MicroGrids Threatening The Utility Industry's 100yr Old Monopoly On Power Generation And Distribution
Distributed Generation Microgrids Will Reach Nearly $13 Billion in Annual Market Value by 2018
You know that experience, when you buy a new car, and suddenly you see the model everywhere? Since Superstorm Sandy I’ve had the equivalent experience with the term ‘microgrid.’
Policymakers and thought leaders in the US Northeast started talking microgrid in earnest shortly after the October 2012 storm leveled swaths of their region. Lately, the term seems to arise in almost every interview I do about transmission and reliability – whether about the US, Japan, Sweden, India or other areas of the world.
These small, electricity islands have been around for a long time, but mostly confined to colleges and military bases. Are we about to see more widespread development?
Microgrids are smaller versions of the larger grid, but the power plants are closer to the customer. Hence, they have fewer miles of wire that is vulnerable to falling trees. They are typically connected to the larger grid. But when the grid goes down, the microgrid can disengage and keep operating. So microgrids are used as a way to maintain electric reliability in carved-out areas.
I recently asked three respected smart grid experts for their views on a potential microgrid boom, and they gave me three different slants.
“Truthfully, I think micrograms are a very good concept – it has certain applications – but not in general,” said GE’s John McDonald, director of technical strategy and policy development for GE Energy Management’s Digital Energy.
He sees microgrids as successful in rural areas on military bases and at universities. “But you wouldn’t want to have, in the Continental US, the grid be composed of thousands of little microgrids. It would be very difficult to manage that,” McDonald said.
Bradley Williams, vice president for industry strategy at Oracle Utilities, has a different view. Information technology can solve problems that inhibit more widespread use of microgrids, he says.
“The military bases and campuses are piloting this, but that is just the beginning,” Williams said.
He envisions communities driving future microgrid development, particularly those with building codes that require solar, wind or other forms of self-generation.
“I do think it is coming: it will not be driven by the utilities,” he said, adding that utilities will get on board once they know microgrids pose no danger to line workers – an information management issue that Oracle is working on.
Microgrids will help alleviate a kind of inefficiency beginning to emerge on the grid as more and more consumers and businesses buy their own generators following each big storm, he said.
“People are installing things that are not cost-effective because they don’t want a one week outage,” said Gordon, whose New York company helps create energy reduction assets.
What’s coming are microgrids made up of consumer-producers who will sell into the various electricity markets, Gordon said. The consumer will finance and build the asset and then sell energy, efficiency or demand reduction. The utility may act as buyer.
It is not only Superstorm Sandy that is spurring talk of microgrid. Discussion heightened about the concept, as well, after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan. The Sendai microgrid at Tohoku Fukushi University continued to provide power while the rest of the grid failed, points out a PWC report, “The Future of Microgrids: Their Promise and Challenges.”
Microgrids are also gaining steam because of the Obama administration’s push for more combined heat and power, which is often included within a microgrid. Obama wants the US to build 40 GW of CHP by 2020.
Here are a couple of microgrid developments to watch in the US.
The Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection in February announced that it is evaluating 27 microgrid projects for possible funding. The projects were among 36 that sought $15 million in available state grants. Some of the projects are sizable – as large as 10 MW. Governor Dannel Malloy has recommended an additional $30 million for the program over the next two years.
In nearby New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo has created an energy highway blueprint to modernize the state’s electric system, which has resulted in several proposals, some of them microgrid.
With the launch of dozens of successful pilot programs globally, the adoption rate of microgrids is expected to accelerate over the next several years. Microgrids offer greater resilience, a high potential for integrating distributed renewable generation resources, and the ability to isolate themselves, when necessary, from the wider power grid--a capability known as islanding. According to a recent report from Navigant Research, North America is currently the leading microgrid market and will remain the leader through 2020. Total microgrid capacity in North America will reach 5.9 gigawatts in 2020, representing 64 percent of worldwide capacity, the study concludes.
The first U.S. state moving forward with a policy program to promote microgrids is Connecticut, which is responding to a pair of extreme weather events, according to the report: Tropical Storm Irene in August 2011 and a rare blizzard that hit the East Coast in October 2011. Both events led to massive power outages. This effort -- which has authorized construction of up to 27 microgrid sites as of early 2013 -- is supported by an initial grant and loan program of $15 million.
