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Inverters for Single-phase Grid Connected Photovoltaic Systems - An Overview

Martina Calais J ohanna Myrzik2 Ted Spoone? Vassilios G. Agelidis4

School of Engineering, Murdoch University, Murdoch WA 6150, Australia
Technical University of Eindhoven, The Netherlands
School of Electrical Engineering and Telecommunications, University of New South Wales, Australia
* Inter-University Centre for Economic Renewable Power Delivery (CERPD), University of Glasgow, U.K.
Abstract - An overview on recent developments and a summary
of the state-of-the-art of inverter technology in Europe for single-
phase grid-connected Photovoltaic (PV) systems for power levels
up to 5 k W is provided in this paper. The information includes
details not only on the topologies commercially available but also
on the switching devices employed and the associated switching
frequencies, efficiency, price trends and market share. Finally, the
paper outlines issues associated with the development of relevant
international industry standards affecting PV inverter technology.
The continuing decrease of the cost of the PVs, the ad-
vancement of power electronic and semiconductor technology
and favourable incentives in a number of industrial countries
in general had a profound impact on the commercial accep-
tance of grid connected PV systems in the recent years. A core
technology associated with these systems remains the inverter,
which has evolved to quite mature technology offering a num-
ber of advantages to customers that were not possible many
years ago. The technology has changed from line commutated
inverters to switch mode ones mainly due to the availability of
high frequency fully-controlled switching devices.
Most inverters on the market in the mid 1990s were self
or line commutated cent r al inverters, with DC power ratings
above 1 kW, suitable for PV system configurations with sev-
eral strings in parallel as shown in Fig. 1. During the 1000
Roofs Program, a subsidy program of the German Federal and
State Governments (which was accompanied by an extensive
measurement and analysis program [ 1,2]) the disadvantages of
central inverters became apparent. These include complete loss
of generation during inverter outages and losses due to the mis-
match of strings. String inverters, which aredesigned for a
Rated ~ t c u r r e m w)
Fig. 1. PV invertem available in 1994 and 2002 shown versus DC voltage and
DC current ratings.
system configuration of one string of PV modules (see Fig. 1)
have since become more popular.
Module integrated or module oriented PV inverters with
rated power below 500 W can be classified as a third group
of PV inverters beside central and string inverters (see Fig. 1).
They have been available on the market since the mid 1990s
and their modularity allows for small, simple systems which
can easily be expanded by paralleling more AC-modules.
The concept allows mismatch and losses due to shading to be
reduced even further than with string inverters.
A recent development is the multi string PV inverter con-
cept, where several DC to DC converters are connected to one
central inverter. Unlike the string inverter concept, the multi
string inverter requires only one central inverter for all supervi-
sory and protection functions. [3,4,51
The topologies used in the different PV system concepts are
described and discussed in Section I1 of this paper. Information
on employed switching devices and switching frequencies, ef-
ficiencies, price trends and market shares is included as well.
Section 111provides some background information on the de-
velopments on standards affecting this technology, Finally con-
clusions aresummarised in Section IV.
An inverter has to fulfill three functions in order to feed
energy from a PV array into the utility grid:
1. To shape the current into a sinusoidal waveform;
2. To invert the current into an AC current, and
3. if the PV array voltage is lower than the grid voltage, the
PV array voltage has to be boosted with a further element.
The way these three functions are sequenced within an inverter
design determines the choice of semiconductors and passive
components and consequently their losses, sizes and prices.
This section discusses different inverter topologies available
on the European market and gives an overview on their market
shares, efficiencies and price developments over the last
decade.[6,7, 8,9, 10, 11,3, 12, 131
A. Central inverters
Based on drive system technology the first PV inverters at
the end of the 1980s were line commutated inverters (see
Fig. 2(b)) with power ratings of several kilo watts. Although
these topologies are robust, highly efficient and cheap, their
major drawbacks are a power factor between 0.6 and 0.7 [14],
0-7803-7262-X/02/$10.00 Q 2002 LEB. 1995
Inverting el ement +
Current m e shapi ng
Inverti ng element + Voltage
Current weve shaping adjustment
Full Bridge Utility
yv< 850 v Inverter Grid
DC Filter
Full Bridge Line Frequency Ut i l i i
%V< 400 v inverter Transformer Grid
I 1 I
1 1 4
Fig. 2. Transformerless PV inverters (a) step down, (b) line commutated.
