• Alhussein AlbarbarEmail author
  • Canras Batunlu


The role of power electronic converters and devices in renewable power systems is introduced in this chapter. Wind turbines and photovoltaic solar energy systems are briefly explained with a focus on the flow of power and interfacing techniques used in stand-alone and grid-connected systems. Subsequently, power electronics common failure modes are discussed in detail and effects of those failures on their reliability and downtime of energy systems are also covered.


Power electronic converters Wind turbines Photovoltaic solar systems Failure modes Reliability of power systems 

1.1 The Role of Power Electronics in Renewable Power Systems

Renewable energy sources (RESs) have recently been playing a significant role in electricity generation. Accessing to low-cost, environmental friendly energy is the key to the economic future of countries around the globe. It is also a fact that reducing CO2 emission requires integrating more renewable resources and less dependency on the conventional fossil energy sources. Power electronic converters (PECs) interface renewable energy generators (such as solar panels and wind turbines) to an external load of utility grid by conditioning the flow of energy (i.e., voltage and frequency regulation) and safety [1].

1.1.1 Power Electronics in Wind Energy Systems

Wind energy systems have become one of the most emerging renewable energy technologies in the last decade. For instance, 25% of the entire electricity consumption in Denmark is provided by wind energy [2] and European Union (EU) commits that 20% of the entire electricity consumed will be provided through wind energy by 2020 [3]. Wind technology is adequate for future electricity production to some countries with sufficient wind resources such as United Kingdom (UK) which has approximately 40% of the wind energy in Europe [4].

In wind energy systems, wind is first converted into mechanical energy by turbine’s rotor and then into variable AC voltage/current by generators. Subsequently, AC–DC and DC–AC power converters are used to regulate the generated electric power [5, 6]. Topologies of wind systems can be of fixed or variable speed turbines. PECs used in renewable energy systems consist of a set of combination of devices such as drivers, cooling systems, capacitors, and power module. A view of a wind turbine hub with the PEC unit can be seen from the Fig. 1.1 [7, 8].
Fig. 1.1

Components in Wind Turbine Hub [8, 7]

Power electronic converters (PEC) in variable speed wind systems are divided into two categories namely partial scale (PS) and full scale (FS), where doubly fed induction generator (DFIG) is common option for PS topology, as seen in Fig. 1.2. Two and three-level converters are two most popular types in wind energy applications [9]. One advantage of the three-level converters is that they have additional one more output voltage level compared to the two-level topology [10]. Output voltages are also smoother with a three-level converter which leads to smaller harmonics but it requires more components and complex control schemes. Two-level converters are still preferred in most of the wind applications because of its simpler structure. It is bidirectional power converter which consists of two conventional PWM-VSCs with six unidirectional commanded switch pair (i.e., an IGBT and a Diode) used as a rectifier, and with the same number of switch pair, used as an inverter [11] as depicted in Fig. 1.2. Both AC–DC generator side rectifier and DC–AC grid side two serially connected IGBT-diode pair can be used as one leg of the converter topology as depicted.
Fig. 1.2

Two-level back-to-back converter topology in a full scale (FS) and b partial scale (PS) based wind energy system

In general, the generator side rectifier is controlled through a controller to ensure maximum electrical torque with minimum current. The maximum rotor power is obtained by using a tracking scheme which controls the optimum rotor speed for each wind speed. On the other hand, the grid side inverter controls the DC link voltage via a controller and ensures the line current to be sinusoidal through a hysteresis controller [2, 6]. Semiconductor devices are essential components that determine efficiency of PECs for energy conditioning [12]. Silicon-controlled rectifiers (SCR), gate turn off thyristors (GTOs), metal oxide semiconductor field effect transistor (MOSFET), and transistors [13]. Owing to their high switching frequencies and large current–voltage ratings [14], insulated gate bipolar transistors (IGBTs) are the most commonly used semiconductor devices.

In fixed speed operation, the generator is connected via a transformer to grid and operating at an almost fixed speed. These systems have cheap construction and do not require synchronization devices. Hence, the converter topologies are not complicated and do not need advanced control schemes. Instead, they have to be rigidly constructed in order to absorb high mechanical stresses during high speed winds [5].

