Solar power

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This article is about generation of electricity using solar energy. For other uses of solar energy, see Solar energy.
A solar PV array on a rooftop in Hong Kong, China.
The first three concentrated solar power (CSP) units of Spain's Solnova Solar Power Station in the foreground, with the PS10 and PS20 solar power towers in the background

Solar power is the conversion of sunlight into electricity, either directly using photovoltaics (PV), or indirectly using concentrated solar power (CSP). Concentrated solar power systems use lenses or mirrors and tracking systems to focus a large area of sunlight into a small beam. Photovoltaics convert light into electric current using the photovoltaic effect.[1]

Photovoltaics were initially, and still are, used to power small and medium-sized applications, from the calculator powered by a single solar cell to off-grid homes powered by a photovoltaic array. They are an important and relatively inexpensive source of electrical energy where grid power is inconvenient, unreasonably expensive to connect, or simply unavailable. However, as the cost of solar electricity is falling, solar power is also increasingly being used even in grid-connected situations as a way to feed low-carbon energy into the grid.

Commercial concentrated solar power plants were first developed in the 1980s. The 392 MW ISEGS CSP installation is the largest solar power plant in the world, located in the Mojave Desert of California. Other large CSP plants include the SEGS (354 MW) in the Mojave Desert of California, the Solnova Solar Power Station (150 MW) and the Andasol solar power station (150 MW), both in Spain. The 290 MW Agua Caliente Solar Project in the United States, and the 221 MW Charanka Solar Park in India, are the world’s largest photovoltaic power stations.


Photovoltaics

Simplified schematics of a grid-connected residential PV power system[2]
Main articles: Photovoltaics and PV system

A solar cell, or photovoltaic cell (PV), is a device that converts light into electric current using the photovoltaic effect. The first solar cell was constructed by Charles Fritts in the 1880s.[3] The German industrialist Ernst Werner von Siemens was among those who recognized the importance of this discovery.[4] In 1931, the German engineer Bruno Lange developed a photo cell using silver selenide in place of copper oxide,[5] although the prototype selenium cells converted less than 1% of incident light into electricity. Following the work of Russell Ohl in the 1940s, researchers Gerald Pearson, Calvin Fuller and Daryl Chapin created the silicon solar cell in 1954.[6] These early solar cells cost 286 USD/watt and reached efficiencies of 4.5–6%.[7]

Photovoltaic power systems

The array of a photovoltaic power system, or PV system, produces direct current (DC) power which fluctuates with the sunlight's intensity. For practical use this usually requires conversion to certain desired voltages or alternating current (AC), through the use of inverters.[2] Multiple solar cells are connected inside modules. Modules are wired together to form arrays, then tied to an inverter, which produces power at the desired voltage, and for AC, the desired frequency/phase.[2]

Many residential PV systems are connected to the grid wherever available, especially in developed countries with large markets.[8] In these grid-connected PV systems, use of energy storage is optional. In certain applications such as satellites, lighthouses, or in developing countries, batteries or additional power generators are often added as back-ups. Such stand-alone power systems permit operations at night and at other times of limited sunlight.

Concentrated solar power

A parabolic collector concentrates sunlight onto a tube in its focal point.

Concentrating Solar Power (CSP) systems use lenses or mirrors and tracking systems to focus a large area of sunlight into a small beam. The concentrated heat is then used as a heat source for a conventional power plant. A wide range of concentrating technologies exists: among the best known are the parabolic trough, the compact linear Fresnel reflector, the Stirling dish and the solar power tower. Various techniques are used to track the sun and focus light. In all of these systems a working fluid is heated by the concentrated sunlight, and is then used for power generation or energy storage.[9] Thermal storage efficiently allows up to 24 hour electricity generation.[10]

A parabolic trough consists of a linear parabolic reflector that concentrates light onto a receiver positioned along the reflector's focal line. The receiver is a tube positioned right above the middle of the parabolic mirror and is filled with a working fluid. The reflector is made to follow the sun during daylight hours by tracking along a single axis. Parabolic trough systems provide the best land-use factor of any solar technology.[11] The SEGS plants in California and Acciona's Nevada Solar One near Boulder City, Nevada are representatives of this technology.[12][13]

