Solar livingsourcebook excerpt


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Solar livingsourcebook excerpt

  1. 1. SPECIAL 30 Anniversary th th Edition Your complete guide to renewable energy technologies and sustainable living JOHN SCHAEFFER
  2. 2. Chapter 3 Sunshine to Electricity Renewable Energy 101—Solar, Wind, and Hydroelectric Bet ter than 99% of the world ’ s e n e rg y comes from the Sun. Some is har- vested directly by plants, trees, and solar panels; much is used indirectly in the form of wood, coal, or oil; and a tiny bit is supplied by the nonsolar sources, geothermal and nuclear power. Solar panels receive this energy directly. Both wind and hydro power sources use solar energy indirectly. The coal and petroleum resources that we’re so busy burning up now represent stored solar energy from the distant past, yet every single day, enough free sunlight energy Every single day, falls on Earth to supply our energy needs for four to five years at our present rate of con- enough free sunlight sumption. Best of all, with this energy source, there are no hidden costs and no borrowing or dumping on our children’s future. The amount of solar energy we take today in no way energy falls on Earth to diminishes or reduces the amount we can take tomorrow or at any time in the future. supply our energy needs Solar energy can be directly harnessed in a variety of ways. One of the oldest uses of for four to five years solar is heating domestic water for showering, dishwashing, or space heating. At the turn of at our present rate of the century, solar hot-water panels were an integral part of 80% of homes in southern Cali- fornia and Florida until gas companies, sensing a serious low-cost threat to their businesses, consumption. started offering free water heaters and installation. (See pages 388-401 for the full story of solar hot-water heating.) What we’re going to cover in this chapter is one of the more recent, cleanest, and most direct ways to harvest the Sun’s energy: photovoltaics, or PV. What Are Photovoltaic Cells? Photovoltaic cells were developed at Bell Labo- map on page 103 for details.) As the true envi- ratories in the early 1950s as a spinoff of transis- ronmental and societal costs of coal and petro- tor technology. Very thin layers of pure silicon leum become more apparent, PVs promise to be are impregnated with tiny amounts of other a major power resource in the future. And with elements. When exposed to sunlight, small worldwide petroleum sources close to peak, we amounts of electricity are produced. They were are rapidly running out of “cheap” oil, making mainly a laboratory curiosity until the advent of renewable energy all the more critical. Who spaceflight in the 1950s, when they were found says that space programs have no benefits for to be an efficient and long-lived, although stag- society at large? geringly expensive, power source for satellites. in 1954, bell Also, the utility companies couldn’t figure out Telephone systems how to get their wires out into space, so PV was announced the invention of the really the only option! Since the early ’60s, PV bell solar battery, cells have slowly but steadily come down from a “forward step in prices of over $40,000 per watt to current retail putting the energy of prices of around $5 per watt, or in some cases the sun to practical as low as $3 per watt for distributors or in very use.” large quantities. Using the technology available today, we could equal the entire electric pro- duction of the United States with photovoltaic power plants using about 10,000 square miles, or less than 12% of the state of Nevada. (See the solar living sourcebook 93
  3. 3. Fifty Years of Photovoltaics SunShine to electricity Solar Energy Still Strikes a Powerful Chord Hearing the hit songs of Rosemary Clooney or Perry Como was an ordinary occurrence in the mid-1950s. But it turned extraor- dinary on Sunday, April 25, 1954. That was the day that Bell Laborato- ries executives electrified members of the press with music broadcast from a chemist calvin Fuller gets ready to diffuse boron into transistor radio—powered by the first negative silicon. The addition of boron resulted in the silicon solar cell. Bell called its invention first solar cell capable of producing useful amounts of electricity from the sun. “the first successful device to convert useful amounts of the Sun’s energy di- rectly and efficiently into electricity.” computers and cell telephony—that is, for ev- The discovery was, indeed, music to ery doubling of production, the price drops by people’s ears. The New York Times her- 15%-20%. At this rate, PV should be competi- alded it as “the beginning of a new era, tive with fossil fuel-generated power company leading eventually to the realization electricity with no rebates or incentives whatso- of one of mankind’s most cherished ever within the next few years. dreams—the harnessing of the almost limitless energy of the Sun for the uses of civilization.” Where Will Solar Energy Be After Its First 100 Years— Single Cell Gives Birth in 2054? to Millions Of course, the satisfaction