North America Will Lead the Worldwide Microgrid Market With Nearly 6 Gigawatts of Total Capacity by 2020
Whether tied to the larger utility grid or islanded from it, microgrids are becoming an increasingly common way for campuses, communities, and other large power users to harness the benefits of distributed power generation. Many of these systems are deployed by end-use customers who are not getting the quality of energy services they desire from their host distribution utilities. According to a recent report from Pike Research, a part of Navigant's Energy Practice, annual revenues from distributed generation microgrids will reach $12.7 billion in 2018.
"Microgrids represent a fundamental building block of the ultimate smart grid, designed to serve the needs of energy producers, consumers, and distribution utilities," says senior research analyst Peter Asmus. "Perhaps most importantly, microgrids are an important accelerator for various kinds of distributed power generation, particularly from renewable sources."
Some of the technologies that will enable the growth of microgrids in coming years, such as system controllers, are still immature, while others, such as solar photovoltaics, are already global markets in their own right. The foundation of any microgrid is distributed generation (such as solar PV or small wind power), but nearly as critical are smart, bi-directional islanding inverters that enable microgrids to operate in standalone mode, disconnected from the wider grid. Over the course of the next several years, the islanding function of inverters for renewable distributed energy generation, combined heat and power (CHP), fuel cells, and energy storage will become much more prevalent, according to the report.
Standard Solar To Install One of The Nation's First Commercial Solar Micro-Grids
Standard Solar, a leader in the full-service development, construction, integration, financing and installation of solar electric systems, in partnership with Solar Grid Storage, today announced the installation of a grid-interactive energy storage system co-located with a new photovoltaic (PV) array, creating one of the nation's first commercial scale micro-grids.
Located at Konterra's corporate headquarters in Laurel, MD, this innovative, islandable micro-grid system is powered by a 402kW solar PV array. In the event of a grid power outage, the Solar Grid Storage advanced lithium-ion energy storage system allows critical circuits at Konterra to remain energized. The project is financed by the Kingdon Gould Jr. family and supported through a Maryland Energy Administration (MEA) "Game Changer" Grant.
"Widespread implementation of grid-connected energy storage systems is key to solar PV becoming a mainstream energy supplier," said Tony Clifford, CEO of Standard Solar. "As one of the nation's first commercial micro-grids, this project can truly be a game changer for PV. Not only does it provide backup power to Konterra, it also supports grid integrity and allows for participation in ancillary markets for electricity. The commercial potential of grid-based solar storage is enormous and we are honored to be leading the way in partnership with Solar Grid Storage, MEA and Konterra."
The system has the potential to reduce PV project costs and offers new benefits to hosts including backup power, demand reduction and peak shaving. Moreover, the system can enhance grid reliability by helping balance the grid through frequency regulation, volt-ampere reactive (VARs) compensation, and demand response services. The system is scheduled to be operational by the fall of 2013.
MEA's Game Changer Competitive Grant Program was created to provide cost-sharing grants for innovative clean energy generation technologies and market strategies in Maryland. The winning grantees embrace either a new technology or a new methodology that extends beyond existing renewable energy generation; the Game Changers seek to advance the market into uncharted territory. Winners were evaluated on the merits of their energy production, cost-effectiveness, market potential, project viability, cost share, project performance measurement and verification methodology, and project visibility. The projects are funded based on their ability to help the State meet its renewable energy portfolio standard of 20 percent by 2022, and the grant recipients' progress towards that goal will be evaluated for two years following their award.
"Advancing our energy storage infrastructure builds greater confidence in Maryland's grid resiliency," said Abigail Ross Hopper, MEA Director. "Grid storage technology also improves the delivery service of our first responders, armed services, telecommunications, waste water treatment plants, and emergency shelters."
