Solar power is the conversion of energy from sunlight into electricity, either directly using photovoltaics (PV), or indirectly using concentrated solar power. Concentrated solar power systems use lenses or mirrors and tracking systems to focus a large area of sunlight into a small beam. Photovoltaic cells convert light into an electric current using the photovoltaic effect.
The International Energy Agency projected in 2014 that under its "high renewables" scenario, by 2050, solar photovoltaics and concentrated solar power would contribute about 16 and 11 percent, respectively, of the worldwide electricity consumption, and solar would be the world's largest source of electricity. Most solar installations would be in China and India.
Photovoltaics were initially solely used as a source of electricity for small and medium-sized applications, from the calculator powered by a single solar cell to remote homes powered by an off-grid rooftop PV system. As the cost of solar electricity has fallen, the number of grid-connected solar PV systems has grown into the millions and utility-scale solar power stations with hundreds of megawatts are being built. Solar PV is rapidly becoming an inexpensive, low-carbon technology to harness renewable energy from the Sun. The current largest photovoltaic power station in the world is the 850 MW Longyangxia Dam Solar Park, in Qinghai, China.
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.
Many industrialized nations have installed significant solar power capacity into their grids to supplement or provide an alternative to conventional energy sources while an increasing number of less developed nations have turned to solar to reduce dependence on expensive imported fuels (see solar power by country). Long distance transmission allows remote renewable energy resources to displace fossil fuel consumption. Solar power plants use one of two technologies:
. Photovoltaic (PV) systems use solar panels, either on rooftops or in ground-mounted solar farms, converting sunlight directly into electric power.
. Concentrated solar power (CSP, also known as "concentrated solar thermal") plants use solar thermal energy to make steam, that is thereafter converted into electricity by a turbine.
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%.
Conventional PV 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.
Concentrated solar power
Concentrated solar power (CSP), also called "concentrated solar thermal", uses lenses or mirrors and tracking systems to focus a large area of sunlight into a small beam. Contrary to photovoltaics – which converts light directly into electricity – CSP uses the heat of the sun's radiation to generate electricity from conventional steam-driven turbines.
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.
A hybrid system combines (C)PV and CSP with one another or with other forms of generation such as diesel, wind and biogas. The combined form of generation may enable the system to modulate power output as a function of demand or at least reduce the fluctuating nature of solar power and the consumption of non renewable fuel. Hybrid systems are most often found on islands.
A novel solar CPV/CSP hybrid system has been proposed, combining concentrator photovoltaics with the non-PV technology of concentrated solar power, or also known as concentrated solar thermal.
The Hassi R'Mel power station in Algeria, is an example of combining CSP with a gas turbine, where a 25-megawatt CSP-parabolic trough array supplements a much larger 130 MW combined cycle gas turbine plant. Another example is the Yazd power station in Iran.
Hybrid PV/T), also known as photovoltaic thermal hybrid solar collectors convert solar radiation into thermal and electrical energy. Such a system combines a solar (PV) module with a solar thermal collector in an complementary way.
A concentrated photovoltaic thermal hybrid (CPVT) system is similar to a PVT system. It uses concentrated photovoltaics (CPV) instead of conventional PV technology, and combines it with a solar thermal collector.
PV diesel system
It combines a photovoltaic system with a diesel generator. Combinations with other renewables are possible and include wind turbines.
Thermoelectric, or "thermovoltaic" devices convert a temperature difference between dissimilar materials into an electric current. Solar cells use only the high frequency part of the radiation, while the low frequency heat energy is wasted. Several patents about the use of thermoelectric devices in tandem with solar cells have been filed. The idea is to increase the efficiency of the combined solar/thermoelectric system to convert the solar radiation into useful electricity.
Development and deployment
The early development of solar technologies starting in the 1860s was driven by an expectation that coal would soon become scarce. Charles Fritts installed the world's first rooftop photovoltaic solar array, using 1%-efficient selenium cells, on a New York City roof in 1884.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.
Mid-1990s to early 2010s
In the mid-1990s, development of both, residential and commercial rooftop solar as well as utility-scale photovoltaic power stations, began to accelerate again due to supply issues with oil and natural gas, global warming concerns, and the improving economic position of PV relative to other energy technologies.In the early 2000s, the adoption of feed-in tariffs—a policy mechanism, that gives renewables priority on the grid and defines a fixed price for the generated electricity—lead to a high level of investment security and to a soaring number of PV deployments in Europe.