of using a renewable This 50-year-old prophecy has, in many energy source may be the biggest motivator of ways, come to fruition, with a billion all—and that’s what fuels our excitement most. watts of solar-electric modules now pow- As Margaret Mead said so eloquently, “Never ering satellites, telescopes, homes, water doubt that a small group of thoughtful, com- pumps, and even Antarctic research sta- mitted citizens can change the world. Indeed, it tions. is the only thing that ever has.” Today’s solar cells are a vast improve- Real Goods has now solarized more than ment on their ancestors—achieving 60,000 homes and businesses, and we can’t wait 16%-19% efficiency compared with the to see what will happen as that number gets big- 6% efficiency of Bell Labs’ foray into ger over the next 50 years. You can count on the solar industry. Silicon is still used— Real Goods to continue leading the way. though in slightly different forms—to achieve higher efficiency rates as well as lower costs. Lab tests using single-crys- A Brief Technical Explanation tal silicon modules, for example, have A single PV cell is a thin semiconductor sand- produced efficiency rates of up to 24%. wich, with a layer of highly purified silicon. The two- to threefold increase in efficiency is The silicon has been slightly doped with boron only part of the equation in the success of pho- on one side and phosphorus on the other side. tovoltaics—an industry that has grown more Doping produces either a surplus or a deficit of than 20% compounded per year since 1980 and electrons, depending on which side we’re look- 50% per year recently. A thousandfold price ing at. Electronics-savvy folks will recognize drop since 1954, along with tax incentives and these as P- and N-layers, the same as transis- rebates, have made the move to solar power tors use. When our sandwich is bombarded by economically feasible for many homeowners sunlight, photons knock off some of the excess and businesses, with typical payback periods of electrons. This creates a voltage difference be- less than 10 years. PV seems to follow the same tween the two sides of the wafer, as the excess economic rules as other new technologies, like electrons try to migrate to the deficit side. In 94 gaiam real goods
  4. 4. silicon, this voltage difference is just under half cal limits, however, to size, efficiency, and how a volt. Metallic contacts are made to both sides much sunlight a cell can tolerate. of the wafer. If an external circuit is attached to Since 0.5-volt solar panels won’t often do us SunShine to electricity the contacts, the electrons find it easier to take much good, we usually assemble a number of the long way around through our metallic con- PV cells for higher voltage output. A PV “mod- ductors than to struggle through the thin silicon ule” consists of many cells wired in series to layer. We have a complete circuit and a current produce a higher voltage. Modules consisting of flows. The PV cell acts like an electron pump. about 36 cells in series have become the indus- There is no storage capacity in a PV cell; it’s try standard for large power production. This simply an electron pump. Each cell makes just makes a module that delivers power at 17 to 18 under half a volt regardless of size. The amount volts, a handy level for 12-volt battery charg- of current is determined by the number of elec- ing. In recent years, as PV modules and systems trons that the solar photons knock off. We can have grown larger, 24-volt modules consisting get more electrons by using bigger cells, or by of 72 cells have also become standardized. The using more efficient cells, or by exposing our module is encapsulated with tempered glass cells to more intense sunlight. There are practi- (or some other transparent material) on the A Technical Step Back in Time B efore the invention of the silicon solar cell, scien- tists were skeptical about the success of solar as a renewable energy source. Bell Labs’ Daryl Chapin, assigned to research wind, thermoelectric, and solar energy, found that existing selenium solar cells could not generate enough power. They were able to muster only 5 watts per square meter—converting less than 0.5% of incoming sunlight into electricity. the Solar Cell that almost Never Was Chapin’s investigation may have ended there if not for colleagues Calvin Fuller and Gerald Pearson, who discovered a way to transform silicon into a superior conductor of electricity. Chapin was encouraged to find that the silicon solar cell was five times more efficient than selenium. He theorized that an ideal silicon solar The three inventors of the first silicon solar cell, gerald Pearson, daryl cell could convert 23% of incoming solar energy into chapin, and calvin Fuller, examine their cells at their bell lab. electricity. But he set his sights on an amount that would rank solar energy as a primary power source: 6% permanently fix the P-N junction at the top of the cell. efficiency. When Fuller added arsenic to the silicon and coated it with an ultrathin layer of boron, it allowed the team to Nuclear Cell trumps Solar