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Renewable Energy Terms: A Guide to Understanding Clean Power

As energy prices rise and the effects of climate change become more apparent, it’s no surprise people want to learn more about renewable energy and how it can benefit their cities, businesses, and institutions. Unfamiliar words and phrases can sometimes pose a barrier to fully understanding what this technology has to offer. That’s why we’ve put together this handy guide of common renewable energy terms that spans multiple types of clean power technologies from solar and battery storage to EV charging and microgrids. Dive in below. 

Alternating current (AC): A type of electrical current in which electrons flow back and forth, cycling between positive and negative voltage (a measure of electrical potential, analogous to water pressure). In North America, AC current undergoes 60 cycles per second, measured in hertz. This is the type of electricity that’s provided by utility companies and used to power homes and businesses. 

Asset management: A suite of services provided by renewable energy developers focused on monitoring and maintaining a customer’s system. PowerFlex, for example, offers wide-ranging, best-in-class support that includes 24/7 operations management, reporting and compliance, and around-the-clock customer assistance.  

Battery energy storage system (BESS): A system that banks energy for later consumption. With a BESS, an organization can save money on time-of-use (TOU) charges by choosing to use stored energy at points in the day when utilities charge the most for power, as well as avoid peak demand charges (see below) by shaving their overall energy usage. When a BESS is paired with solar, it’s referred to as “solar-plus-storage.” 

Capacity: How much energy a battery can store, measured in amp-hours (Ah). Amps is a measure of the rate at which electrical current flows. 

Charge controller: An electrical component within a solar-plus-storage system that regulates the charging and discharging of batteries. 

Critical load: An energy-consuming asset that is essential to a facility’s operation and must always be operating. 

Demand charge: A utility charge for the highest single 15 minutes of energy consumption in a billing period, measured in kilowatts (kW). This usage is billed at a separate, higher rate compared to the energy charge (see below). 

Direct current (DC): A type of electrical current in which electrons flow only in one direction with positive voltage. DC current flows at a rate of 1 cycle (1 hertz) per second. Solar energy and battery systems generate and store DC electricity, which is then, in most use cases, converted into AC (see “inverter”). 

Energy charge: A utility charge for all of the energy that is consumed during a billing period, measured in kilowatt-hours (kWh). 

Energy management system: Software and other tools that control and optimize a renewable energy system. At PowerFlex, we deploy our Energy Solutions & Analytics Platform that delivers real-time performance insights and more. 

EV charging level: A differentiator used to denote the varying power and adapter needs, charging speeds, and mileage ranges of different types of EV chargers. There are three EV charging levels: Level 1, Level 2, and Level 3 or “DC Fast Charging” (see our EV Charging Basics blog for a full breakdown). When a customer chooses PowerFlex to install EV chargers on their property, we can leverage our patented Adaptive Load Management (ALM) technology that balances charging demand across a large number of chargers, keeping electrical costs down. 

Islanding: When a microgrid can separate from the larger utility grid in the event of an outage and provide power independently to a facility. For more, see “microgrid” below. 

Inverter: An electrical component that transforms DC current to AC current, the type commonly used to support building loads. 

Investment Tax Credit (ITC): Often referred to as the “solar Investment Tax Credit” within the solar energy sphere, the solar ITC grants tax savings to owners of eligible solar energy systems. As of 2021, the solar ITC rate stands at 26%, meaning an owner can receive a tax credit equal to 26% of the total system cost. See our blog post on key solar policies for more information about solar incentives. 

Microgrid: An independent power grid that can integrate solar and storage in addition to a traditional generator in order to power loads. You can read more about how a microgrid works and benefits organizations in this blog post. 

Offsite solar: A solar installation model in which the solar system is located off the energy purchaser’s property. Environmental and financial benefits are realized through the generation of solar renewable energy credits (SRECs), which can be used by the owner to lower their carbon footprint at another location or sold to other offtakers (purchasers) for revenue. 

Onsite solar: A solar installation model in which the solar system is located on the owner’s property, allowing them to directly benefit from the generated energy by using it to power their facilities and offsetting a significant portion of their utility energy costs. For more terms pertaining to the solar installation process, check out our separate glossary of key solar terms. 

Photovoltaics (PV): The process of transforming sunlight into electricity. Solar energy (or solar PV) systems make use of PV arrays, which consist of PV panels grouped into PV modules. The smallest element of a PV array is a PV cell, which is the component that uses the photoelectric effect to convert sunlight into electricity.  

Power: The rate at which electricity is generated (or used), measured in watts. The size of a solar system is an expression of its power, often represented in kilowatts, or in thousands of watts. This is not to be confused with a system’s energy output, which is power over a length of time and often measured in kilowatt-hours (kWh). 

Now that you’ve got some of the lingo down, it’s time to seriously consider investing in a renewable energy system for your facility. You’ll be able to slash your energy and operating costs while showing a real, tangible commitment to sustainability, which can go a long way in terms of building trust with customers, employees, or investors. Contact us at PowerFlex for a free consultation and see why big names from Amazon to NASA to ASICS have trusted us to fulfill their clean energy needs. 

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