Earlier this month, Standard Solar made its second Commitment to Action as part of the Clinton Global Initiative America (CGI America) meeting. CGI is an initiative of the Clinton Foundation that convenes global leaders to create and implement innovative solutions to the world's most pressing challenges. During CGI America, held this month in Chicago, Standard Solar pledged a two-pronged commitment to address the industry challenge of fully integrating photovoltaics (PV) with the grid. The Konterra system is Standard Solar's first project under this commitment.
About Standard Solar
Standard Solar, Inc. is a leader in the full-service development, construction, integration, financing and installation of solar electric systems. Dedicated to making solar solutions more accessible to businesses, institutions and governments, the company is leading the way to energy independence. Committed to offering responsible and energy cost-saving solar solutions that conform to the highest standards, Standard Solar is one of the most trusted and respected solar companies. Since 2004, Standard Solar has been the partner of choice to make solar energy financially accessible, helping customers through financing options, including Power Purchase Agreements (PPAs) and navigating expanded federal and state and local tax credits. The company's Standard Energy Solutions (SES) division provides home energy solutions including home solar, energy efficiency and energy management services. Named one of the Fastest Growing Private Companies in America for three consecutive years by Inc. Magazine, Standard Solar is headquartered in Rockville, MD. For more information, please visit www.standardsolar.com.
About Solar Grid Storage
Solar Grid Storage is a company of experienced solar veterans who have developed a ground breaking business model to allow batteries to be added to commercial solar photovoltaic (PV) installations while lowering costs and adding new benefits. The Solar Grid Storage solution provides all standard PV functions while unlocking innovative new uses of solar energy. Its PowerFactor(TM) systems are deployed at virtually no cost to the host, enable PV systems to operate and provide emergency power during outages, can reduce peak demand charges, and help grid operators balance power on the grid. Solar Grid Storage's technical expertise, industry insight, and proprietary storage-as-a-service model integrating storage into solar installations while reducing costs is ushering in the grid of the future.
CONTACT: PR Contact for Standard Solar:
Keira Shein, 410-363-9494
Military Installations Already Using Micro-Grids Successfully
America's Defense Department is the largest single global consumer of petroleum, and its military operations comprise the largest demand for all forms of energy. In addition, bases located within the United States and abroad depend on aging transmission systems susceptible to cyber-terrorism and unreliability.
This report analyzes the uses and development of the military microgrids. The report begins with an overview microgrids and smart grids. It provides case studies of military installations already using micro smart grids successfully.
A microgrid is a smaller version of the Smart Grid that is localized to a particular area, so its potential use for military functions is vast. Similar to the function of the smart grid, a military microgrid is also expected to improve the energy efficiency and accelerate the integration of various renewable energy resources.
The DoD moves about 50 million gallons of fuel monthly in Afghanistan, much of which is for power generation. The fuel powers more than 15,000 generators in Afghanistan alone. What if, through use of Microgrid technologies, the military could cut that fuel transportation and use in half?
The Department of Defense is already working on establishing a network of independent microgrids that integrate distributed renewable generation, electric vehicles, and demand response at its bases. The growth potential for military microgrid market is anticipated to result in upwards of 54.8 megawatts total capacity by 2018.
According to the Secretary of Defense, 40+ DoD military bases either have operating microgrids, planned microgrids, or have conducted studies of microgrid technologies. The DoD also has 600 forward operating bases (FOBs) and is investigating the deployment of mobile microgrids in Afghanistan.
This report provides service and technology providers, government contractors, and military installations with a guide to understanding military microgrids. It acts as a solid start to planning a military microgrid design and installation, providing case studies of existing military microgrid systems.
This report profiles major smart grids technology and service providers to the military. Companies profiled in this report include: Honeywell International, Lockheed Martin Corporation, Eaton Corp Plc, General Electric, Skybuilt Power, Sturman Industries, Sandia National Laboratories, and ZBB Energy Corporation.
Many other examples exist of the growing use of microgrids. Readers, please feel free to use the comment section here to let us know about them.
Utilities seem indispensable. Yet suddenly there is talk on Wall Street of a looming "death spiral" for the business, with solar power being the culprit.
Hyperbole? Yes, but only up to a point. Back in May, the Dow Jones Utility Average came within a whisker of its pre-crisis all-time high set early in 2008. High dividends sell well with investors when interest rates are so low, especially when such payments are backed by something as solid as the electricity grid.