Scientists make the electrical contacts they had hoped for. Cells While Chapin, Pearson, and Fuller faced chal- were built using this mixture until one performed at the lenges in increasing the efficiency of the silicon cell, benchmark efficiency of 6%. archrival RCA Laboratories announced its invention of the atomic battery—a nuclear-powered silicon cell. Solar Bursts the atomic Bubble Running on photons emitted from Strontium-90, the After releasing the invention to the public on April battery was touted as having the potential to run hear- 25, 1954, one journalist noted, “Linked together electri- ing aids and wristwatches for a lifetime. cally, the Bell solar cells deliver power from the Sun at That turned up the heat for Bell’s solar scientists, the rate of 50 watts per square yard, while the atomic who were making strides of their own by identifying cell recently announced by the RCA Corporation the ideal location for the P-N junction—the foundation merely delivers a millionth of a watt” over the same of any semiconductor. The Bell trio found that shifting area. The solar revolution was born. the junction to the surface of the cell enhanced conduc- Special thanks to John Perlin, author of From Space to tivity, so they experimented with substances that could Earth: The Story of Solar Electricity. solar living sourcebook 95
  5. 5. our current energy practices are borrowing from our children. Worldwide, there are cur- rently over 1 million homes that derive their SunShine to electricity primary power from PV. Because they don’t rely on miles of exposed wires, residential PV sys- tems are more reliable than utilities, particularly when the weather gets nasty. PV modules have no moving parts; degrade very, very slowly; and boast a lifespan that isn’t fully known yet but will be measured in multiple decades. Standard factory PV warranties are 25 years. Compare this with any other power generation technol- ogy or consumer goods. Could you find a car or truck or computer with a 25-year warranty? If you could, you’d probably buy it! Construction Types There are currently four commercial produc- tion technologies for PV cells. front surface and with a protective and water- proof material on the back surface. The edges SiNgle CryStalliNe are sealed for weatherproofing, and there is This is the oldest and most expensive produc- often an aluminum frame holding everything tion technique, but it’s also the most efficient together in a mountable unit. A junction box, sunlight conversion technology commercially or wire leads, providing electrical connections available. Complete modules have sunlight-to- is usually found on the module’s back. Truly wire output efficiency averages of about 10%- weatherproof encapsulation was a problem with 12%. Efficiencies up to 22% have been achieved the early modules assembled 20 years ago. We in the lab, but these are single cells using highly have not seen any encapsulation problems with exotic components that cannot economically be glass-faced modules in many years. used in commercial production. Many applications need more than a single Boules (large cylindrical cylinders) of pure PV module, so we build an “array.” A PV array single-crystal silicon are grown in an oven, consists of a number of individual PV modules then sliced into wafers, doped, and assembled. that have been wired together in series and/or This is the same process used in manufacturing parallel to deliver the voltage and amperage a transistors and integrated circuits, so it is well- sharp 123 Pv module particular system requires. An array can be developed, efficient, and clean. Degradation is as small as a single pair of modules, or large very slow with this technology, typically 0.25%- enough to cover acres. 0.5% per year. Silicon crystals are characteristi- PV costs are down to a level that makes them cally blue, and single crystalline cells look like the clear choice for remote and grid-intertie deep blue glass. Examples are Sunpower, Solar power applications. They are routinely used World, and Sharp single-crystalline products. for roadside emergency phones and most tem- porary construction signs, where the cost and polyCryStalliNe or MultiCryStalliNe trouble of bringing in utility power outweighs In this technique, pure, molten silicon is cast the higher initial expense of PV, and where into cylinders, then sliced into wafers off the mobile generator sets present more fueling and large block of multicrystalline silicon. Poly- maintenance trouble. It’s hard to find new gate crystal is slightly lower in conversion efficiency opener hardware that isn’t solar powered. Solar compared with single crystal, but the manufac- with battery backup has proven to be a far more turing process is less exacting, so costs are a bit reliable power source, and it’s usually easier to lower. Module efficiency averages about 10%- obtain at the gate site. More than 150,000 homes 11%, sunlight to wire. Degradation is very slow in the United States, largely in rural sites, de- and gradual, similar to that of single crystal, dis- pend on PVs as a primary power source, and cussed above. Crystals measure approximately this figure is growing rapidly as people begin 1 centimeter (two-fifths of an inch), and the to understand how clean, reliable, and mainte- multicrystal patterns can be clearly seen in the nance-free this power source is, and how deeply cell’s deep blue surface. Doping and assembly 96 gaiam real goods