In contrast, with the variable speed operation of wind systems, the speed of the generator can be increased or decreased based on the weather conditions, which provide less wear and tear on the tower and other components. It also maximizes the power injected through grid by using controllable power electronic conversation topologies. The doubly fed induction generator (DFIG) system provides high-quality power to the grid and it can decrease the acoustic noise from the wind turbine since it has the capability of operating at lower speed even when the wind speed is high. It also has the ability to output more than its rated power without becoming overheated [5]. The control of this scheme should be achieved in a way to adjust the reactive power exchanged between the wind turbine and the grid power drawn from the wind turbine in order to track the optimum operation point [2, 5]. Detailed review for the topological differences of wind turbine systems, advantages and disadvantages of generator types, converter options, and control schemes is provided in [2, 5, 6].

For a small wind system supplying local loads, a permanent magnet direct current (PMDC) generator simplifies the system and makes it easier to operate. The induction generator, on the other hand, gives AC power and used by most consumers these days. This type of generators is self-excited by shunt capacitors connected to the output terminals. The frequency is regulated by controlling the turbine speed; the battery is charged by an AC–DC rectifier and discharged through a DC–AC inverter [4].

High and random variations in wind speeds have huge impact on total amount of generated energy. Hence, unpredictable temperature profile occurs within the associated power electronic converters (PECs). This causes difficulties in predicting, the highly temperature dependent, lifetime of the switching elements used in PECs. Failures in those devices cause are one of commonest causes for downtime in power generation plants, in particular, those utilize renewable energy sources [15]. For example, electrical systems (including PECs) are responsible for 24% of total failures faced on wind energy systems, as shown in Fig. 1.3.
Fig. 1.3

Failure rates for the wind energy system [8]

A recent wind energy update and maintenance report [16] states that 66% of PECs used in offshore wind farms is due to break down mechanisms where the total maintenance cost is up to €300,000 per year. Furthermore, it is stated that estimated lifetime of both wind and solar energy conversion system is only 20–25 years because of the unaddressed issues, such as uncertainty of mission profiles, strength of components, lack of understanding of failure mechanisms [17, 18], and increase in electronic content and complexity (i.e., heat coupling effect [19]). Accurate analysis of converters reliability is crucial for preventing permanent damages and for increasing lifetime of wind and solar systems [17]. Motivation for new driving methods, increase of cooling capacity and improvements in material properties would lead to reduction in downtime and extension in lifetime of energy systems.

1.1.2 Power Electronics in Solar Energy Systems

Solar energy systems are powered by sun energy and they have been receiving prominent consideration especially in the last two decades. Generating electricity using photovoltaic (PV) solar energy modules is getting more popular due to recent advances in PV-cells and power conditions circuitries. Ratio between produced power from photovoltaic (PV) solar systems and their costs is also declining as result of those technological developments. Global carbon emission is aimed to be reduced by 60% in UK by 2020 [20] of which solar systems could contribute by 4% [21]. Photovoltaic (PV) panels are used to harvest solar energy, which is conditioned by DC–DC converters and DC–AC inverters.

PV solar systems convert the solar energy to DC voltage/current, thereby the DC–DC and DC–AC conversions are more popular in the photovoltaic application [6], as shown in Fig. 1.4.
Fig. 1.4

A sample PV system connection to grid and load via DC–DC and DC–AC conversion

The generated DC power is first coupled to a DC–DC converter into a DC link capacitor. By using the MPPT method, the maximum available power can be stored into battery bank or it can be fed into grid and loads via a DC–AC inverter. The requirements of these two coupling operations are different from each other in term of control variables. The DC–AC inversion is also processed through a MPPT operation. A data acquisition control unit is necessary to provide desired control functions at specific operating conditions. The operating parameters of the converters are then updated to achieve maximum power extraction. Different topological power electronic converter schemes are discussed and reviewed in [6]. A number of PV panels can be connected to a central inverter however; the reliability of whole system relies only on one inverter. One advanced version of this connection is the string inverter type where solar panels connected in series are interfaced to separate inverters. In this arrangement, reliability is increased since losses are shared by more than one inverter. This scheme also decreased the high voltage capability expectation of central connected scheme. Another configuration for the PV system converters is the module based scheme. In this particular connection, each PV panel has its own inverter. It prevents the inconsistency in loss profiles and maximizes power production. However, the scheme increases total cost of the system due to high number of converters. A recent topology for the solar converter is the multi-string inverters. They combine the topologies of string and module inverters. They consist of several DC–DC converters connected in series with several PV panels operated by individual MPPTs and they are fed into a common DC–AC inverter. One string leg of a multi-string inverter topology is already discussed in Fig. 1.4.

