Photovoltaics (PV) is the field of technology and research related to the application of solar cells for energy by converting sunlight directly into electricity. Due to the growing need for solar energy, the manufacture of solar cells and photovoltaic arrays has expanded dramatically in recent years.
Photovoltaic production has been doubling every two years, increasing by an average of 48 percent each year since 2002, making it the world’s fastest-growing energy technology. At the end of 2007, according to preliminary data, cumulative global production was 12,400 megawatts. Roughly 90% of this generating capacity consists of grid-tied electrical systems. Such installations may be ground-mounted (and sometimes integrated with farming and grazing) or built into the roof or walls of a building, known as Building Integrated Photovoltaic or BIPV for short.
Financial incentives, such as preferential feed-in tariffs for solar-generated electricity, and net metering, have supported solar PV installations in many countries including Germany, Japan, and the United States.
Photovoltaics are best known as a method for generating solar power by using solar cells packaged in photovoltaic modules, often electrically connected in multiples as solar photovoltaic arrays to convert energy from the sun into electricity. To explain the photovoltaic solar panel more simply, photons from sunlight knock electrons into a higher state of energy, creating electricity. The term photovoltaic denotes the unbiased operating mode of a photodiode in which current through the device is entirely due to the transduced light energy. Virtually all photovoltaic devices are some type of photodiode.
Solar cells produce direct current electricity from light, which can be used to power equipment or to recharge a battery. The first practical application of photovoltaics was to power orbiting satellites and other spacecraft, but today the majority of photovoltaic modules are used for grid connected power generation. In this case an inverter is required to convert the DC to AC. There is a smaller market for off grid power for remote dwellings, roadside emergency telephones, remote sensing, and cathodic protection of pipelines.
Cells require protection from the environment and are packaged usually behind a glass sheet. When more power is required than a single cell can deliver, cells are electrically connected together to form photovoltaic modules, or solar panels. A single module is enough to power an emergency telephone, but for a house or a power plant the modules must be arranged in arrays. Although the selling price of modules is still too high to compete with grid electricity in most places, significant financial incentives in Japan and then Germany triggered a huge growth in demand, followed quickly by production.
Perhaps not unexpectedly, a significant market has emerged in urban or grid-proximate locations for solar-power-charged storage-battery based solutions. These are deployed as stand-by systems in energy deficient countries like India and as supplementary systems in developed markets. In a vast majority of situations such solutions make neither economic nor environmental sense, any green credentials being largely offset by the lead-acid storage systems typically deployed.
The EPIA/Greenpeace Advanced Scenario shows that by the year 2030, PV systems could be generating approximately 2,600 TWh of electricity around the world. This means that, assuming a serious commitment is made to energy efficiency, enough solar power would be produced globally in twenty-five years’ time to satisfy the electricity needs of almost 14% of the world’s population.
The current market leader in solar panel efficiency (measured by energy conversion ratio) is SunPower, a San Jose based company. Sunpower's cells have a conversion ratio of 23.4%, well above the market average of 12-18%. However, advances past this efficiency mark are being innovated by engineers at MIT and the California Institute of Technology, and efficiencies of 42% have been achieved at the University of Delaware.
The three leading countries (Germany, Japan and the USA) represent nearly 89% of the total worldwide PV installed capacity. On Wed 1 August 2007, word was published of construction of a production facility in China, which is projected to be one of the largest wafer factories in the world, with a peak capacity of around 1,500MW.
Germany was the fastest growing major PV market in the world during 2006 and 2007. In 2007, over 1.3 GWp of PV was installed. The German PV industry generates over 10,000 jobs in production, distribution and installation. By the end of 2006, nearly 88% of all solar PV installations in the EU were in grid-tied applications in Germany. The balance is off-grid (or stand alone) systems. Photovoltaic power capacity is measured as maximum power output under standardized test conditions (STC) in "Wp" (Watts peak). The actual power output at a particular point in time may be less than or greater than this standardized, or "rated," value, depending on geographical location, time of day, weather conditions, and other factors. Solar photovoltaic array capacity factors are typically under 25%, which is lower than many other industrial sources of electricity. Therefore the 2006 installed base peak output would have provided an average output of 1.2 GW (assuming 20% × 5,862 MWp). This represented 0.06 percent of global demand at the time.
