Small Solar Electric System Components
A typical small solar electric, or photovoltaic (PV), system consists of these components:
The performance of a solar or photovoltaic (PV) cell is measured in terms of its efficiency at converting sunlight into electricity. There are a variety of solar cell materials available, which vary in conversion efficiency.
A solar cell consists of semiconductor materials. Silicon remains the most popular material for solar cells, including these types:
Monocrystalline or single crystal silicon
The absorption coefficient of a material indicates how far light with a specific wavelength (or energy) can penetrate the material before being absorbed. A small absorption coefficient means that light is not readily absorbed by the material. Again, the absorption coefficient of a solar cell depends on two factors: the material making up the cell, and the wavelength or energy of the light being absorbed.
The bandgap of a semiconductor material is an amount of energy. Specifically, the bandgap is the minimum energy needed to move an electron from its bound state within an atom to a free state. This free state is where the electron can be involved in conduction. The lower energy level of a semiconductor is called the "valence band." The higher energy level where an electron is free to roam is called the "conduction band." The bandgap (often symbolized by Eg) is the energy difference between the conduction band and valence band.
Solar cell material has an abrupt edge in its absorption coefficient; because light with energy below the material's bandgap cannot free an electron, it isn't absorbed.
Thin film solar cells use layers of semiconductor materials only a few micrometers thick. Thin film technology has made it possible for solar cells to now double as these materials:
Rooftop or solar shingles
Glazing for skylights or atria.
Thin-film rooftop or solar shingles, made with various non-crystalline materials, are just now starting to enter the residential market. The following are benefits of these solar shingles:
Attractive integration into homes
Dual purpose—serves as both roofing material and pollution-free electricity producer
Current issues with commercially-available solar shingles include their lower efficiencies and greater expense compared with the standard small solar electric system.
In addition to solar cells, a typical photovoltaic (PV) module or solar panel consists of these components:
Energy Performance Ratings
Energy performance ratings for PV modules include the following:
For small solar electric systems, the most common array design uses flat-plate photovoltaic (PV) modules or panels. These panels can either be fixed in place or allowed to track the movement of the sun.
The simplest PV array consists of flat-plate PV modules in a fixed position. These are some advantages of fixed arrays:
These features make them suitable for many locations, including most residential roofs. Because the panels are fixed in place, their orientation to the sun is usually at an angle that is less than optimal. Therefore, less energy per unit area of array is collected compared with that from a tracking array. This drawback, however, must be balanced against the higher cost of the tracking system.
Solar arrays are designed to provide specified amounts of electricity under certain conditions. The following factors are usually considered when determining array energy performance:
The amount of electricity required may be defined by any one or a combination of the following performance criteria:
This last parameter is often given as a power efficiency, equal to "power output from array" ÷ "power input from sun" × 100%. Power is typically given in units of watts (W), and energy is typically in units of watt-hours (Wh), or the power in watts supplied during an hour.
To ensure the consistency and quality of photovoltaic systems and increase consumer confidence in system performance, various groups—such as the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC), and the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM)—are working on standards and performance criteria for PV systems.
In addition to the solar cells and modules, a small solar electric (or photovoltaic) system consists of other parts called balance-of-system components.
The balance-of-system equipment required depends which of the following systems is being used:
A typical small solar electric system usually includes the following balance-of-system components:
A grid-connected small solar electric or photovoltaic (PV) system receives back-up power from a utility's grid when the PV system is not producing enough power. When the system produces excess power, the utility is required to purchase the power through a metering and rate arrangement.
Net metering is the best arrangement. Under this arrangement, the power provider essentially pays you retail price for the electricity you feed back into the grid. See Estimating Energy Cost Savings for a Net-Metered Photovoltaic System.
For more information, see Connecting Your System to the Electricity Grid.
A stand-alone small solar electric or photovoltaic (PV) system operates "off-grid"—it isn't connected to a electricity distribution grid operated by a utility.
A stand-alone PV system makes sense if any of the following apply:
You need minimal amounts of power; e.g., irrigation control equipment and remote sensors.
Anyone can take advantage of outdoor solar lighting—a stand-alone PV application.
For more information, see operating your system off the grid.
According to many renewable energy experts, a small "hybrid" electric system that combines wind and solar (photovoltaic) technologies offers several advantages over either single system.
In much of the United States, wind speeds are low in the summer when the sun shines brightest and longest. The wind is strong in the winter when less sunlight is available. Because the peak operating times for wind and solar systems occur at different times of the day and year, hybrid systems are more likely to produce power when you need it.
Many hybrid systems are stand-alone systems, which operate "off-grid"—not connected to an electricity distribution system. For the times when neither the wind nor the solar system are producing, most hybrid systems provide power through batteries and/or an engine generator powered by conventional fuels, such as diesel. If the batteries run low, the engine generator can provide power and recharge the batteries.
Adding an engine generator makes the system more complex, but modern electronic controllers can operate these systems automatically. An engine generator can also reduce the size of the other components needed for the system. Keep in mind that the storage capacity must be large enough to supply electrical needs during non-charging periods.
Battery banks are typically sized to supply the electric load for one to three days.