Compact Linear Fresnel Reflectors are CSP-plants which use many thin mirror strips instead of parabolic mirrors to concentrate sunlight onto two tubes with working fluid. This has the advantage that flat mirrors can be used which are much cheaper than parabolic mirrors, and that more reflectors can be placed in the same amount of space, allowing more of the available sunlight to be used. Concentrating linear fresnel reflectors can be used in either large or more compact plants.[14][15]

The Stirling solar dish combines a parabolic concentrating dish with a Stirling engine which normally drives an electric generator. The advantages of Stirling solar over photovoltaic cells are higher efficiency of converting sunlight into electricity and longer lifetime. Parabolic dish systems give the highest efficiency among CSP technologies.[16] The 50 kW Big Dish in Canberra, Australia is an example of this technology.[12]

A solar power tower uses an array of tracking reflectors (heliostats) to concentrate light on a central receiver atop a tower. Power towers are more cost effective, offer higher efficiency and better energy storage capability among CSP technologies.[12] The PS10 Solar Power Plant and PS20 solar power plant are examples of this technology.

Development and deployment

Deployment of Solar Power
Capacity in MW by Technology
25,000
50,000
75,000
100,000
125,000
150,000
2007
2010
2013
Worldwide deployment of solar power by technology since 2006.[17]

     Solar PV         CSP - Solar thermal

Electricity Generation from Solar
Year Energy (TWh) % of Total
2005 3.7 0.02%
2006 5.0 0.03%
2007 6.7 0.03%
2008 11.2 0.06%
2009 19.1 0.09%
2010 30.4 0.14%
2011 58.7 0.27%
2012 93.0 0.41%
2013 124.8 0.54%
Source: BP-Statistical Review of world energy, 2014 (Historical Data Workbook, 2013)[18]

The early development of solar technologies starting in the 1860s was driven by an expectation that coal would soon become scarce. However, development of solar technologies stagnated in the early 20th century in the face of the increasing availability, economy, and utility of coal and petroleum.[19] In 1974 it was estimated that only six private homes in all of North America were entirely heated or cooled by functional solar power systems.[20] The 1973 oil embargo and 1979 energy crisis caused a reorganization of energy policies around the world and brought renewed attention to developing solar technologies.[21][22] Deployment strategies focused on incentive programs such as the Federal Photovoltaic Utilization Program in the US and the Sunshine Program in Japan. Other efforts included the formation of research facilities in the United States (SERI, now NREL), Japan (NEDO), and Germany (Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems ISE).[23]

Between 1970 and 1983 photovoltaic installations grew rapidly, but falling oil prices in the early 1980s moderated the growth of PV from 1984 to 1996. Since 1997, PV development has accelerated due to supply issues with oil and natural gas, global warming concerns, and the improving economic position of PV relative to other energy technologies.[24]

Photovoltaic production growth has averaged 40% per year since 2000 and worldwide installed capacity reached 139 GW at the end of 2013 with Germany having the most cumulative installations (35.7 GW) and Italy having the highest percentage of electricity generated by solar (7.0%).[25] In 2010, the International Energy Agency predicted that global solar PV capacity could reach 3,000 GW or 11% of projected global electricity generation by 2050—enough to generate 4,500 TWh of electricity.[26] Four years later, in 2014, the agency reassessed their long-term predictions, rising estimates for solar power to 27% of global electricity generation by 2050 (16% from PV and 11% from CSP).[27]

Photovoltaic power stations

As of October 2011, the largest photovoltaic (PV) power plants in the world are the Sarnia Photovoltaic Power Plant (Canada, 97 MW), Montalto di Castro Photovoltaic Power Station (Italy, 84.2 MW) and Finsterwalde Solar Park (Germany, 80.7 MW).[28]

There are also many large plants under construction. The Desert Sunlight Solar Farm is a 550 MW solar power plant under construction in Riverside County, California, that will use thin-film solar photovoltaic modules made by First Solar.[29] The Topaz Solar Farm is a 550 MW photovoltaic power plant, being built in San Luis Obispo County, California.[30] The Blythe Solar Power Project is a 500 MW photovoltaic station under construction in Riverside County, California. The Agua Caliente Solar Project is a 290 megawatt photovoltaic solar generating facility being built in Yuma County, Arizona. The California Valley Solar Ranch (CVSR) is a 250 megawatt (MW) solar photovoltaic power plant, which is being built by SunPower in the Carrizo Plain, northeast of California Valley.[31] The 230 MW Antelope Valley Solar Ranch is a First Solar photovoltaic project which is under construction in the Antelope Valley area of the Western Mojave Desert, and due to be completed in 2013.[32]

