Wrightsville Beach company ready to introduce the next generation of solar power

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WRIGHTSVILLE BEACH — After Hurricane Matthew blew through North Carolina, thousands were left without power – even those with solar panels. A local tech company will help make sure that doesn’t happen again, if it can clear one, final hurdle.

Koolbridge Solar, a Wrightsville Beach company founded in 2013, has spent several years developing a way to let houses use their own solar power while remaining connected to local grids.

Koolbridge Founder and Board Chairman Stephen Burnett described its product, the “Smart Load Center,” which is finally looking like it will reach commercial availability later this year.

“It replaces the traditional breaker box on a house,” Burnett said. “When a house is converting to solar – or if it already has solar – we take out the box and replace it with the Smart Load Center.”

The Smart Load Center fixes a shortcoming of traditional solar setups. CEO and President William Griffin said, “we just saw this shortcoming during Hurricane Matthew. The day after the storm came through, it was bright and sunny. The storm was fast moving, it was a few hundred miles north. The sun was shining. But a lot of people who had traditional solar power, their houses were dark.”

Burnett explained that this phenomenon is due what is called net metering.

“Net metering is the current system for solar users. The power generated by their solar panels isn’t going to their house, it’s going back out into the grid system,” he said. “In exchange, their power meters are rolling backwards – but they’re still buying power from the grid. And if the power grid shuts down – whether it is an ice storm or a hurricane or a truck hits a utility pole – when the grid is down, even if you have solar panels and the sun is shining, you’re blacked out.”

Left to right: What Griffin calls the "brains" of the Smart Load Center, an assembly prototype and the installed version. (Courtesy of Stephen Burnett)
Left to right: What Griffin calls the “brains” of the Smart Load Center, an assembly prototype and the installed version. (Courtesy of Stephen Burnett)

This is due to safety precautions: power generated by solar panels going back into the grid could injure or kill repair workers, so power suppliers will disconnect the solar houses from the grid. Koolbridge’s product will allow solar users to power their own houses directly.

Griffin and Burnett explained that Koolbridge’s product allows homeowners to use solar, as well as wind or battery power, as well as the local grid. The company also plans to use its product as a hub for ‘smart home’ appliances. For example, since solar energy is free and grid power costs money, the Smart Load Center would be able to ‘schedule’ appliance use for times when the house is running on solar.

Griffin said the system would cost homeowners less than $2,000, saying, “this isn’t a $50,000 solution. We made sure the return on investment for the homeowners would be less than five years.”

Griffin said he believed independence from aging power grids and fossil fuels would be a key selling point, especially in new houses.

“There are 1.2 million new houses being built every year,” Griffin said. “Fifteen percent of them will be pre-built with solar. A lot of the people living in these houses will have no interest in being on a 100-year-old power grid, people who have no interest in consuming power generated by coal-fired power plants or negative impact on the environment they cause.”

One of Koolbridge's prototypes being tested. (Courtesy Stephen Burnett)
One of Koolbridge’s prototypes being tested. (Courtesy of Stephen Burnett)

After years of engineering and fundraising, Koolbridge Solar faces one final hurdle: approval by the Underwriters Laboratory (UL). Griffin said, “they are essentially the governing body for anything handling electricity, they’re the gatekeepers for the safety of anything new coming to market.”

In mid-February, Koolbridge got fully functional test versions of their Smart Load Center into the hands of Underwriters Laboratory staff. Griffin said, “they’ll bang them up, they’ll be pushed far beyond anything they’d experience in actual use to make sure they’re safe.”

The process takes 8-16 months, though Griffin said Koolbridge has had a “tremendously positive dialog with UL.” By June, Koolbridge expects to have “Smart Load Centers with a UL sticker on them.”

Griffin said they plan to install between 30 and 40 units in North Carolina over the summer. Griffin said, “through our relationships with solar installation companies, we’ll be able to actually install these units and get real feedback from people.”

At the same time, Koolbridge plans to begin third-party construction of the Smart Load Center.

“Our goal is to have these in houses this year,” Griffin said. “We’re bullish, but we hope to be generating revenue before Christmas”