Simply put, a grid-tie inverter converts direct current (DC) into alternating current (AC) suitable for injecting into an electrical power grid, normally 120 V RMS at 60 Hz or 240 V RMS at 50 Hz. Grid-tie inverters are used between local electrical power generators: solar panel, wind turbine, hydro-electric, and the grid. To inject electrical power efficiently and safely into the grid, grid-tie inverters must accurately match the voltage and phase of the grid sine wave AC waveform.
How Does a Grid-Tie Inverter Operate?
Grid-tie inverters convert DC electrical power into AC power that is suitable for injecting into the electric utility company grid. In order to achieve this, the inverter must match the phase of the grid and maintain the output voltage slightly higher than the grid voltage at any instant. A high-quality modern grid-tie inverter has a fixed unity power factor, which means its output voltage and current are perfectly lined up, and its phase angle is within 1 degree of the AC power grid. Additionally, the inverter has an onboard computer that senses the current AC grid waveform and outputs a voltage to correspond with the grid. However, supplying reactive power to the grid might be necessary to keep the voltage in the local grid inside allowed limitations. Otherwise, in a grid segment, with considerable power from renewable sources, voltage levels might rise too much at times of high production (i.e. around noon for solar panels). Furthermore, grid-tie inverters are also designed to quickly disconnect from the grid if the utility grid goes down. This is an NEC requirement that ensures that in the event of a blackout, the grid-tie inverter shuts down to prevent the energy it transfers from harming any line workers who are sent to fix the power grid.
Types of Grid-Tie Inverters
Grid-tie inverters include conventional low-frequency types with transformer coupling, newer high-frequency types, also with transformer coupling, and transformerless types. Instead of converting direct current directly into AC suitable for the grid, high-frequency transformer types use a computer process to convert the power to a high-frequency and then back to DC and then to the final AC output voltage suitable for the grid. Meanwhile, transformerless inverters, which are popular in Europe, are lighter, smaller, and more efficient than inverters with transformers. However, that said, transformerless inverters have been slow to enter the U.S. market because of concerns that transformerless inverters, which do not have galvanic isolation between the DC side and grid, could inject dangerous DC voltages and currents into the grid under fault conditions.
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