But danger can come out of a clear blue sky or even a cloudy one. Take a look at Germany. Generous subsidies there caused solar panels to sprout all over what is hardly a tropical paradise. As traditional utilities E.ON and RWE have struggled to adapt, their combined market value has slumped 56% over the past four years in a rising German stock market.
The death-spiral thesis runs thusly. Subsidies and falling technology costs are making distributed solar power—panels on roofs, essentially—cost-competitive with retail electricity prices in places like the southwestern U.S. As more people switch to solar, utilities sell less electricity to those customers, especially as they often have the right to sell surplus power from their panels back to the utility.
The result: Utilities must spread their high fixed costs for things like repairing the grid over fewer kilowatt-hours, making solar power even more competitive and pushing more people to adopt it in a vicious circle.
But distributed solar power is still in its infancy. In sunny California, costs shifted onto customers without panels from those with them amounted to just 0.73% of that state's utilities' revenue last year, according to Moody's. So why worry?
The utilities sector divides into two broad camps. Regulated utilities operate integrated networks of power plants, transmission and distribution grids. They agree to spending plans and an allowed rate of return with state regulators, determining customers' monthly bills. Meanwhile, merchant generators operate power plants selling electricity to the highest bidder.
Despite the perceived threat to regulated utilities, it is actually the merchant generators who look more exposed to distributed solar power for now.
As a rival power source, solar takes market share from traditional generators. And once panels are installed, the sun's energy is free, so it will displace more expensive sources such as gas-fired plants. This serves to reduce prices overall, so solar power cuts both volume and price for traditional generators. Not the sort of outlook that garners a high earnings multiple.
David Crane, chief executive of merchant generator NRG Energy, calls the spread of distributed energy the biggest change to hit the industry since the grid was built many decades ago. To adapt, NRG is investing in solar and other distributed sources, essentially taking cash generated today by its traditional business and redeploying it into growth opportunities.
For regulated utilities, the idea that solar panels will enable everyone to leave the grid, making such networks redundant, is overstated. Solar power is intermittent. Batteries can help, but ISI Group estimates their price needs to drop by a factor of 10 to be competitive with grid power.
Moreover, distributed energy's small penetration means the existing grid is needed for a while to come. So regulators have to balance encouraging renewable power with the continuing need to prevent blackouts. Last month, regulators curbed Arizona Public Service's planned charge to solar-panel owners to mitigate the costs of grid maintenance being pushed onto non-owners—but didn't reject the idea of that fee altogether.
Even if panels don't deal regulated utilities a fatal blow, investors still have cause for concern. Solar panels aren't the only technology out there. For most of the U.S., natural gas from shale is a bigger energy opportunity. Gas isn't free like sunlight. But it is still cheap—and available day or night. And besides power stations, it can fuel generation equipment that fits in a basement. Stirling engines, for instance, burn gas to make power and also capture useful heat.
Such machines potentially can be used alongside solar panels, allowing owners to switch between different sources. At that point, connection to the grid really can become optional.
Mass adoption is likely years away, but it is no longer over the horizon. NRG is piloting Stirling-engine products now. And while solar and wind power represent just 4.2% of the U.S. generation mix, they were only 1.3% five years ago, and the pace of adoption is accelerating. What looks too expensive or esoteric today can quickly make gains; think mobile versus fixed-line phones.
Distributed power will keep eating away at the traditional utilities' share of an electricity market that is barely expanding anyway. U.S. electricity consumption this year is forecast by the Energy Department to be 2% below the peak in 2007. Efficiency efforts keep eroding electricity requirements.
"Essentially, we do not see the recent slowdown in electric load growth as cyclical anymore; it is a new and permanent feature of modern life," says Julien Dumoulin-Smith of UBS.
That structural element is why, even if the sound of bells tolling is faint, the impact on utility stocks will be felt much sooner. Greg Gordon and Jon Cohen of ISI Group point out that absent expected growth in demand, regulators may be reluctant to approve regulated utilities' investment plans. Why saddle bill payers with the cost of an asset built to last 40 years if it might only be needed for 15 or 20? And in this business, less investment means less allowed return—and, therefore, earnings.
