Bonus Content

The Alternative Energy Market Continues to Grow

by Susan Bloom

Encompassing clean, renewable forms of energy such as solar power, wind power, and rechargeable electricity, alternative sources currently supply 8% to 10% of the nation’s energy demand and are on the rise. In fact, a 2014 federal study on the renewable energy market determined that “the renewable energy sector promises continued growth for the foreseeable future, reaching $7 trillion of expected cumulative global private-sector investment between 2012 and 2030 and anticipated growth in each renewable energy subsector, including wind, solar, geothermal, biomass, hydropower, and renewable fuels.” Here, manufacturers discuss different aspects of the renewable energy market, trends shaping its evolution, and ways in which electrical distributors can maximize participation in this sector.

According to Chad Smith, vice president of product management and engineering at Thomas & Betts (tnb.com), a broad range of products are required to help support the safe, continuous operation of wind and solar systems.

“On the safety side, these include terminations, lugs, connectors, and other components that protect against shock and arc flashes as well as solid-dielectric switchgear that uses no gas or oil, heat-shrink tubing that insulates exposed conductors, and wiring systems with fault indicators,” Smith said. “Given the inconsistency that characterizes sources like wind and photovoltaic power, uninterruptible power supplies are recommended to help ensure continuous power, while connectors that ground the electrical system help protect against lightning strikes.”

Smith added that monitoring and control methods such as fault detection and overcurrent protection also help ensure the power quality, efficiency, and reliability of wind and solar power facilities.

According to Eric Rall, business development manager for Schneider Electric (schneider-electric.com), “Other products involved in this emerging market that currently appeal to customers who are motivated by a desire to support the environment, ensure against the risk of costly power outages, or some combination of both include transfer switches, DC-AC inverters, and other distribution products required to hook up the systems.”

Technology Trends

Though still considered a market in its infancy, all experts confirm that the arena for renewable energy products is one of the world’s fastest growing.

“According to the World Wind Energy Association, wind power alone is currently providing nearly 4% of the world’s electricity, and the DOE is targeting wind energy to account for 20% of the nation’s electricity supply by 2030,” explained Keith Longtin, general manager of wind products at GE Renewable Energy (www.gepower.com). As such, these products have continued to evolve to meet the needs of the broadening range of applications they’re applied to as well as the professionals who work with them.

Smith agreed. “For example, because wind and solar power generation farms are exposed to the elements, the need for corrosion-resistant components such as framing channel, conduit fittings, and cable ties made of stainless steel or aluminum or coated with PVC or zinc-galvanized plating is key. These environments also expose products to extreme heat and cold, requiring fittings and terminations that can insulate the system and resist extreme temperatures. Lastly, repeated exposure to sunlight and UV radiation can damage many commonplace plastic materials, making the use of UV-stabilizing additives in plastics necessary to extend the service life of products such as cable ties,” he said.

In addition to their need for durable design, Smith added, “Space is often limited in wind and solar power facilities, which requires products to be scaled down to fit smaller places while continuing to function efficiently, reliably, and safely. This has driven the need for scaled-down footprints within electrical system components such as overcurrent protection devices, connectors, switchgear, fuses, surge arrestors, racks, inverters, and other technology.”

Experts confirm that market trends also emphasize greater cost efficiency and productivity. In response, Thomas & Betts’s adjustable Solar Panel Clip installs quickly without tools and holds up to four cables perpendicular to the panel frame, saving time and money when installing solar panels. At GE, noted Longtin, “We’ve invested in hardware such as our space frame tower—a lattice tower with a wider base utilizing an architectural fabric wrap that requires less steel—to allow our customers to go taller cost-effectively, as well as software solutions such as GE’s PowerUp, which provides up to 5% more output for our customers from their installed capacity of wind turbines. We’re also working to integrate small amounts of energy storage with advanced forecasting algorithms to make wind more predictable, enhancing its economics for our customers.”

Tips for the Trade
According to Smith, “Wind and voltaic power generation differ from conventional power generation in that their infrastructure is a network of grid connections that can span miles, as opposed to the power plant model of other power generation facilities. This means that the system is exposed to the elements much more and requires products that are weather, corrosion, heat, and cold resistant.

Additionally, these represent new technologies that are still evolving. Distributors are advised to support this market with products that can withstand the challenging conditions that characterize wind and voltaic power generation and to be flexible in re­sponding to changes in technology.”

Though Rall noted that in its current growth stage, the renewable market remains dominated by specialized system integrators rather than mainstream contractors, “The good news for electrical distributors is that even the specialists still need traditional electrical products to build the systems. I would advise distributors to keep up with the technologies, but more importantly, find the specialists in their markets that are doing the work and help them navigate the local codes and standards issues, which is a core competency of wholesale distribution. It’s important to be the most efficient path to market for the more traditional electrical products even if getting into the more volatile arena of solar panels and the like is not desired.”

Longtin agreed that distributors should tap their share of this important growth market. “Technology advancements are critical for the continued adop­tion and competitiveness of renewable energy. It will behoove distributors to be knowledgeable about the benefits of these systems and how wind and solar complement other sources of energy and contribute to the end-value proposition,” he concluded.

Susan Bloom is a freelance writer and consultant who has spent more than 20 years covering the lighting and electrical products industry. Reach her at susan.bloom.chester@gmail.com.

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