For several years, worldwide growth of solar PV was driven by European deployment, but has since shifted to Asia, especially China and Japan, and to a growing number of countries and regions all over the world, including, but not limited to, Australia, Canada, Chile, India, Israel, Mexico, South Africa, South Korea, Thailand, and the United States.
Worldwide growth of photovoltaics has averaged 40% per year since 2000 and total 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 PV (7.0%). The largest manufacturers are located in China.
Concentrated solar power (CSP) also started to grow rapidly, increasing its capacity nearly tenfold from 2004 to 2013, albeit from a lower level and involving fewer countries than solar PV.:51 As of the end of 2013, worldwide cumulative CSP-capacity reached 3,425 MW.
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 4,600 TWh of electricity. Four years later, in 2014, the agency projected that, under its "high renewables" scenario, solar power could supply 27% of global electricity generation by 2050 (16% from PV and 11% from CSP). In 2015, analysts predicted that one million homes in the U.S. will have solar power by the end of 2016.
Photovoltaic power stations
The Desert Sunlight Solar Farm is a 550 MW power plant in Riverside County, California, that uses thin-film CdTe-modules made by First Solar. As of November 2014, the 550 megawatt Topaz Solar Farm was the largest photovoltaic power plant in the world. This was surpassed by the 579 MW Solar Star complex. The current largest photovoltaic power station in the world is Longyangxia Dam Solar Park, in Gonghe County, Qinghai, China.
Adjusting for inflation, it cost $96 per watt for a solar module in the mid-1970s. Process improvements and a very large boost in production have brought that figure down to 68 cents per watt in February 2016, according to data from Bloomberg New Energy Finance. Palo Alto California signed a wholesale purchase agreement in 2016 that secured solar power for 3.7 cents per kilowatt-hour. And in sunny Dubai large-scale solar generated electricity sold in 2016 for just 2.99 cents per kilowatt-hour -- "competitive with any form of fossil-based electricity — and cheaper than most.
Photovoltaic systems use no fuel, and modules typically last 25 to 40 years. Thus, capital costs make up most of the cost of solar power. Operations and maintenance costs for new utility-scale solar plants in the US are estimated to be 9 percent of the cost of photovoltaic electricity, and 17 percent of the cost of solar thermal electricity.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.
Levelized cost of electricity
The PV industry is beginning to adopt levelized cost of electricity (LCOE) as the unit of cost. The electrical energy generated is sold in units of kilowatt-hours (kWh). As a rule of thumb, and depending on the local insolation, 1 watt-peak of installed solar PV capacity generates about 1 to 2 kWh of electricity per year. This corresponds to a capacity factor of around 10–20%. 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 in the United States were installed in this manner in 2007 and over 90% by 2009.
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".
Current installation prices
In its 2014 edition of the Technology Roadmap: Solar Photovoltaic Energy report, the International Energy Agency (IEA) published prices for residential, commercial and utility-scale PV systems for eight major markets as of 2013 (see table below). However, DOE's SunShot Initiative has reported much lower U.S. installation prices. In 2014, prices continued to decline. The SunShot Initiative modeled U.S. system prices to be in the range of $1.80 to $3.29 per watt. Other sources identify similar price ranges of $1.70 to $3.50 for the different market segments in the U.S., and in the highly penetrated German market, prices for residential and small commercial rooftop systems of up to 100 kW declined to $1.36 per watt (€1.24/W) by the end of 2014. In 2015, Deutsche Bank estimated costs for small residential rooftop systems in the U.S. around $2.90 per watt. Costs for utility-scale systems in China and India were estimated as low as $1.00 per watt.
Productivity by location
Different parts of the world experience different amounts of sunshine, depending on latitude and weather. Locations nearer the equator receive many more hours of sunshine than those further north or south, thus photovoltaic panels produce more kWhs per year, and so can be far more economically desirable in some places more than others.
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 often used in combination as investment subsidies: the authorities refund part of the cost of installation of the system, the electricity utility buys PV electricity from the producer under a multiyear contract at a guaranteed rate, and Solar Renewable Energy Certificates (SRECs)
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.
n 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. 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.
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, Germany, Israel, 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.