World's largest photovoltaic power stations (50 MW or larger)[28]
PV power station Country DC peak power
(MWp)
Notes
Topaz Solar Farm[33] USA 375 550 MW when complete
Agua Caliente Solar Project[34] USA 290 397 MW when complete
Charanka Solar Park[35][36] India 221 Completed 2012
Golmud Solar Park[28][37][38][39] China 200 Completed 2011
Mesquite Solar project USA 150 up to 700 MW when complete
Neuhardenberg Solar Park[28][40] Germany 145 Completed September 2012. A group of 11 co-located plant by the same developer[41] but with different IPPs
Templin Solar Park[28][42] Germany 128.48 Completed September 2012
Toul-Rosières Solar Park[43] France 115 Completed November 2012
Perovo Solar Park[44] Ukraine 100 Completed 2011
Sarnia Photovoltaic Power Plant[45] Canada 97 [28] Constructed 2009–2010[46]
Montalto di Castro Photovoltaic Power Station[28] Italy 84.2 Constructed 2009–2010
Finsterwalde Solar Park[47][48] Germany 80.7 Phase I completed 2009, phase II and III 2010
Okhotnykovo Solar Park Ukraine 80 Completed 2011
Solarpark Senftenberg[28][49] Germany 78 Phase II and III completed 2011, another 70 MW phase planned
Lieberose Photovoltaic Park [50][51] Germany 71.8
Rovigo Photovoltaic Power Plant[52][53] Italy 70 Completed November 2010
Olmedilla Photovoltaic Park Spain 60 Completed September 2008
Strasskirchen Solar Park Germany 54
Puertollano Photovoltaic Park Spain 50 opened 2008

Concentrating solar thermal power

Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System with all three towers under load during February 2014, with the Clark Mountain Range seen in the distance.
Part of the 354 MW Solar Energy Generating Systems (SEGS) parabolic trough solar complex in northern San Bernardino County, California.

Commercial concentrating solar thermal power (CSP) plants were first developed in the 1980s. The 370 MW Ivanpah Solar Power Facility, located in California's Mojave Desert, is the world’s largest solar thermal power plant project. Other large CSP plants include the Solnova Solar Power Station (150 MW), the Andasol solar power station (150 MW), and Extresol Solar Power Station (100 MW), all in Spain.

The principal advantage of CSP is the ability to efficiently add thermal storage, allowing the dispatching of electricity over up to a 24-hour period. Since peak electricity demand typically occurs at about 5 pm, many CSP power plants use 3 to 5 hours of thermal storage.[54]

Largest operational solar thermal power stations
Capacity
(MW)
Name Country Location Notes
354 Solar Energy Generating Systems  USA Mojave Desert California Collection of 9 units
280 Solana Generating Station  USA Gila Bend, Arizona Completed in October 2013, with 6h thermal energy storage[55][56]
200 Solaben Solar Power Station[57]  Spain Logrosán Solaben 3 completed June 2012[58]
Solaben 2 completed October 2012[58]
Solaben 1 and 6 completed September 2013[59]
150 Solnova Solar Power Station  Spain Seville Completed 2010
[60][61][62]
150 Andasol solar power station  Spain Granada completed 2011, with 7.5h thermal energy storage[63][64]
150 Extresol Solar Power Station  Spain Torre de Miguel Sesmero Extresol 1 completed February 2010
Extresol 2 completed December 2010
Extresol 3 completed August 2012, with 7.5h thermal energy storage[58][65][66]
100 Palma del Rio Solar Power Station  Spain Palma del Río Palma del Rio 2 completed December 2010[58]
Palma del Rio 1 completed July 2011[58]
100 Manchasol Power Station  Spain Alcázar de San Juan Manchasol-1 completed January 2011, with 7.5h heat storage[58]
Manchasol-2 completed April 2011, with 7.5h heat storage[58]
100 Valle Solar Power Station  Spain San José del Valle Completed December 2011, with 7.5h heat storage[58][67]
100 Helioenergy Solar Power Station  Spain Écija Helioenergy 1 completed September 2011[68][69]
Helioenergy 2 completed January 2012[58][68][69]
100 Aste Solar Power Station  Spain Alcázar de San Juan Aste 1A Completed January 2012, with 8h heat storage[58]
Aste 1B Completed January 2012, with 8h heat storage[58]
100 Solacor Solar Power Station  Spain El Carpio Solacor 1 completed February 2012[58]
Solacor 2 completed March 2012[58][70]
100 Helios Solar Power Station  Spain Puerto Lápice Helios 1 completed May 2012[58]
Helios 2 completed August 2012[58]

