array - not particularly desirable in terms of balancing.  While all 30 of the panels in the larger array would ostensibly be producing the same output, snow, leaves and shading might cause the loss of efficiency should certain parts be thus impaired.

Having already ruled out the optimizing of each panel independently in the interest of having a "known-quiet" system, we might want to split things up a bit.  As an example, a single 10kW inverter with two MPPT inputs could be replaced with a pair of 5 kW inverters, each with 3 MPPT inputs and having a total of six independent DC inputs allowing the 8 panels of the isolated roof to be optimized together and the remaining 30 panels being divided into 5 arrays of about 6 panels, each.

The 2016 article did not mention the price the system, but a reasonable estimate for that time would be around US$35000 - and it was mentioned, in passing, that the cost of RFI mitigation might have been about 10% of the total system cost, implying about $3500 - about the cost of two Sunny Boy  SB5.0 5 kW series-string inverters, each with three MPPT inputs.

Replicating success:

At least two other local amateur radio operators used the same recipe for low-noise PV systems:  Series-string SunnyBoy grid-tie inverters - specifically the SB 3800TL, SB 5000TL and SB3.8s.  In none of these cases could RFI be detected that could be attributed to the inverter - and the only noise to be detected was with a portable shortwave receiver held within a few inches of the display.

What is known not to be quiet:

From personal experience I know for certain that microinverters such as the older Enphase M190 can be disastrous for HF, VHF and UHF reception.  As noted in the QST article, the Enphase power optimizers (model number not mentioned) also caused QRM.

Figure 3:
The two Tesla Powerwalls, gateway and electrical sub-
panels for the system located remotely on the east wall
of the house.
Click on the image for a larger version

Additionally, it has been observed that the Solaredge inverters - particularly coupled with optimizers - have caused tremendous radio frequency interference:  The aforementioned April, 2016 QST article about solar RFI deals with this very combination.

It probably won't work in all cases.

Compared to some installations that I have seen, my system - or the one in the 2016 article - are very simple cases - and there are a number of practical limitations, which include:

  • A "minimum" array size limitation.  Taking the Sunny boy SB5.0 as an example, there is a 90 volt minimum input which means that one would (very conservatively) want at least four 60-cell panels on each circuit.  This limitation may affect what areas on a roof may be candidates for placement of solar panels, reducing the total system capacity as compared to what might be possible with individually-optimized panels.
  • Systems with complicated shading.  If there are a number of trees - or even antennas and structures - portions of sub-strings may be shaded, causing reduction in output and compared to individually-optimized panels, series-strings are at a disadvantage, but careful selection of sub-string geometry can help.  For example, if a tower shades a series of panels during the period of highest production, placing all of those panels on one particular string can help isolate the degradation - but this sort of design consideration will require careful analysis of each situation.

Final words:

The design, configuration and layout of a home (or any) PV system is more complicated than depicted here and any system to be considered would have to take into account.  While I am certain that there are other ways to make an "RF Quiet" PV system, this article was intended to be limited to configurations and equipment with which I have direct experience.

Again, the likelihood of finding a "solar professional" who thoroughly understands RFI issues and knows which type of equipment is RF-quiet is unlikely, so it is up to you as the potential recipient of QRM to do the research.

Other articles at this blog on related topics:

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