Photovoltaic solar systems have nonlinear current–voltage (I–V) characteristics and maximum generated power depends on environmental factors such as temperature and irradiance. These weather variations also cause maximum power point changes on I–V curve of the PV systems as the irradiance varies as shown in Fig. 1.5. To harvest maximum available power from the solar panels, maximum power point tracking (MPPT) algorithm is used, i.e., perturb and observe (P&O), incremental conductance (IC) and constant voltage methods. These methods regulate switching patterns of PECs to adjust the operating voltage of PV systems to track maximum power points.
Fig. 1.5

Maximum power point variation as irradiance level varies

PECs are widely used in solar PV applications. However, PV solar systems face a number of failures, which cause concerns related to their reliability and availability, and have negative effects on customers’ satisfaction. Alam et al. [22] stated ground fault, line-to-line fault, hot spot formation, polarity mismatch, bypass diode failure, and dust/soil formation are major failures in PV systems. DeGraaff [23] presented failure distribution in a PV system, over a period of 8 years. They found the highest failure rate (36%) comes from internal electrical circuit which includes power electronic components, followed by junction box and cables (12%), burn marks on cells (10%), and encapsulated failure (9%) as shown in Fig. 1.6a. The possible failure causes of PECs are stated by Tsoutsos et al. [24] on PV installations and maintenance as wrong positioning, where it is directly exposed to the sunlight which causes temperature fluctuations, insufficient ventilation, placement in a long distance from the PV array combiner/junction box, installation on or near a combustible surface. In a similar study proposed by Moore and Post [25], PECs were confirmed as being responsible for 37% of unscheduled maintenance, as shown in Fig. 1.6b [4].
Fig. 1.6

Failures in PV systems a failure distribution [23], b unscheduled maintenance events [25]

Hence, about ~40% of failures in PV solar systems caused by power electronic devices and thus rigorous analysis on the PECs lifetime is timely needed. Physics of failure approach is one method that deals with the impact of materials, defects and stress on power electronic devices [17].

1.1.3 Common Failure Modes of Power Electronic Devices

DC–DC converters and DC–AC inverters use a number of electronic components including IGBTs for switching purposes. An IGBT has relatively shorter lifetime compared to other components used in power electronic converters [26]. This is due to thermomechanical effects, long-term exposure to high temperatures and variable mission profile [27]. IGBTs consist of different layers (see Fig. 1.7) with different material properties. During its operation, heat flux transfers through different heat paths from die chip to cooling system where thermal cycling generates temperature fluctuations within these layers. Therefore, stress occurs within bonded materials with different coefficients of thermal expansion (CTE) [28]. It causes fatigue at different locations of the power module such as bonding wire, solder, and failures occur eventually [12].
Fig. 1.7

Structural details of IGBT module [17]

Temperature and temperature cycling are major stressors that affect reliability of IGBTs, see Table 1.1. According to Lu et al. [29], almost 60% of failures are temperature induced as shown in Fig. 1.8. For every 10 °C, temperature rise the failure rate nearly doubles in the operating environment. In practice, mean junction temperature has to be between the maximum and minimum allowed ratings (as per specified in datasheets) which are generally less than 125 °C to avoid possible faults.
Table 1.1

Failure mechanisms of PECs [17]

Failure mechanisms

Failure sites

Relevant loads


Die attach, wire bond/TAB, solder leads, bond pads, interfaces

ΔT, DT/dt, dwell time, ΔH, ΔV



M, ΔV, T

Electro migration


T, J

Conductive filament formation

Between metallisation


Stress driven diffusion voiding

Metal traces

S, T

Dielectric breakdown

Dielectric layers

V, T

T temperature, H humidity, Δ cyclic range, V voltage; M moisture; J current density; S stress