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The Table below provides details of some of the largest photovoltaic plants in the world. As shown, Germany has a 10 MW photovoltaic system in Pocking, and a 12 MW plant in Arnstein, with a 40 MW power station planned for Muldentalkreis. Portugal has an 11 MW plant in Serpa and a 62 MW power station is planned for Moura. A 20 MW power plant is also planned for Beneixama, Spain. The photovoltaic power station proposed for Australia will use heliostat concentrator technology and will not come into service until 2010. It is expected to have a capacity of 154 MW when it is completed in 2013.
|154 MW**||Mildura/Swan Hill, Australia|| Proposed - Heliostat Concentrator Photovoltaic technology |
(see Solar power station in Victoria)
|62 MW*||Moura, Portugal|| BP, Yingli Green Energy|
(see Girassol solar power plant)
|40 MW*||Muldentalkreis, Germany||550,000 thin-film modules (First Solar) (see Waldpolenz Solar Park)||40|
|23 MW||Murcia, Spain||Hoya de Los Vincentes||41.6|
|21 MW||Calavéron, Spain||Solarpark Calaveron||40|
|20 MW||Trujillo, Spain|| Planta Solar La Magascona|
SunPower trackers 120,000 Atersa modules
|20 MW||Beneixama, Spain||Tenesol, Aleo and Solon solar modules with Q-Cells cells (see Beneixama photovoltaic power plant||30|
|18 MW*||Olivenza, Spain|| SunPower T20 tracking system|
(see Olivenza solar electric power plant)
|14 MW||Nellis AFB, Nevada|| SunPower T20 tracking system|
(see Nellis Solar Power Plant)
|14 MW||Taean, South Korea||(see LG Taean PV Park)||20.44|
|13.8 MW||Salamanca, Spain||(see Planta Solar de Salamanca)|
|12.7 MW||Murcia, Spain||(see Lobosillo Solar Park)|
|12 MW||Arnstein, Germany|| 1464 SOLON mover |
(see Erlasee Solar Park)
|11 MW||Serpa, Portugal|| 52,000 solar modules |
(see Serpa solar power plant)
|10 MW||Pocking, Germany|| 57,912 solar modules |
(see Pocking Solar Park)
|9.5 MW||Milagro, Spain||(see Monte Alto photovoltaic power plant)||14|
Building-integrated photovoltaics (BIPV) are increasingly incorporated into new domestic and industrial buildings as a principal or ancillary source of electrical power, and are one of the fastest growing segments of the photovoltaic industry. Typically, an array is incorporated into the roof or walls of a building, and roof tiles with integrated PV cells can now be purchased. Arrays can also be retrofit into existing buildings; in this case they are usually fitted on top of the existing roof structure. Alternatively, an array can be located separately from the building but connected by cable to supply power for the building.
Where a building is at a considerable distance from the public electricity supply (or grid) - in remote or mountainous areas – PV may be the preferred possibility for generating electricity, or PV may be used together with wind, diesel generators and/or hydroelectric power. In such off-grid circumstances batteries are usually used to store the electric power.
In grid-proximate locations, however, feeding the grid using PV panels is by far best way to go. This leads to optimum use of the investment in the photovoltaic system. In extreme cases, simultaneous use of grid-charged storage systems can be resorted to if grid failure or grid supplementation needs to be provided for. This however calls for a regulatory and commercial set-up rejig, including net-metering and fair feed-in agreements which most societies are far from reaching.
Till a decade or so ago, PV was used frequently to power calculators and novelty devices. Improvements in integrated circuits and low power LCD displays make it possible to power such devices for several years between battery changes, making PV use less common. In contrast, solar powered remote fixed devices have seen increasing use recently in locations where significant connection cost makes grid power prohibitively expensive. Such applications include, parking meters, emergency telephones, and temporary traffic signs as also remote guard posts and signals.
