Utah company hopes to jump-start solar power storage for homes

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Glenn Jakins, CEO of Humless, a Utah renewable energy company, has developed a power storage system for use with rooftop solar.

Glenn Jakins enjoys camping but discovered he can’t stand the sound of diesel-powered generators when he stayed in a campground tucked in the California redwoods several years ago.

That realization put the Lindon-based entrepreneur on a path toward developing a portable, noise-free, solar-powered generator and establishing a Utah renewable energy company known as Humless, which Jakins figures means the opposite of Humvee. The firm has since developed a new product that could jump-start the residential solar market by enabling people to store the electricity generated by rooftop panels during the day for use when the sun is not shining.

Dubbed Universal Energy Management, this equipment is the first commercially available line that can charge any type of battery from any type of DC-to-AC inverter, according to Jakins, the Humless CEO.

“Now you can go back to every single one of the 2 million homes in America that already have solar, and I can look at it and go, ‘Can I give you energy storage?’ Yes,” Jakins said Tuesday in an interview at Solar Power International, a major industry conference held this week in Salt Lake City.

Humless is among the hundreds of exhibitors at the Calvin L. Rampton Salt Palace Convention Center, where 20,000 industry professionals are gathered for one of the world’s largest trade shows devoted to renewable energy.

Nationally, the solar market is worth $17 billion and employs 242,000, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association, or SEIA. The trade group used the conference, timed to coincide with National Clean Energy Week, to unveil its “Solar+ Decade” initiative to put solar power on track for generating 20% of the nation’s electricity by 2030, up from its 2.5% share today.

“When we hit this goal, by 2030, we will more than double our workforce and add $345 billion in private investment, all while offsetting electricity-sector emissions by 35%," SEIA President Abigail Ross Hopper said. “But we can’t get there on momentum alone. We’ll need policies, aggressive collaboration and action from every member of the industry to make these goals a reality.”

One such policy it hopes to see is a 10-year extension to the solar investment tax credit, set to begin a stepped-down phaseout next year. This 30% tax credit for residential solar installations is credited for sparking the meteoric growth in solar power since its implementation in 2006.

“The ITC has helped us add billions to the economy, employ thousands of Americans, and be a real solution for cities and businesses that want to do their part to reduce emissions," Hopper said. "We’re telling members of Congress to take this climate win now. You don’t have to wait for a comprehensive solution to take action on our energy future.

An analysis by SEIA concluded an extension would boost annual solar investment to $41 billion by 2030, more the double the $17 billion from last year, and would help offset 363 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions over the next year. That would have the emission-reducing impact of taking 77 million cars off the road or closing 93 coal-fired power plants.

Humless may be a tiny company, currently employing nine people at a 40,000-square-foot facility in Lindon, but Jakins believes it can help expand U.S. reliance on solar by enabling homeowners to store their solar-generated power and control how to use it.

The juice coming off solar panels is direct current (DC), which must be inverted to alternating current (AC) to pipe it into the grid through a net-metered system, or be used by 110-volt household wiring. The Humless system taps that power, regardless of how it was inverted to AC, to charge batteries. It also allows homeowners to choose when that power can be used for various appliances.

“I can take AC power from one source and take DC power from another source,” Jakins said. “I can take them all at the same time, and I can control that power and do whatever I want with it.”

He figures a standard solar-powered home can get rigged with this storage system for $15,000.

On Tuesday, the massive international technology company ABB, based in Switzerland, announced a partnership with Humless in which the smaller company would manufacture its 48-volt energy management units to be sold with ABB inverters as part of an integrated storage system.

Humless is currently producing five units a week, but Jakins said he can rapidly scale up to meet ABB’s needs as they grow.

“I’ve got electrical engineers in Provo that are just dying for work to be able to come in and build these machines,” he said. “We’ve never had a problem revving up.”

He designed the system with his native Africa in mind.

“The interesting thing is the American grid is so good. I’m from South Africa. We’ve got a bad grid. On average, every home has about four hours of no power a day,” said Jakins, who immigrated to Utah 29 years ago after graduating from the same Pretoria high school as Tesla co-founder Elon Musk.

Net-metered solar homes don’t go dark when the grid goes down — as long as they have batteries and the equipment needed to charge them.

“We do a lot of game reserves. We’ve done a lot of systems in Zimbabwe. They get four hours of power a day if they’re lucky. So they rely completely on solar,” Jakins said. “Where we really started was in the heart of Africa. Now we’ve brought that technology here.”