which has to be compensated with special filters as well as
high harmonic content in-the output current. Due to the rapid
developments in the semiconductor device industry, thyristors
have been increasingly replaced by BJ T's, MOSFET's or
IGBT's. Currently employed switching devices in PV inverters
are shown in Fig. 4. Today central inverters are mostly self-
commutated inverters in the power range above 2 kW. Their
topologies without and with transformer are shown in Fig. 2(a)
and 3(a). They are composed of a PWM full bridge, switching
at high frequencies (>16 kHz) which shapes and inverts the
input current into an AC current. Most of the bridges use
IGBT's or a combination of IGBT's and MOSFET's (see Fig.
4). This concept is a well known, robust, efficient and cheap
technology which provides high reliability and low price per
watt. Their efficiencies are lower than in line commutated
concepts (see Fig. 9) due to the high switching frequencies of
Fig. 3(b) shows a magnetic coupled inverter [15] available
on the American market. The inverter consists of three
conventional single-phase full bridges each with their mid-
points connected to the primary winding of a transformer.
The secondary windings of the transformers are connected
in series and the turns ratios of the transformers are chosen
as multiples of each other. Generally, an inverter of this
type having n primary transformer windings is capable of
generating 3n combinations of different voltages across the
secondary transformer windings and synthesises the sine wave
by means of a stepped waveform (not by means of PWM). The
advantage of this circuit is the relatively accurate replica of a
sine wave accomplished with low switching frequencies and a
cheap and robust full-bridge. A major drawback of the circuit,
however, is the need for three transformers.
The disadvantages of all central inverter topologies are
found in the system configuration:
1. The required DC wiring increases costs and decreases
16 - 20 ~Hz .
Fig. 3. PV inverters with line frequency transformer (a) self commutated full
bridge [14], (b) magnetic coupled [15].
-_ _
I : i / ! + i l I
0 I
0 1 2 3 4 6 6
Rated PV array power (kW)
Fig. 4. Employed switching devices in PV inverters.
2. There are no means of independently operating sections of
the PV array at their maximum power point (MPP). Mismatch
between sections (e.g. caused by partial shading) may there-
fore significantly reduce the overall system output.
3. Due to the high power range an extension or a flexible
system design cannot be realised.
These drawbacks can be overcome with module integrated or
oriented inverters and with string inverters.
B. Module integrated or module oriented inverters
These inverters are operating directly on one or several
PV modules below 500 W. The PV array voltage is generally
between 30 - 150 V. These low voltage levels require a voltage
adjustment element, which allows for a variety of topologies.
Topologies with transformer are shown in Fig. 3(a) and Fig. 5.
Using a line frequency transformer is advantageous since low
voltage MOSFET's can be used for the PWM high frequency
j Cumntwaveshaping / Inverting
i +vottageadjustment element
High frequency Line frequency
brldge inverter
Fig. 5. PV inverter with several conversion stages and high frequency
transformer [14].
Voltage invertlng element +
adirutmrni Currmt m e 8ha~i na
. _
Fig. 6. Transformerless PV inverter with several conversion stages including
boost stage.
switched bridge. Low voltage MOSFETs which are widely
used in large quantities for automotive applications are cheap
semiconductor devices. Furthermore the whole control system
can be realised on the low voltage side and this topology is also
suitable for high current PV modules. However, some inverter
companies follow high-frequency transformer concepts in
order to reduce the magnetic components and costs and an
example topology is shown in Fig. 5. In order to reduce
the switching losses on the high voltage side the push-pull
converter boosts the voltage to grid level and shapes the current
waveform as well. A full bridge switched at line frequency is
used in a second converter stage as an unfolding I inverting
stage. Both converters in series reduce the efficiency and make
the control more complex.
Fig. 6 shows a third topology available on the market, which
avoids a transformer in order to reduce magnetic components
and to increase efficiency. This topology can be used in several
European countries e.g. Germany. Other countries require a
transformer. While using a boost converter to boost the low
PV voltage, shaping and inverting of the output current have to
be done in the second converter stage at high voltage level.