  6. 6. are the same as for single-crystal modules. Ex- amples are Sharp, Sanyo, and Kyocera polycrys- talline products. SunShine to electricity single crystalline module StriNg riBBoN This clever technique is a refinement of polycrys- talline production. A pair of strings are drawn up through molten silicon, pulling up between them a thin film of silicon like a soap bubble. It cools and crystallizes, and you’ve got ready- to-dope wafers. The ribbon width and thickness can be controlled, so there’s far less slicing, dic- multicrystalline ing, or waste, and production costs are lower. module Sunlight-to-wire conversion efficiency is about 8%-9%. Degradation is the same as for ordinary slice-and-dice polycrystal. Examples are Ever- green modules. aMorphouS or thiN FilM In this technique, silicon material is vapor- ized and deposited on glass or stainless steel. This production technology costs less than any string ribbon module other method, but the cells are less efficient, so more surface area is required. Early production methods in the 1980s produced a product that faded up to 50% in output over the first three to five years. Present day thin-film technology has dramatically reduced power fading, although it’s still a long-term uncertainty. Uni-Solar has a “within 20% of rated power at 20 years” war- Thin film ranty, which relieves much nervousness, but we honestly don’t know how these cells will fare with time. Sunlight-to-wire efficiency averages about 5%-7%. These cells are often almost black in color. Unlike other modules, if glass is used on amorphous modules, it is not tempered, so breakage is more of a problem. Tempered glass can’t be used with this high-temperature depo- to work with. Under most circumstances, this sition process. If the deposition layer is stainless isn’t enough voltage to pass through your body. steel and a flexible glazing is used, the result- While not impossible, it’s pretty difficult to hurt ing modules will be somewhat flexible. These yourself on such low voltage. Still, whenever are often used as marine or RV modules. In the working with electricity, make sure you take mid ’90s, it appeared that amorphous modules the necessary safety precautions. Batteries how- could deliver the magic $2 per watt that would ever, where enormous quantities of accumulat- make solar sprout on every rooftop. There was a ed energy are stored, can be very dangerous if rush to build assembly plants. Oddly, it turned mishandled or miswired. Please see Chapter 4, out that few homeowners wanted to cover every which discusses batteries and safety equipment, square foot of their roof with an unproven and for more information. still fairly expensive solar product. We’re seeing Multiple modules can be wired in parallel fewer examples of thin-film technology. Uni- or series to achieve any desired output. As sys- Solar makes flexible, unbreakable modules. tems get bigger, we usually run collection and storage at higher DC voltages because trans- mission is easier. Small systems processing up Putting It All Together to about 2,000 watt-hours are fine at 12 volts. The PV industry has standardized on 12-, 24-, Systems processing 2,000-7,000 watt-hours will or 48-volts for battery systems. These are mod- function better at 24 volts, and systems running erately low voltages, which are relatively safe more than 7,000 watt-hours should probably be solar living sourcebook 97
  7. 7. PV modules do not convert 100% of the en- What’s a Watt? ergy that strikes them into electricity (we wish!). Current commercial technology averages about SunShine to electricity a Watt (W) is a standard metric measurement of electrical 10%-12% conversion efficiency for single- and power. It is a rate of doing work. multicrystalline modules, and 5%-7% for amor- a Watt-hour (Wh) is a unit of energy measuring the total phous modules. Conversion rates slightly over amount of work done during a period of time. (This is the 20% have been achieved in the laboratory by us- measurement that utility companies make to charge us for the ing experimental cells made with esoteric and electricity we consume.) rare elements. But these elements are far too expensive to ever see commercial production. an amp (a) is a unit measuring the amount of electrical cur- Conversion efficiency for commercial single- rent passing a point on a circuit. It is the rate of flow of elec- and multicrystalline modules is not expected trons through a conductor such as copper wire: 1 Amp = 6.28 to improve; this is a mature technology. There’s billion billion electrons moving past a point in one second. better hope for increased efficiency with amor- (Amps are analogous to the water-flow rate in a water pipe.) phous technology, and much research is cur- a Volt (V) is