Economics

Average insolation showing land area (small black dots) required to replace the world primary energy supply with solar electricity (18 TW or 568 Exajoule, EJ, per year). Insolation for most people is from 150 to 300 W/m2 or 3.5 to 7.0 kWh/(m2day).
Projection of levelized cost of PV energy in Europe.[71]
US average daily solar energy insolation received by an optimally latitude-tilted fixed photovoltaic cell.
European average kWh produced per year for an optimally latitude-tilted fixed photovoltaic kW(peak) array[72]

Photovoltaic systems use no fuel and modules typically last 25 to 40 years. The cost of installation is almost the only cost, as there is very little maintenance required. Installation cost is measured in $/watt or €/watt. The electricity generated is sold for ¢/kWh. 1 watt of installed photovoltaics generates roughly 1 to 2 kWh/year, as a result of the local insolation. The product of the local cost of electricity and the insolation determines the break even point for solar power. The International Conference on Solar Photovoltaic Investments, organized by EPIA, has estimated that PV systems will pay back their investors in 8 to 12 years.[73] As a result, since 2006 it has been economical for investors to install photovoltaics for free in return for a long term power purchase agreement. Fifty percent of commercial systems were installed in this manner in 2007 and over 90% by 2009.[74]

As of 2011, the cost of PV has fallen well below that of nuclear power and is set to fall further. The average retail price of solar cells as monitored by the Solarbuzz group fell from $3.50/watt to $2.43/watt over the course of 2011, and a decline to prices below $2.00/watt seems inevitable:[75]

Economic photovoltaic capacity vs installation cost, in the United States.

A U.S. study of the amount of economic installations agrees closely with the actual installations.

For large-scale installations, prices below $1.00/watt are now common. In some locations, PV has reached grid parity, the cost at which it is competitive with coal or gas-fired generation. More generally, it is now evident that, given a carbon price of $50/ton, which would raise the price of coal-fired power by 5c/kWh, solar PV will be cost-competitive in most locations. The declining price of PV has been reflected in rapidly growing installations, totalling about 23 GW in 2011. Although some consolidation is likely in 2012, as firms try to restore profitability, strong growth seems likely to continue for the rest of the decade. Already, by one estimate, total investment in renewables for 2011 exceeded investment in carbon-based electricity generation.[75]

Additionally, governments have created various financial incentives to encourage the use of solar power, such as feed-in tariff programs. Also, Renewable portfolio standards impose a government mandate that utilities generate or acquire a certain percentage of renewable power regardless of increased energy procurement costs. In most states, RPS goals can be achieved by any combination of solar, wind, biomass, landfill gas, ocean, geothermal, municipal solid waste, hydroelectric, hydrogen, or fuel cell technologies.[76]

Shi Zhengrong has said that, as of 2012, unsubsidised solar power is already competitive with fossil fuels in India, Hawaii, Italy and Spain. He said "We are at a tipping point. No longer are renewable power sources like solar and wind a luxury of the rich. They are now starting to compete in the real world without subsidies". "Solar power will be able to compete without subsidies against conventional power sources in half the world by 2015".[77]

Energy cost

The PV industry is beginning to adopt levelized cost of energy (LCOE) as the unit of cost. For a 10 MW plant in Phoenix, AZ, the LCOE is estimated at $0.15 to 0.22/kWh in 2005.[78]

The table below 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,[79] or solar tracking can 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 5%/year total capital cost (for instance 4% interest rate, 1% operating and maintenance cost, and depreciation of the capital outlay over 20 years).

Grid parity

Main article: Grid parity

Grid parity, the point at which the cost of photovoltaic electricity is equal to or cheaper than the price of grid power, is more easily achieved in areas with abundant sun and high costs for electricity such as in California and Japan.[80]

The fully loaded cost (cost not price) of solar electricity in 2008 was $0.25/kWh or less in most of the OECD countries. By late 2011, the fully loaded cost was predicted 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:[81]

  1. vertical integration of the supply chain;
  2. origination of power purchase agreements (PPAs) by solar power companies;
  3. unexpected risk for traditional power generation companies, grid operators and wind turbine manufacturers.