For utility stocks, that squeezes the "terminal value": the number put on forecast cash flows stretching into infinity that underpins a large chunk of most companies' valuation. Messrs. Gordon and Cohen calculate a theoretical price/earnings multiple of more than 15 times for a utility with assets expanding at 3% a year, and with a terminal value. Cut growth to zero and take away the terminal value, and that earnings multiple drops by a quarter.
And in contrast to the past decade, U.S. interest rates look set to rise. So utilities will also find their dividends a less effective draw for investors, even as the competitive threat gathers steam.
The gyres may look exceedingly wide, but that spiral is taking shape.
Solar Energy Has Blown Past Grid Parity
For decades, grid parity has been the holy grail of the solar industry. It's the mythical transition point when solar suddenly becomes cheaper than the grid, opening up a world of new demand and leading to a solar revolution.
As recently as two years ago, the solar industry was fighting the fact that solar power cost significantly more than the grid, requiring subsidies to keep the industry afloat. Today, rapidly falling costs have transformed the industry, and in many locations grid parity is already in the rear view mirror.
US And European Projects Are Already Below Grid Prices
US solar projects aren't yet being sold to the grid on the spot market, but they are below retail prices and approaching parity with prices on the wholesale market. SunPower signed an agreement to sell power from its 100 MW Henrietta Plant in California for 10.5 cents per kW-hr, well below the state's retail rate of about 16 cents per kW-hr.
First Solar is also selling power from a Macho Springs project in New Mexico for 5.79 cents per kW-hr. Even when you add in state incentives amounting to about 2.7 cents per kW-hr for the next ten years, the cost of about 8.5 cents per kW-hr is well below the 10.1 cent per kW-hr average cost of electricity in New Mexico during July.
Europe's feed-in tariffs for solar power are now below 15 Euro cents per kW-hr, well below the 26.5 Euro cents the average retail customer pays.
Residential Solar Is The Game Changer
What has really upset the traditional energy industry is the expansion of homeowners generating their own power. SolarCity (NASDAQ: SCTY) is the industry's leader, offering $0-down solar leases to customers who then sell excess power back to the grid. Solar leases still benefit from the 30% federal investment tax credit, but there's no guaranteed rate from the utilities. In that respect, it's the best judge of grid parity.
What SolarCity (and, to a smaller extent, SunPower) can do is lease panels for a lower cost than the price of retail power. In California, for example, that means leasing a solar system for $0.18 while utilities charge in excess of $0.20 per kW-hr. For SolarCity, payback comes over 20 years -- and the payoff is projected to be between $1.50 and $2.70 per watt this quarter, versus a typical installation cost of about $3-$4 per watt.
Residential solar already costs less than the grid, and, considering the high margins SolarCity and SunPower are generating, there's still opportunity to mover lower.
Solar Power Is Here To Stay
The cost of solar power is moving lower, while the cost of generating electricity from traditional sources typically rises 1%-3% each year. With solar already past grid parity in Chile, on California roofs, and on most utility scale projects, the sky is the limit for the industry.
Grid parity marks the point where solar demand should explode worldwide, and it's blowing through that point faster than most people think.
To See The Future of Electric Power, Just Travel To Africa
Utilities may soon be obsolete in Hawaii and California. But let's not forget that some parts of the developing world may simply leap-frog into the future, eschewing centralized grids for solar + storage solutions.
The government of Equatorial Guinea has selected MAECI Solar, a division of Management and Economic Consulting, Inc., in collaboration with GE Power Water and Princeton Power Systems, Inc., to install a 5-megawatt (MW) solar microgrid system on Annobon Province, an island off Equatorial Guinea in west central Africa. The solar microgrid will feature 5-MW solar modules and system integration by MAECI, an energy management system and controls from Princeton Power Systems and energy storage from GE. The island-wide microgrid will provide reliable, predictable power, supply enough electricity to handle 100 percent of the island’s current energy demand and be the largest self-sufficient solar project on the continent of Africa.