One manufacturer produces module integrated inverters
with MOSFETs switching at 400 and 800 Wz. The possibly
resonant topology is unknown.
Module integrated and module oriented inverters provide
the highest system flexibility. Each module has its own MPP
tracking, furthermore, no DC wiring is required. Their plug
and play characteristic is attractive, as is their ability to
provide a complete PV system at low (plus rapidly decreasing)
investment cost. However, the main disadvantage of these
Dc Bur
(-0 w
Fig. 7. Multi string inverter [4].
inverters is the high cost per watt. Further disadvantages are
the difficult and expensive replacement in case of inverter fault
and special safety requirements (depending on the country)
may increase the system price.
C. String inverters
The string inverter is capable of combining the advantages
of both central and module integrated inverter concepts with
little tradeoffs. A number of PV modules connected in series
form a string up to 2 kW (Fig. 1). In this power range the
PV array (string) voltage can be between 150-450 V. Various
topologies (for example those shown in Figs. 2, 3(a), 5 and
6) can be used for this concept. Depending on the power and
voltage ratings, IGBTs and MOSFETs are used at switching
frequencies between 16 and 32 kHz. The advantages are that
these topologies are used in a higher power range, which
decreases the price per watt and that the system efficiency is
I-3% higher than in systems with central inverters [16].
D. Multi string inverters
Recent developments in subsidy programs in Germany are
forcing companies to reduce inverter costs by approximately
20% within 5 years [5]. In order to achieve this goal a new
inverter concept (see Fig. 7) has been developed to combine
the advantage of higher energy yield of a string inverter with
the lower costs of a central inverter. Lower power DCDC
converters are connected to individual PV strings. Each PV
string has its own MPP tracker which independently optimises
the energy output from each PV string. To expand the system
within a certain power range only a new string with a DCDC
converter has to be included. All DCDC converters are con-
nected via a DC bus through a central inverter to the grid. The
central inverter is a PWM inverter based on the well-known
and cheap IGBT technology already used in drive systems and
includes all supervisory and protection functions. Depending
on the size of the string the input voltage ranges between 125
to 750 V. The inverter has a maximum power rating of 5 kW.
Fig. 1 summarises the DC current and DC voltage ratings of
the discussed inverter concepts available in 1994 and 2002 and
demonstrates the trend towards the string inverter concept.
+Module imtegmted @Self commutated tmskrmerlesr [step down)
1SelIcammulatedrmnrlarmerless [baest) A Line cdmmumed transformerless
I Sell cammurned&dlh linefrequency t nnabner I Self cammumedn4fh high ffequencyaansfnrmer
~ 4 J 1 A J A A
86% J L % Fa ,:
E. New trends
One of the common drawbacks of a single-phase inverter is
the need for large electrolyte capacitors at the input of the in-
verter. Electrolyte capacitors significantly affect the efficiency,
cost and lifetime of the inverter and some manufacturers
have started to develop small three-phase inverters in order to
reduce the electrolyte capacitor size.
For bigger PV plant applications the new team concept
provides a better utilisation of the inverters at low load. In
this concept the string technology will be combined with
the master - slave concept. At low solar irradiation all
strings are connected in parallel to one inverter while the
other inverters are disconnected. At increasing irradiation the
PV array is divided into sub-arrays which are connected to
different independently operating string inverters. An increase
of the system efficiency of 2% is expected. The concept
is particularly interesting for countries with high energy
conversion during part load operation.
E Eficiencies
8 shows the average maximum efficiencies of the
different topologies over the years 1994-2002. Highest
efficiencies around 96% are achievable with line commutated
and transformerless inverter topologies. Improved switching
devices and also the trend towards the use of higher DC input
voltages have lead to significant efficiency improvements over
the last 8 years. However, recent slight efficiency drops are
noticeable with some topology types and suggest that PV
inverter efficiencies may decrease in order to reduce cost. Fig.
9 gives a more detailed overview on the maximum efficiencies
for the different PV inverters types.