Grid parity was first reached in Spain in 2013,[82] Hawaii and other islands that otherwise use fossil fuel (diesel fuel) to produce electricity, and most of the US is expected to reach grid parity by 2015.[83][84]

General Electric's Chief Engineer predicted grid parity without subsidies in sunny parts of the United States by around 2015. Other companies predict an earlier date:[85] 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.[81]

Self Consumption

In cases of self consumption of the solar energy the payback time is calculated based on how much electricity is not purchased from the grid.

For example, in Germany, with electricity prices of 0.25 Euro/KWh and insolation of 900 KWh/KW, one KWp will save 225 Euro per year, and with an installation cost of 1700 Euro/KWp the system cost will be returned in less than 7 years.[86]

However, in many cases, the patterns of generation and consumption do not coincide, and some or all of the energy is fed back into the grid. The electricity is sold, and at other times when energy is taken from the grid, electricity is bought. The relative costs and prices obtained affect the economics.

Energy pricing and incentives

The political purpose of incentive policies for PV is to facilitate an initial small-scale deployment to begin to grow the industry, even where the cost of PV is significantly above grid parity, to allow the industry 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):

  • investment subsidies: the authorities refund part of the cost of installation of the system,
  • Feed-in tariffs (FIT): the electricity utility buys PV electricity from the producer under a multiyear contract at a guaranteed rate.
  • Solar Renewable Energy Certificates (SRECs)
Rebates

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 $2.50/watt installed up to $15,000.[87]

Net metering
Net metering, unlike a feed-in tariff, requires only one meter, but it must be bi-directional.

In net metering the price of the electricity produced is the same as the price supplied to the consumer, and the consumer is billed on the difference between production and consumption. Net metering can usually 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. With net metering, deficits are billed each month while surpluses are rolled over to the following month. Best practices call for perpetual roll over of kWh credits.[88] Excess credits upon termination of service are either lost, or paid for at a rate ranging from wholesale to retail rate or above, as can be excess annual credits. In New Jersey, annual excess credits are paid at the wholesale rate, as are left over credits when a customer terminates service.[89]

Feed-in tariffs (FIT)

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.

Solar Renewable Energy Credits (SRECs)

Alternatively, SRECs allow for a market mechanism to set the price of the solar generated electricity subsity. In this mechanism, a renewable energy production or consumption target is set, and the utility (more technically the Load Serving Entity) is obliged to purchase renewable energy or face a fine (Alternative Compliance Payment or ACP). The producer is credited for an SREC for every 1,000 kWh of electricity produced. If the utility buys this SREC and retires it, they avoid paying the ACP. In principle this system delivers the cheapest renewable energy, since the all solar facilities are eligible and can be installed in the most economic locations. Uncertainties about the future value of SRECs have led to long-term SREC contract markets to give clarity to their prices and allow solar developers to pre-sell and hedge their credits.

Financial incentives for photovoltaics differ across countries, including Australia, China,[90] Germany,[91] Israel,[92] Japan, and the United States and even across states within the US.

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.[93]

In 2004, the German government introduced the first large-scale feed-in tariff system, under the German Renewable Energy Act, 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—that enjoyed an early success with domestic solar-thermal installations for hot water needs—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 and Greek FIT offer a 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. The Greek domestic "solar roof" programme (adopted in June 2009 for installations up to 10 kW) has internal rates of return of 10-15% at current commercial installation costs, which, furthermore, is tax free.

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 (OPA, Canada) began its Standard Offer Program, a precursor to the Green Energy Act, and the first in North America for distributed renewable projects of less than 10 MW. The feed-in tariff guaranteed a fixed price of $0.42 CDN per kWh over a period of twenty years. Unlike net metering, all the electricity produced was sold to the OPA at the given rate.

The price per kilowatt-hour or per installed kilowatt of the FIT or investment subsidies is only one of three factors that stimulate PV deployment. 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.

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.

  • France + EUR 0.16 /kWh (compared to semi-integrated) or + EUR 0.27/kWh (compared to stand alone)
  • Italy + EUR 0.04-0.09 kWh
  • Germany + EUR 0.05/kWh (facades only)

Environmental impacts

Part of the 78 MW Phase 1 section of the photovoltaic Senftenberg Solarpark, located on former open-pit mining areas in eastern Germany
A solar-powered trash compactor on a residential corner in Jersey City, New Jersey.

