Lior Handelsman, SolarEdge Technologies
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Lior Handelsman founded SolarEdge in 2006 and currently serves as the vice president of marketing and product strategy, a position in which he oversees SolarEdge’s global marketing activities as well as its product management, future product definition and positioning. Prior to co-founding SolarEdge, Handelsman spent 11 years at the Electronic Research Department (ERD), one of Israel’s national labs, which is tasked with developing innovative and complex systems. He held several positions there, including power electronics engineer in research and development, head of the ERD’s power electronics group and manager of several large-scale development projects. Handelsman holds a BS in electrical engineering (cum laude) and an MBA from the Technion—Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa. Joe Schwartz caught up with him at Intersolar North America in July.
SP: In the US, growth of the distributed generation (DG) commercial rooftop solar market is lagging behind that of utility-scale projects. What are some of the specific challenges the DG market presents equipment vendors and system integrators in the US?
LH: The market here still hasn’t found good channels. Rooftop DG is mostly motivated by the potential in savings for rooftop and company owners, but there is not enough education yet about its benefits. There are not enough marketing and business channels to all of these potential customers.
Considering the amount of time solar has been sold in the US, many projects still have a very long cycle of education. Customers ask, what’s the value for the end customer? Does it really work for 25 years? What about maintenance? How safe is it? Roof owners still have a lot of misunderstandings and misconceptions. That’s changing, and more big companies now have sustainability people on staff, but often even they are unsure about these issues.
I just spoke yesterday with the sustainability manager of a large company. He had a list of things he can do to improve his company’s energy consumption and sustainability, and he put solar under a question mark. Replace incandescent lighting with LEDs; improve this, improve that; solve this, solve that. He considered solar questionable. Does it really pay off? Isn’t it too expensive? Is it dangerous? The industry hasn’t effectively penetrated the mainstream population of roof owners. There are venues where you can reach company owners, rooftop owners or sustainability managers and make it clear that solar is beneficial. We often live in our own industry bubble, but, for example, the hotel industry has a marketing channel that the solar industry can approach to explain the benefits of solar for hotels. The same is true for manufacturing, warehousing, hospitals or airports. I see a lot of good solar companies approaching exactly these segments of the market, educating them and selling to them.
SP: Many national solar integration businesses operating in the US are struggling to reach or maintain profitability. What’s your general perspective on the national integration company model?
LH: Outside the US, you see much less often the model of national installation companies approaching a big part of the market in a holistic way. The market is much more fragmented, much more local. However, that doesn’t mean the national model is broken. We see some very successful companies using it. If you want to be a market leader, you need to address both types of companies, national and local entities. But going national is hard. You need to have a lot of operational excellence. If you don’t figure out how to leverage your size operationally, then it becomes unwieldy. The model of going national but still doing everything locally doesn’t work: You need to find ways to use your size to your advantage.
SP: What’s the scoop on SolarEdge’s new HD-Wave inverter with integrated electric vehicle (EV) charger?
LH: We recently brought an inverter product to market that has an EV charger built in. It gives you the ability to charge faster during the day because the charger will supplement grid power with PV power. There is a point where breaker capacity limits you in charging the car, but then we supplement grid power with PV to give you a faster charge during the day. That’s a nice advantage, which we call solar boost mode. And this product completely mitigates all the labor, installation, panels and space issues related to installing PV and EV charger power electronics, because by installing the inverter system you’ve already installed the EV charger. It makes sense both for people who have an EV and for people who don’t, because with a minimal addition they can make their garage EV ready without needing to do a second installation later on for the EV charger. We are seeing a lot of excitement about this product.
You already can get a pretty high level of integration if you have an inverter, an EV charger and energy storage. You can run your home on PV, you can use the battery to avoid demand charges, and you can maximize your self-consumption if that’s required or important to you. We have a setting in the EV charger to charge from sunshine only. If you want to reduce your carbon footprint, and you know that you’re charging during the day, you tell the inverter to charge from sunshine only. You can get to a pretty high level of integration. We want everything to be seamless, including load control. More sophisticated integration is coming, as batteries become cheaper, as more smart home integration happens, as EVs become more common. Today, not many car models support vehicle-to-grid or vehicle-to-home charging. Once vehicle manufacturers allow it, we will be able to support it.
SP: In 2015, SolarEdge launched its StorEdge solution for US energy storage projects. Is the storage market meeting your projections and expectations?
LH: First of all, the storage market is highly regional. Secondly, it is not significant compared to activity in the standard grid-tied market in the US. Is it according to our projections? Pretty much. Last year at this conference, I told you that I didn’t think the storage market was going to be a game changer in terms of the number of systems we sell, and it’s not. In some markets, storage is more popular: in Europe and Australia, and in Hawaii in the US. In general, though, the storage market is currently not that big.
SP: Are SolarEdge’s solutions for commercial and industrial applications gaining traction in the US market?
LH: We are making great strides. According to some market analysis, we are already the number three commercial inverter player. We are gaining market share and growing. We are launching a new product at this show—a 100 kW inverter. We had a 33 kW inverter, and a lot of customers pressed us to come up with a bigger one. I asked them, “Why do you want a bigger inverter?” Installation becomes very hard. You need a forklift to get the inverter where you need it. Once it’s there, service is much more complicated. It’s not like a string inverter that you just swap out. You need skilled technicians to come and service the inverter. The answer they gave me was that the bigger inverters have a clear advantage in terms of wiring and ac balance of system. Instead of wiring 10 inverters, you wire three, and you therefore have less labor and lower costs related to ac balance of system, fewer ac labels to apply, and fewer ac combiner boxes to install and maintain. Our 100 kW inverter is basically three units, and they all come prewired. You hang them on the wall, you click them all together with connectors, and you have a 100 kW inverter. It gives you all the benefits of a large inverter without any of the disadvantages.
SP: What other product development efforts is SolarEdge focused on?
LH: We’ve been showcasing a new next-generation power optimizer product. It’s not coming out immediately, but it offers a sneak peek into the future. It’s 40% smaller, more power dense and more cost competitive. The power optimizer is slightly more efficient, and it has a nice new safety feature—it is capable of measuring the temperature of each of its four connectors, two inputs and two outputs. In general, electrical connections within the array are a weak point. If you have a faulty connection, the temperature rises, and that creates a fire hazard. The new power optimizer detects the heat, issues an alert and shuts down the overheated conductor. PV systems are very safe, but occasionally you have a faulty connector.
A PV system fire makes the headlines, and then people start limiting PV installations in all markets. We think that the industry should take responsibility and make PV systems as safe as possible. There are a lot of systems out there, and we see a lot of connectors that might be problematic. We want to take PV system safety one step further, so we developed this feature for our next-generation power optimizer. We can measure the temperature of the connectors because we redesigned the cable architecture so the connector is closer to the power optimizer. In standard systems, if there is an issue somewhere down the line, you have to trust that there will be a significant enough arc so that the arc-fault mechanism will detect it. But we all know that arc-fault detection is not perfect, and we really feel that implementing these additional safety features into PV systems is important. Whether it’s mandatory or not, it’s good for the industry.
We are continuing down the same product development line with the EV charger and with more solutions for home energy management. For the residential space, we’re continuing to emphasize PV as an energy management system. In commercial, we are gradually taking market share with more products and solutions for commercial rooftops. We’ve also had a lot of successes in small-scale utility ground mounts. That is probably the next market we will start to more actively address.