Fig. 1.8

Chart of break down mechanism [3]

Two main failure mechanisms are solder fatigue and bond wire liftoff. Thermal resistance increment occurs due to solder fatigue, and on-state voltage increment is commonly caused by wire bond liftoff [30]. In PECs, failure of one component such as DC link capacitor may affect the operation of another one which causes over voltage stress on other switching devices and possible faults [31]. However, these components have also individual failure mechanisms which have significant impact on reliability of PECs. For instance, aluminum electrolytic capacitors (ALEC) and metallized polypropylene film capacitors (MPPFC) are used as DC link capacitors; and high capacitance multilayer ceramic capacitors (MLCC) are commonly used in DC–DC converters [32]. Failure mechanism comparison for the three different types of capacitors can be seen in Table 1.2. The key factor in the reliability of the electrolytic capacitors, for instance, is called effective series resistance (ESR). The evaporation of electrolyte was investigated by Harada et al. [33] and was identified as an indicator for end of capacitor’s lifetime.
Table 1.2

Failure mechanisms comparison for capacitors [32]

Capacitor Type




Dominant failure modes

Wear out

Open circuit

Open circuit

Open circuit

Dominant failure mechanisms

Electrolyte, vaporization; thermomechanical reaction

Moisture corrosion; dielectric loss

Insulation degradation; flex cracking

Most critical stressors

T, V, I

T, V, humidity

T, V, vibration

Self-heating capability




Inductors have the lowest failure rates compared to other components used in power electronic converters [34]. The failure can happen due to overheating and permanent change in the inductance which count for only about 3% of failures in PECs. Power diodes cause 10% of total failures in PECs [35]. In recent designs of power electronic modules, diode chips are manufactured along with IGBTs thus, their lifetime depends on cross-coupling heat mechanism. Therefore, electrothermal behavior of the diode chips is important for accurate estimation of lifetime of the PECs. Failures are mostly due to sever variations in temperature profiles caused by the nonideal doping behavior during conduction and blocking modes of operation when used as recovery and freewheeling diodes. As the current rating increases, even more degradation occurs between metal contacts and silicon chips [36].

1.1.4 Wire Bond LiftOff

Reconstruction of aluminum metallization usually initiates bond wire liftoff due to its plastic stress relaxation. This causes higher collector to emitter voltage, increases power losses and temperature profile during power cycling. Hence, expedites bond wire liftoff due to stress caused by thermal expansion between wire bond and the chip [37]. A close view on wire bond liftoff is shown in Fig. 1.9.
Fig. 1.9

Wire bond liftoff mechanism [30]

After emitter wire liftoff, the associated chip is no longer able to conduct the current; hence, other bond wires are forced to conduct higher current. This also causes a continual liftoff for the other wires as they may experience higher than their current capacity [37].

1.1.5 Solder Fatigue

High temperature fluctuations affect reliability of soldered joints by developing cracks and fatigue processes that eventually result in failure as depicted in Fig. 1.10.
Fig. 1.10

a Solder fatigue and b cracks and ceramic substrate failure [38] [39]

The failure occurs due to differences in thermal expansion properties of the solder joint layers such as silicon and copper. This layer is also subjected to high shear stress leading to failure due mismatched layers coefficients of thermal expansion (CTE) and temperature gradients. This, due to fatigue, will eventually grow to cracks leading to critical heat transfer reduction and massive increase in die generated heat [40]. Chip solder fatigue due to power cycling test is shown in Fig. 1.11 [41].
Fig. 1.11

Chip Solder Fatigue caused by power cycling a photograph and b ultrasound image [41]

1.1.6 Reconstruction of Metallization

This layer is made of metalized aluminum that has different thermal expansion coefficient to silicon and ultimately leads to fatigue due to temperature variations. Diffusional creep is the main cause of failures at temperatures higher than 175 °C, while it is the plastic deformation at lower temperatures [42]. Arab et al. stated reconstruction occurs due to short circuit faults [43]. Reconstruction metallization failure mode is shown in Fig. 1.12 [44].
Fig. 1.12

a Optical and b X-ray image of a diode after power cycling test [44]

