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.
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 Ivanpah installation is the largest concentrating 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 two 550 MW solar farms, Topaz Solar Farm and Desert Sunlight Solar Farm in the United States, are the world’s largest photovoltaic power stations.
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.The German industrialist Ernst Werner von Siemens was among those who recognized the importance of this discovery. In 1931, the German engineer Bruno Lange developed a photo cell using silver selenide in place of copper oxide, 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. These early solar cells cost 286 USD/watt and reached efficiencies of 4.5–6%.
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. 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.
Many residential PV systems are connected to the grid wherever available, especially in developed countries with large markets. 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.
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. Thermal storage efficiently allows up to 24-hour electricity generation.
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. The SEGS plants in California and Acciona’s Nevada Solar One near Boulder City, Nevada are representatives of this technology.
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.
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. The 50 kW Big Dish in Canberra, Australia is an example of this technology.
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. The PS10 Solar Power Plant and PS20 solar power plant are examples of this technology.
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. 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. 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. 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–ISE). Between 1970 and 1983 installations of photovoltaic systems grew rapidly, but falling oil prices in the early 1980s moderated the growth of photovoltaics from 1984 to 1996.
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 of peak power.
As of 2011, the cost per watt 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:
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.
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.
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″.
The PV industry is beginning to adopt levelized cost of energy (LCOE) as the unit of cost. The electrical energy generated is sold in units of kWh. 1 watt (peak) of installed photovoltaics generates roughly 1 to 2 kWh/year (a capacity factor of around 10-20%), dependent on 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. 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.
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, 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, 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.
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:
Grid parity was first reached in Spain in 2013, 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.
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: 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.
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.
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.
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