Unlike fossil fuel based technologies, solar power does not lead to any harmful emissions during operation, but the production of the panels leads to some amount of pollution.

Greenhouse gases

The Life-cycle greenhouse-gas emissions of solar power are in the range of 22 to 46  g/kWh depending on if solar thermal or solar PV is being analyzed, respectively. With this potentially being decreased to 15 g/kWh in the future.[94] For comparison (of weighted averages), a combined cycle gas-fired power plant emits some 400-599 g/kWh,[95] an oil-fired power plant 893 g/kWh,[95] a coal-fired power plant 915-994 g/kWh[96] or with carbon capture and storage some 200 g/kWh, and a geothermal high-temp. power plant 91-122 g/kWh.[95] The life cycle emission intensity of hydro, wind and nuclear power are lower than solar's as of 2011 as published by the IPCC, and discussed in the article Life-cycle greenhouse-gas emissions of energy sources. Similar to all energy sources were their total life cycle emissions primarily lay in the construction and transportation phase, the switch to low carbon power in the manufacturing and transportation of solar devices would further reduce carbon emissions. BP Solar owns two factories built by Solarex (one in Maryland, the other in Virginia) in which all of the energy used to manufacture solar panels is produced by solar panels. A 1-kilowatt system eliminates the burning of approximately 170 pounds of coal, 300 pounds of carbon dioxide from being released into the atmosphere, and saves up to 105 gallons of water consumption monthly.[97]

Energy payback

The energy payback time of a power generating system is the time required to generate as much energy as was consumed during production of the system. In 2000 the energy payback time of PV systems was estimated as 8 to 11 years[98] and in 2006 this was estimated to be 1.5 to 3.5 years for crystalline silicon PV systems[94] and 1-1.5 years for thin film technologies (S. Europe).[94]

Another economic measure, closely related to the energy payback time, is the energy returned on energy invested (EROEI) or energy return on investment (EROI),[99] which is the ratio of electricity generated divided by the energy required to build and maintain the equipment. (This is not the same as the economic return on investment (ROI), which varies according to local energy prices, subsidies available and metering techniques.) With lifetimes of at least 30 years[citation needed], the EROEI of PV systems are in the range of 10 to 30, thus generating enough energy over their lifetimes to reproduce themselves many times (6-31 reproductions) depending on what type of material, balance of system (BOS), and the geographic location of the system.[100]

Cadmium

One issue that has often raised concerns is the use of cadmium in cadmium telluride solar cells (CdTe is only used in a few types of PV panels). Cadmium in its metallic form is a toxic substance that has the tendency to accumulate in ecological food chains. The amount of cadmium used in thin-film PV modules is relatively small (5-10 g/m²) and with proper emission control techniques in place the cadmium emissions from module production can be almost zero. Current PV technologies lead to cadmium emissions of 0.3-0.9 microgram/kWh over the whole life-cycle.[94] Most of these emissions actually arise through the use of coal power for the manufacturing of the modules, and coal and lignite combustion leads to much higher emissions of cadmium. Life-cycle cadmium emissions from coal is 3.1 microgram/kWh, lignite 6.2, and natural gas 0.2 microgram/kWh.

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.[101]

Birds

Some media sources have reported that solar power plants have injured or killed large numbers of birds due to intense heat.[3][4] This adverse effect only applies to concentrated solar power plants however, and some of the claims may have been overstated or exaggerated. [102]

Energy storage methods

Main articles: Grid energy storage and V2G
The 150 MW Andasol solar power station is a commercial parabolic trough solar thermal power plant, located in Spain. The Andasol plant uses tanks of molten salt to store solar energy so that it can continue generating electricity even when the sun isn't shining.[103]
This energy park in Geesthacht, Germany, includes solar panels and pumped-storage hydroelectricity.
Seasonal variation of the output of the solar panels at AT&T Park in San Francisco

Solar energy is not available at night, making energy storage an important issue in order to provide the continuous availability of energy.[104] Both wind power and solar power are intermittent energy sources, meaning that all available output must be taken when it is available and either stored for when it can be used, or transported, over transmission lines, to where it can be used.

Off-grid PV systems have traditionally used rechargeable batteries to store excess electricity. With grid-tied systems, excess electricity can be sent to the transmission grid. Net metering and feed-in tariff programs give these systems a credit for the electricity they produce. This credit offsets electricity provided from the grid when the system cannot meet demand, effectively using the grid as a storage mechanism. Credits are normally rolled over from month to month and any remaining surplus settled annually.[105] When wind and solar are a small fraction of the grid power, other generation techniques can adjust their output appropriately, but as these forms of variable power grow, this becomes less practical.