A majorly under-explored area remains the remote outposts of humanity, particularly in developing countries where many villages are more than five kilometers away from grid power. These are areas where the social costs and benefits probably offer the best case for going solar but the user has no ability to pay and no one else has an incentive to do so.
The table below is a pure mathematical calculation. It illustrates the calculated total cost in US cents per kilowatt-hour of electricity generated by a photovoltaic system as function of the investment cost and the efficiency, assuming some accounting parameters such as cost of capital and depreciation period. The row headings on the left show the total cost, per peak kilowatt (kWp), of a photovoltaic installation. The column headings across the top refer to the annual energy output in kilowatt-hours expected from each installed peak kilowatt. This varies by geographic region because the average insolation depends on the average cloudiness and the thickness of atmosphere traversed by the sunlight. It also depends on the path of the sun relative to the panel and the horizon.
Panels can be mounted at an angle based on latitude, which can add to total energy output. Solar tracking can also be utilized to access even more perpendicular sunlight, thereby raising the total energy output. The calculated values in the table reflect the total cost in cents per kilowatt-hour produced. They assume a 10% total capital cost (for instance 4% interest rate, 1% operating and maintenance cost, and depreciation of the capital outlay over 20 years).
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Grid parity, the point at which photovoltaic electricity is equal to or cheaper than grid power, is achieved first in areas with abundant sun and high costs for electricity such as in California and Japan.
George W. Bush has set 2015 as the date for grid parity in the USA.. Abengoa Solar has announced the award of two R&D projects in the field of Concentrating Solar Power (CSP) by the US Department of Energy that total over $14 million. The goal of the DOE R&D program, working in collaboration with partners such as Abengoa Solar, is to develop C.S.P. technologies that are competitive with conventional energy sources (grid parity) by 2015 .
General Electric's Chief Engineer predicts grid parity without subsidies in sunny parts of the United States by around 2015. Other companies predict an earlier date: the cost of solar power will be below grid parity for more than half of residential customers and 10% of commercial customers in the OECD, as long as grid electricity prices do not decrease through 2010 .
The fully-loaded cost (cost not price) of solar electricity is $0.25/kWh or less in most of the OECD countries. Within three years, the fully-loaded cost is likely to fall below $0.15/kWh for most of the OECD and reach $0.10/kWh in sunnier regions. These cost levels are driving three emerging trends :
The political purpose of incentive policies for PV is to grow the industry even where the cost of PV is significantly above grid parity, to allow it to achieve the economies of scale necessary to reach grid parity. The policies are implemented to promote national energy independence, high tech job creation and reduction of CO2 emissions.
Three incentive mechanisms are used (often in combination):
With investment subsidies, the financial burden falls upon the taxpayer, while with feed-in tariffs the extra cost is distributed across the utilities' customer bases. While the investment subsidy may be simpler to administer, the main argument in favour of feed-in tariffs is the encouragement of quality. Investment subsidies are paid out as a function of the nameplate capacity of the installed system and are independent of its actual power yield over time, thus rewarding the overstatement of power and tolerating poor durability and maintenance. Some electric companies offer rebates to their customers, such as Austin Energy in Texas, which offers $4.50/watt installed up to $13,500.
With feed-in tariffs, the financial burden falls upon the consumer. They reward the number of kilowatt-hours produced over a long period of time, but because the rate is set by the authorities, it may result in perceived overpayment. The price paid per kilowatt-hour under a feed-in tariff exceeds the price of grid electricity. Net metering refers to the case where the price paid by the utility is the same as the price charged. Net metering is particularly important because it can be done with no changes to standard electricity meters, which accurately measure power in both directions and automatically report the difference, and because it allows homeowners and businesses to generate electricity at a different time from consumption, effectively using the grid as a giant storage battery. As more photovoltaics are used ultimately storage will need to be provided, normally in the form of pumped hydro-storage. Normally with net metering deficits are billed each month, while surpluses are rolled over to the following month and paid annually.