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 life-cycle greenhouse-gas emissions of solar power are in the range of 22 to 46 gram (g) per kilowatt-hour (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. For comparison (of weighted averages), a combined cycle gas-fired power plant emits some 400–599 g/kWh, an oil-fired power plant 893 g/kWh, a coal-fired power plant 915–994 g/kWh or with carbon capture and storage some 200 g/kWh, and a geothermal high-temp. power plant 91–122 g/kWh. 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.
The US National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), in harmonizing the disparate estimates of life-cycle GHG emissions for solar PV, found that the most critical parameter was the solar insolation of the site: GHG emissions factors for PV solar are inversely proportional to insolation. For a site with insolation of 1700 kWh/m2/year, typical of southern Europe, NREL researchers estimated GHG emissions of 45 gCO2e/kWh. Using the same assumptions, at Phoenix, USA, with insolation of 2400 kWh/m2/year, the GHG emissions factor would be reduced to 32 g of CO2e/kWh.
The New Zealand Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment found that the solar PV would have little impact on the country's greenhouse gas emissions. The country already generates 80 percent of its electricity from renewable resources (primarily hydroelectricity and geothermal) and national electricity usage peaks on winter evenings whereas solar generation peaks on summer afternoons, meaning a large uptake of solar PV would end up displacing other renewable generators before fossil-fueled power plants.
The energy payback time (EPBT) of a power generating system is the time required to generate as much energy as is consumed during production and lifetime operation of the system. Due to improving production technologies the payback time has been decreasing constantly since the introduction of PV systems in the energy market. In 2000 the energy payback time of PV systems was estimated as 8 to 11 years and in 2006 this was estimated to be 1.5 to 3.5 years for crystalline silicon silicon PV systems and 1–1.5 years for thin film technologies (S. Europe). These figures fell to 0.75–3.5 years in 2013, with an average of about 2 years for crystalline silicon PV and CIS systems.
Another economic measure, closely related to the energy payback time, is the energy returned on energy invested (EROEI) or energy return on investment (EROI), 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 expected lifetimes of 30 years, 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.
One issue that has often raised concerns is the use of cadmium (Cd), a toxic heavy metal that has the tendency to accumulate in ecological food chains. It is used as semiconductor component in CdTe solar cells and as buffer layer for certain CIGS cells in the form of CdS. The amount of cadmium used in thin-film PV modules is relatively small (5–10 g/m²) and with proper recycling and 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. 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.
In a life-cycle analysis it has been noted, 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.
In the case of crystalline silicon modules, the solder material, that joins together the copper strings of the cells, contains about 36 percent of lead (Pb). Moreover, the paste used for screen printing front and back contacts contains traces of Pb and sometimes Cd as well. It is estimated that about 1,000 metric tonnes of Pb have been used for 100 gigawatts of c-Si solar modules. However, there is no fundamental need for lead in the solder alloy.
Some media sources have reported that concentrated solar power plants have injured or killed large numbers of birds due to intense heat from the concentrated sunrays. This adverse effect does not apply to PV solar power plants, and some of the claims may have been overstated or exaggerated.
A 2014-published life-cycle analysis of land use for various sources of electricity concluded that the large-scale implementation of solar and wind potentially reduces pollution-related environmental impacts. The study found that the land-use footprint, given in square meter-years per megawatt-hour (m2a/MWh), was lowest for wind, natural gas and rooftop PV, with 0.26, 0.49 and 0.59, respectively, and followed by utility-scale solar PV with 7.9. For CSP, the footprint was 9 and 14, using parabolic troughs and solar towers, respectively. The largest footprint had coal-fired power plants with 18 m2a/MWh.
Concentrator photovoltaics (CPV) systems employ sunlight concentrated onto photovoltaic surfaces for the purpose of electrical power production. Contrary to conventional photovoltaic systems, it uses lenses and curved mirrors to focus sunlight onto small, but highly efficient, multi-junction solar cells. 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. 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.
In addition, most solar panels on spacecraft are also made of high efficient multi-junction photovoltaic cells to derive electricity from sunlight when operating in the inner Solar System.
Floatovoltaics are an emerging form of PV systems that float on the surface of irrigation canals, water reservoirs, quarry lakes, and tailing ponds. Several systems exist in France, India, Japan, Korea, the United Kingdom and the United States. These systems reduce the need of valuable land area, save drinking water that would otherwise be lost through evaporation, and show a higher efficiency of solar energy conversion, as the panels are kept at a cooler temperature than they would be on land. Although not floating, other dual-use facilities with solar power include fisheries.