G. Prices
Prices for single-phase PV inverters have significantly
decreased during the last 8 years and the trend is expected to
+Module imograred
- Self commutated imansbmerlesa
' Self commu1ated high hequency!"brmer
A Linecommutated mansfomorloss
: Self rommutltsd b i l h line frequency imansfomsr
'< i
4 1
. .
>. x
9 9 4
r" c
+ * * e
t 9s
4 s2 <,
91 I , , , , I t
1993 1394 1995 1996 1997 1938 1399 2000 2001 2002 2003
Fig. 8. Average maximumefficiency development of single-phase PV
inverters (1 994-2002).
000 I
0 1 2 S 4 5
Ratsd DC PDM~ IkW)
Fig. 10. Price per watt (DC) of single-phase PV inverters versus DC power
rating (2002, [13]).
continue. Manufacturers predict a 10 - 30% cost reduction
is possible if the production is doubled. (The growth rate'of
the industry currently exceeds 50% per annum) [13]. How-
ever, prices for PV inverters are still up to 50% higher than
those for inverters for drive systems. Their cost contribution
to the overall PV system cost has remained constant at 15% [ 5] .
H. Market shares
An indication of market share for different inverter topolo-
gies can be gained from German market surveys on complete
PV systems, which include information on the inverter type
used and the number of system sold since 1995 [17,18,19,20].
The 1999 survey indicates an approximate market share ratio
Market SUNCYCD~~I ~ZC Systems 2002 Self=-"d*ted
Inverter Topol ogl Shares vdh high frequency
(20.6 Mw of systems sold since 1985) r'slormer
Self c m "
rwlh line frenuency
Fig. 11. Market shares of different PV inverter topologies.
of 1:4 between transformerless and transformer topologies,
whereas in the 2002 survey the ratio is approximately 1:l.
Topologies with high frequency transformer have only recently
appeared on the European market and seem to have increasing
market share. However, the market share information has
to be considered carefully and can also not only be viewed
from a pure technological perspective. The main players on
the European PV inverter market are SMA, Fronius, Sputnik,
Sun Power and Siemens, with SMA dominating the market
with over 50% market share. Aspects such as fast replacement
service or flexible system configuration (for example optional
data logging), price as well as efficiencies may influence
consumers choices [20].
International standards for single phase grid connected PV
inverter systems are still very much at an embryonic stage.
PV inverter technology has changed rapidly and many inverter
topologies have been developed to explore the most effective
and efficient system configuration and the most cost effective
design. So the inverter itself has in many cases dictated the sys-
tem configuration and also determined important issues such as
whether the array is earthed or non earthed. All this inverter de-
velopment has taken place at a time when very few standards
have existed, so designers have had little restriction in their de-
sign imagination. Standards aregenerally developed after the
technology. In the PV inverter area it has been particularly dif-
ficult because the technology has been changing rapidly. The
topologies have been developing and the PV voltage has been
rising rapidly. There is now an urgent need for a range of stan-
dards for PV grid connect systems and these will have impor-
tant consequences for inverter design. The most important is-
sues for standards in this area may be categorized as:
AC issues related to the inverter output, grid interface, pro-
tection and safety and possible high AC fault currents on the
PV array supplied from the grid.
DC issues related to array safety and protection, and
common mode voltages impressed on the PV array due to
The AC issues are generally covered by grid interface style
standards. The DC issues will be covered by array standards
and general wiring standards. The last group of issues particu-
larly relate to transformerless topologies. These issues need to
be covered by a combination of inverter and array standards.
High common mode voltages impressed on PV arrays fre-
quently exist with transformerless inverter topologies where:
the PV array does not have a center tapped earth connection or
where the centre point of the DC filter capacitors of the inverter
input is not earthed. These inverter topologies may cause high
common mode voltages to be impressed on the array. This is a
potential safety issue because capacitive coupling to a person
in contact with the insulated surface of the PV array may result
in significant current flowing through the body. The effect
is more severe when the common mode voltages are at the
the topology and earthing of the inverter.
switching frequency, allowing a lower impedance coupling.