Where price setting by supply and demand is preferred, RECs can be used. In this mechanism, a renewable energy production or consumption target is set, and the consumer or producer is obliged to purchase renewable energy from whoever provides it the most competitively. The producer is paid via an REC. In principle this system delivers the cheapest renewable energy, since the lowest bidder will win. However, uncertainties about the future value of energy produced are a brake on investment in capacity, and the higher risk increases the cost of capital borrowed.
The Japanese government through its Ministry of International Trade and Industry ran a successful programme of subsidies from 1994 to 2003. By the end of 2004, Japan led the world in installed PV capacity with over 1.1 GW.
In 2004, the German government introduced the first large-scale feed-in tariff system, under a law known as the 'EEG' (Erneuerbare Energien Gesetz) which resulted in explosive growth of PV installations in Germany. At the outset the FIT was over 3x the retail price or 8x the industrial price. The principle behind the German system is a 20 year flat rate contract. The value of new contracts is programmed to decrease each year, in order to encourage the industry to pass on lower costs to the end users. The programme has been more successful than expected with over 1GW installed in 2006, and political pressure is mounting to decrease the tariff to lessen the future burden on consumers.
Subsequently Spain, Italy, Greece and France introduced feed-in tariffs. None have replicated the programmed decrease of FIT in new contracts though, making the German incentive relatively less and less attractive compared to other countries. The French FIT offers a uniquely high premium (EUR 0.55/kWh) for building integrated systems. California, Greece, France and Italy have 30-50% more insolation than Germany making them financially more attractive.
In 2006 California approved the 'California Solar Initiative', offering a choice of investment subsidies or FIT for small and medium systems and a FIT for large systems. The small-system FIT of $0.39 per kWh (far less than EU countries) expires in just 5 years, and the alternate "EPBB" residential investment incentive is modest, averaging perhaps 20% of cost. All California incentives are scheduled to decrease in the future depending as a function of the amount of PV capacity installed.
At the end of 2006, the Ontario Power Authority (Canada) began its Standard Offer Program, the first in North America for small renewable projects (10MW or less). This guarantees a fixed price of $0.42 CDN per kWh over a period of twenty years. Unlike net metering, all the electricity produced is sold to the OPA at the SOP rate. The generator then purchases any needed electricity at the current prevailing rate (e.g., $0.055 per kWh). The difference should cover all the costs of installation and operation over the life of the contract.
The price per kilowatt hour or per peak kilowatt of the FIT or investment subsidies is only one of three factors that stimulate the installation of PV. The other two factors are insolation (the more sunshine, the less capital is needed for a given power output) and administrative ease of obtaining permits and contracts.
Unfortunately the complexity of approvals in California, Spain and Italy has prevented comparable growth to Germany even though the return on investment is better.
In some countries, additional incentives are offered for BIPV compared to stand alone PV.
Note that if electricity produced by photovoltaic panels were used to manufacture the modules instead of electricity from burning coal, cadmium emissions from coal power usage in the manufacturing process could be entirely eliminated.
Another key indicator of environmental performance, tightly related to the energy payback time, is the ratio of electricity generated divided by the energy required to build and maintain the equipment. This ratio is called the energy returned on energy invested (EROEI). Of course, little is gained if it takes as much energy to produce the modules as they produce in their lifetimes. This should not be confused with the economic return on investment, which varies according to local energy prices, subsidies available and metering techniques.
Life-cycle analyses show that the energy intensity of typical solar photovoltaic technologies is rapidly evolving. In 2000 the energy payback time was estimated as 8 to 11 years, but more recent studies suggest that technological progress has reduced this to 1.5 to 3.5 years for crystalline silicon PV systems .
Thin film technologies now have energy pay-back times in the range of 1-1.5 years (S.Europe). With lifetimes of such systems of at least 30 years, the EROEI is in the range of 10 to 30. They thus generate enough energy over their lifetimes to reproduce themselves many times (6-31 reproductions, the EROEI is a bit lower) depending on what type of material, balance of system (or BOS), and the geographic location of the system.
Some universities and institutes which have a photovoltaics research department.