Solar energy can be stored at high temperatures using molten salts. Salts are an effective storage medium because they are low-cost, have a high specific heat capacity and can deliver heat at temperatures compatible with conventional power systems. The Solar Two used this method of energy storage, allowing it to store 1.44 TJ in its 68 m³ storage tank, enough to provide full output for close to 39 hours, with an efficiency of about 99%.[106]

Conventional hydroelectricity works very well in conjunction with intermittent electricity sources such as solar and wind, the water can be held back and allowed to flow as required with virtually no energy loss. Where a suitable river is not available, pumped-storage hydroelectricity stores energy in the form of water pumped when surplus electricity is available, from a lower elevation reservoir to a higher elevation one. The energy is recovered when demand is high by releasing the water: the pump becomes a turbine, and the motor a hydroelectric power generator.[107] However, this loses some of the energy to pumpage losses.

Artificial photosynthesis involves the use of nanotechnology to store solar electromagnetic energy in chemical bonds, by splitting water to produce hydrogen fuel or then combining with carbon dioxide to make biopolymers such as methanol. Many large national and regional research projects on artificial photosynthesis are now trying to develop techniques integrating improved light capture, quantum coherence methods of electron transfer and cheap catalytic materials that operate under a variety of atmospheric conditions.[108] Senior researchers in the field have made the public policy case for a Global Project on Artificial Photosynthesis to address critical energy security and environmental sustainability issues.[109]

Wind power and solar power tend to be somewhat complementary, as there tends to be more wind in the winter and more sun in the summer, but on days with no sun and no wind the difference needs to be made up in some manner.[110] Solar power is seasonal, particularly in northern/southern climates, away from the equator, suggesting a need for long term seasonal storage in a medium such as hydrogen. The storage requirements vary and in some cases can be met with biomass.[111] The Institute for Solar Energy Supply Technology of the University of Kassel pilot-tested a combined power plant linking solar, wind, biogas and hydrostorage to provide load-following power around the clock, entirely from renewable sources.[112]

Experimental solar power

Concentrating photovoltaics in Catalonia, Spain
Nellis Solar Power Plant, a 14 MW power plant in Nevada, United States

Concentrated photovoltaics (CPV) systems employ sunlight concentrated onto photovoltaic surfaces for the purpose of electrical power production. Solar concentrators of all varieties may be used, and these are often mounted on a solar tracker in order to keep the focal point upon the cell as the sun moves across the sky.[113] Luminescent solar concentrators (when combined with a PV-solar cell) can also be regarded as a CPV system. Concentrated photovoltaics are useful as they can improve efficiency of PV-solar panels drastically.[114]

Thermoelectric, or "thermovoltaic" devices convert a temperature difference between dissimilar materials into an electric current. First proposed as a method to store solar energy by solar pioneer Mouchout in the 1800s,[115] thermoelectrics reemerged in the Soviet Union during the 1930s. Under the direction of Soviet scientist Abram Ioffe a concentrating system was used to thermoelectrically generate power for a 1 hp engine.[116] Thermogenerators, but in the following cases powered by the heat source plutonium-238 in radioisotope thermoelectric generators are used in the US space program as an energy conversion technology for powering deep space missions such as the Mars Curiosity rover, Cassini, Galileo and Viking. Research in this area of thermogenerators, which can use any heat source, is focused on raising the efficiency of these devices from 7–8% to 15–20%.[117]

Physicists have claimed that recent technological developments bring the cost of solar energy more in parity with that of fossil fuels. In 2007, David Faiman, the director of the Ben-Gurion National Solar Energy Center of Israel, announced that the Center had entered into a project with Zenith Solar to create a home solar energy system that uses a 10 square meter reflector dish.[118] In testing, the concentrated solar technology proved to be up to five times more cost effective than standard flat photovoltaic silicon panels, which would make it almost the same cost as oil and natural gas.[119] A prototype ready for commercialization achieved a concentration of solar energy that was more than 1,000 times greater than standard flat panels.[120]

Most spacecraft operating in the inner solar system are usually solar powered and rely on the use of solar panels to derive electricity from sunlight. Space-based solar power uses high efficient multijunction photovoltaic cells.

See also

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Further reading