“MAECI is fortunate to have witnessed firsthand the development of Equatorial Guinea over the past few years," said Chris Massaro, senior vice president, MAECI. "We are extremely excited to bring this solar microgrid solution to Annobon Island as well as support President Obiang Nguema's vision to raise the quality of life for the people and bring economic diversification to Equatorial Guinea. This project brings both. The Annobon Electrification Project will be the platform for economic growth on the island by bringing a much needed power supply that will enable the development of multiple industries, add 700 to 1,000 direct and indirect jobs to Annobon Island and significantly raise the standard of living.”
Annobon Province has a population of approximately 5,000 residents. Today, the residents have reliable electricity for up to five hours per day and spend an average of 15-20 percent of their income on supplemental power. The solar microgrid in development will eliminate this expense entirely and provide reliable electricity 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The project is a part of Equatorial Guinea’s National Economic Development Plan Horizon 2020, which aims to make Equatorial Guinea an “emerging economy” and accelerate its development and democratization by 2020.
“We’re excited to be a part of this historic project for Annobon Province and Equatorial Guinea,” said Jeff Wyatt, general manager of GE’s solar and energy storage business. “GE’s energy storage technology will help enable reliable, predictable power for the residents of Annobon through balancing the real-time supply and demand of solar and withstanding extreme heat environments without the need for air conditioning. This is an ideal technology for microgrids like Annobon Island.”
The Annobon microgrid is enabled by the Princeton Power Systems’ BIGI-250 energy management platform, the world’s first three-port industrial-scale solar energy management system, with UL listing and thousands of operating hours in commercial applications since 2012. Princeton Power Systems has extensive prior experience working with GE’s energy storage team. GE’s batteries, in addition to providing superior high temperature performance and improved safety, offer environmental responsibility with non-toxic and recyclable materials and worldwide support.
“Today, over 1 billion people are without power. We are taking our experience in microgrids from Alcatraz Island, the U.S. Department of Defense and private sector customers to now apply it to improving quality of life for people in rural areas where grid power does not exist or is not reliable,” said Ken McCauley, president and CEO, Princeton Power Systems. “We look forward to future global projects across the world to provide power to these areas to have hospitals, lighting and other basic human needs.”
PowerGen’s third Kiva funded micro-grid is also in the Maasai Mara. Nkoilale is a commercial center with various businesses catering to both locals and visitors passing through. The 1.4 kW micro-grid installed in May 2014 allows the business owners to better serve their customers while reducing their energy expenses.
Ololailumtia Village, Kenya:
This village on the edge of the Maasai Mara has two PowerGen micro-grids providing electricity to different portions of the town thanks to Kiva and its lenders. The micro-grids bring power for lighting, TV, refrigeration, a medical clinic and other uses of power to over 100 beneficiaries. The first was installed in March and the second in April of 2014. The March grid was the first ever micro-grid loan for PowerGen and Kiva and we are excited to build on the partnership to bring more renewable energy solutions to villages like Ololailumtia across Kenya.
Takawiri Island, Kenya:
This micro-grid in eastern Lake Victoria served 15 customers with a 705W AC grid when it was initially installed in December 2013. Since then, we have expanded the grid to reach 31 customers with a total of 1410W. We installed this grid with our partner, access:energy.
Mageta Island, Kenya:
The micro-grid on Mageta Island is the smallest of our three Lake Victoria grids with our partner, access:energy. Installed in December 2013, it is 360W and connects to seven customers.
Sinda Village, Zambia:
The Zambian micro-grid was installed in July 2013 and is currently bringing power to approximately 35 individuals in the Eastern Province town of Sinda. This project was completed with PowerGen’s partner in Zambia, Zamsolar. The micro-grid features metering technology from an American partner, Lumeter.
Remba Island, Kenya:
Along with our partner, access:energy, a micro-grid was installed in September 2013 on Remba Island in Lake Victoria. The island, known as “Slum Island,” is only a few hundred meters long, yet houses thousands of individuals who rely on generators, batteries, and kerosene as their only sources of power. The micro-grid has over 2 kW of solar and 1 kW of wind power that will provide electricity to hundreds on the island.
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