1.1.7 Silicon and Silicon Carbide Technologies

Thanks to recent developments, operating voltage of silicon (Si) IGBTs have reached up to 6.5 kV with 1–100 kHz switching frequency range [45, 46]. IGBT chip thickness reduction, for the purpose of improving dynamic electrical properties, causes higher thermal resistances [47, 48]. To overcome such challenges, the recent trend is moving toward different technologies such as transistors built from silicon carbide (SiC) and galium nitride (GaN) [49, 50]. Physical material specification differences among these technologies and their superior properties can be seen in Table 1.3 which make them more reliable productions. It has been investigated that SiC structured transistors can be operated at higher switching frequency and temperature capacities [51, 52]. Conventional Si IGBTs can be operated at higher current densities with lower frequency while the SiC MOSFETs have better efficiency at higher switching frequencies over 100 kHz.
Table 1.3

Physical characteristic differences among semiconductor technologies [53, 54]








Crystal structure


Zinc blende


Bandgap (E G)







Electron mobility (μ n)







Hole mobility (μ p)







Dielectric constant (ε S)






Saturation drift velocity (v s)

1 × 107

2 × 107

2.7 × 107

2.7 × 107

2 × 107


Breakdown field (E B)

0.3 × 106

0.4 × 106

3 × 106

3 × 106

3 × 106


Thermal conductivity (k)







Melting point







Recently developed SiC MOSFETs have much smaller channel mobility compared to conventional ones [55, 56] but at higher total cost [57]. On the other hand, the thermal conductivity of SiC is much higher than that for silicon [58], so generated heat can easily be transferred from the device.

1.1.8 Lead Free Solder and Silver Sintering

Lead (Pb)-containing solders, i.e., Sn63Pb37, have been in use in power electronic manufacturing thanks to its low cost and melting temperature along with excellent wending properties with Cu, Ag etc. However, it has been replaced with lead free type solder due to lead (Pb) inherent toxicity. After the publication of RoHS requirements in 2006, significant shift has been made toward using these Pb-free power modules. Material properties and reliability aspect of Pb-free solder have been studied in literature [59] for different application types [60] and compared with the Pb-containing solder [61]. As discussed earlier, solder is a vital material for determining reliability of the power modules hence, properties of lead free solder alloys need to be fully understood for accurate lifetime estimations. For example, the Sn–Ag–Cu solder alloy, Sn96.5Ag3Cu0.5, has low melting temperature and good wetting ability compared to Sn–Ag solder alloys. The thermal parameters of Pb-free and conventional Pb-containing solders can be seen in Fig. 1.13.
Fig. 1.13

a Melting point and b thermal conductivity of Pb-containing and Pb-less solders [60]

Soldering can be replaced by a recent technology called sintering in power modules. The sintering is based on pulverized silver which forms a material connection when pressure and temperature are applied [62]. It combines two fine-grained ceramic or metallic materials, usually under high pressure, at temperatures below the melting point of both materials. The sinter joint is a thin silver layer with better thermal resistance compared to the soldered joint. Due to the high melting point of silver (960 °C), less joining fatigue occurs which increases the life time and power cycling capability [62].

1.2 Reliability and Health Monitoring Issues

Reliability of power electronic devices could be defined as the ability to perform their intended functions, understated conditions, for predetermined period of time [63]. Wang et al. [17] have summarized these limitations as; lack of systematic design for reliability approaches are over reliance on calculated value of mean time to failure and meantime between failures. Handbook-based failure prediction methods [64] aim to provide statistic estimations for remaining lifetime of converters but they lack valid justification [65] since they are not function of time dependent temperature profiles [66]. For instance, Military Handbook [67] establishes how to predict lifetime of electronic products in terms of the factors that influence reliability. However, the methods are not function of temperature gradient or time-dependent temperature profile [66]. Temperature cycling affects failure rate change with materials which are not considered in such books [17]. Therefore, accuracy of such studies would not be high. One useful approach is the physics of failure approach that is based on root caused failure mechanism analysis and the impact of materials, defects, and stresses on product reliability [17, 28, 29].


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of EngineeringThe Manchester Metropolitan UniversityManchesterUnited Kingdom

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