The current may not in itself cause death but because arrays
are typically on elevated structures, a reflex reaction may
result in a serious fall. Another potential problem relates to
high frequency induced currents which may flow in a building
Italy and the United Kingdom do not allow transformerless
inverters probably partly due the problem of common mode
voltages and also because of the issue of non-isolation of the
grid from the PV array and associated wiring.
An overview of standards and current projects relating to
arrays, inverters and grid connection in the IEC arena follows.
Standards associated with the grid interface arerelatively
well advanced with individual countries having standards
or guidelines in place. They cover grid protection and
anti-islanding issues, basic harmonic requirements, power
factor and automatic re-connection I synchronising require-
ments. There is no agreement on harmonization of all of
the requirements but the documents are not greatly different
except in the area of islanding protection. IEC have a project
to draft a document on Islanding prevention measures for
power conditioners used in grid connected photovoltaic (PV)
power generation systems but it is proving difficult to reach a
uniform agreement.
The IEC is also working on a draft document No 62109
on requirements for inverters and charge controllers which is
derived from the US, UL 1741 and the IEEE 929 documents.
This document contains basic safety requirements for the
inverter itself but does not address issues of high frequency
effects impressed on the array.
Before inverter standards are defined completely there is a
need to resolve safety and protection requirements including
isolatiodearthing of the PV array. In this area there is a severe
lack of standards both within countries and internationally.
The IEC TC64 committee is working on a draft of the IEC
60364-7-Requirements for special installations or locations
Section 712 : Photovoltaic power supply systems. This
document has been voted on by national committees as a
Final Draft International Standard but the results of the vote
are not known at the time of writing. This document deals only
with extremely basic wiring of the array.
There is still an urgent need for a standard which ad-
dresses issues related to: protection of the array (over current
protection, bypass diodes); earthed versus unearthed arrays
protection and safety requirements; warning signs; access
arrangements etc. IEC currently have a project No 62234
Safety guidelines for grid connected photovoltaic (PV)
systems mounted on buildings which is aimed at covering
these issues but the document is still in a very early stage of
In the US the National Electricity Code (section 690) has
included requirements for DC arrays which cover earthing
and protection. This standard has been available since the
mid 1990s but does not allow for an unearthed array, which
. @ ~ui ti stnng inverters
sen mmmutated string mverters
wlthout tranformer (<3 kw)
Self commutated string inverters
with tranformer (c 2 kW)
Central self commutated inverters
with transformer (>1 kW)
Central line commutated
Inverters (>1 kw)
1999 1995 2000
Fig. 12. PV inverter development trends (darker and larger &as indicate
increasing importance).
is the general practice in many other parts of the world,
particularly in Europe. The Netherlands has had a basic
guideline document [21] since 1997 which covers both the
grid interface and some DC issues but this is by no means a
comprehensive standard. The United Kingdom has recently
published a guideline document for array issues E221 and
Australia is currently working on a draft document in this area.
In the area of modules themselves the IEC has a well
developed project No 61730 which classifies PV modules
including an equivalent class I1 module. This project will
be presented for voting late in 2002 and when available will
resolve many problems related to safety of the modules within
the array and simplify the safety requirements for the whole
array particularly at voltages above safe touch levels.
Many of these standards under development do not directly
relate to inverters but will have important implications for
inverter design. Issues of earthing, inverter isolation, insulation
monitoring and fault protection systems will affect topology
choices and place extra requirements on inverter design. It is
extremely important that standards are implemented quickly to
promote the safe use of PV systems and implemented carefully
on a functional basis so as not to restrict design innovation.
Fig. 10 attempts to display the development of PV inverter
technology with larger and darker areas indicating increasing
importance of thespecific inverter type. Although the string
and multi-string concept has established itself as a popular PV
system concept there is no obvious trend noticeable towards a
particular topology: The market share ratio of transformerless
inverters versus inverters with transformer has remained con-
stant over the last two years at 1: 1. Amongst the inverters with
transformer, line frequency transformer topologies are far more
common, but the number of manufacturers offering inverters
with high frequency transformer has increased within the last
three years and their market share is expected to rise.
Developments in the area of standards, particularly in the re-
quirements for safety in PV arrays will in the future affect de-
cisions on preferred topologies.
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