What is Maximum Power Point Tracking (MPPT)
The function of a MPPT is analogous to the transmission in a car. When the transmission is in the wrong gear, the wheels do not receive maximum power. That's because the engine is running either slower or faster than its ideal speed range. The purpose of the transmission is to couple the engine to the wheels, in a way that lets the engine run in a favorable speed range in spite of varying acceleration and terrain.
Let's compare a PV module to a car engine. Its voltage is analogous to engine speed. Its ideal voltage is that at which it can put out maximum power. This is called its maximum power point. (It's also called peak power voltage, abbreviated Vpp). Vpp varies with sunlight intensity and with solar cell temperature. The voltage of the battery is analogous to the speed of the car's wheels. It varies with battery state of charge, and with the loads on the system (any appliances and lights that may be on). For a 12V system, it varies from about 11 to 14.5V.
In order to charge a battery (increase its voltage), the PV module must apply a voltage that is higher than that of the battery. If the PV module's Vpp is just slightly below the battery voltage, then the current drops nearly to zero (like an engine turning slower than the wheels). So, to play it safe, typical PV modules are made with a Vpp of around 17V when measured at a cell temperature of 25°C. They do that because it will drop to around 15V on a very hot day. However, on a very cold day, it can rise to 18V!
What happens when the Vpp is much higher than the voltage of the battery?
The module voltage is dragged down to a lower-than-ideal voltage. Traditional charge controllers transfer the PV current directly to the battery, giving you NO benefit from this added potential.
Now, let's make one more analogy. The car's transmission varies the ratio between speed and torque. At low gear, the speed of the wheels is reduced and the torque is increased, right? Likewise, the MPPT varies the ratio between the voltage and current delivered to the battery, in order to deliver maximum power. If there is excess voltage available from the PV, then it converts that to additional current to the battery. Furthermore, it is like an automatic transmission. As the Vpp of the PV array varies with temperature and other conditions, it "tracks" this variance and adjusts the ratio accordingly. Thus it is called a Maximum Power Point Tracker.
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