a unit measuring the potential difference in rently underway. electrical force, or pressure, between two points on a circuit. This force on the electrons in a wire causes the current to flow. (Volts are analogous to water pressure in a pipe.) How Long Do PV Modules In summary, a Watt measures power, or the rate of doing Last? work, and a Watt-hour measures energy, or the amount of PV modules last a long, long time. How long work done. Watts can be calculated if you know the voltage we honestly don’t yet know, as the oldest ter- and the amperage: Watts = Volts x Amps. More pressure or restrial modules are barely 45 years old and still more flow means more power. going strong. In decades-long tests, the fully developed technology of single- and polycrystal modules has shown to degrade at fairly steady running at 48 volts. These are guidelines, not rates of 0.25%-0.5% per year. First-generation hard and fast rules! The modular design of PV amorphous modules degraded faster, but there panels allows systems to grow and change as are so many new wrinkles and improvements system needs change. Modules from different in amorphous production that we can’t draw manufacturers, different wattages, and various any blanket generalizations for this module ages can be intermixed with no problems, so type. The best amorphous products now seem long as all modules have a rated voltage output to closely match the degradation of single-crys- within about 1.0 volt of each other. Buy what tal products, but there is little long-term data. you can afford now, then add to it in a few years Most full-size modules carry 25-year warran- Conversion efficiency when you can afford to expand. ties, reflecting their manufacturers’ faith in the for commercial single- and multicrystalline Efficiency modules is not expected By scientific definition, the Sun delivers 1,000 watts (1 kilowatt) per square meter at noon to improve; this is a on a clear day at sea level. This is defined as a mature technology. “full Sun” and is the benchmark by which mod- ules are rated and compared. That is certainly There’s better hope for a nice round figure, but it is not what most of increased efficiency us actually see. Dust, water vapor, air pollution, seasonal variations, altitude, and temperature with amorphous all affect how much solar energy your modules technology, and much actually receive. For instance, the 1991 erup- tion of Mt. Pinatubo in the Philippines reduced research is currently available sunlight worldwide by 10%-20% for a underway. couple of years. It is reasonable to assume that most sites will actually average about 85% of full Photovoltaic prices have decreased dramatically since Sun, unless they are over 7,000 feet in elevation, 1955. Prices continue to drop 10%-15% per year as demand in which case they’ll probably receive more than and production increase. We have seen prices as low as $3 100% of full Sun. per watt for very large systems in late 2007. 98 gaiam real goods
  8. 8. durability of these products. PV technology is the modules down. Do not hose them off when It’s almost laughable closely related to transistor technology. Based they’re hot, since uneven thermal shock could on our experience with transistors, which just theoretically break the glass. Wash them in how easy the SunShine to electricity fade away after 20 years of constant use, most the morning or evening. For PV maintenance, maintenance is for manufacturers have been confidently predict- that’s it. ing 20-year or longer life spans. However, keep PV modules. Because in mind that PV modules are seeing only six to they have no moving eight hours of active use per day, so we may find Control Systems that life spans of 60-80 years are normal. Cells Controls for PV systems are usually simple. parts, they are virtually that were put into the truly nasty environment When the battery reaches a full-charge voltage, maintenance free. of space in the late 1960s are still functioning the charging current can be turned off or direct- well. The bottom line? We’re going to measure ed elsewhere. Open-circuited PV module volt- Basically, you keep the life expectancy of PV modules in decades— age rises 5-10 volts and stabilizes harmlessly. It them clean. how many, we don’t yet know. does no harm to the modules to sit at open-cir- cuit voltages, but they aren’t doing any work for you either. When the battery voltage drops to a Payback Time for certain set-point, the charging circuit is closed and the modules go back to charging. With the Photovoltaic Manufacturing solid-state PWM (Pulse Width Modulated) Energy Investment controllers, this opening and closing of the cir- cuit happens so rapidly that you’ll simply see a In the early years of the PV industry, there was stable voltage. The most recent addition to PV a nasty rumor circulating that said PV mod- ules would never produce as much power over their lifetimes as it took to manufacture them. During the early years of development, when A Mercifully Brief Glossary of transistors were a novelty, and handmade PV modules costing as much as $40,000 per watt PV System Terminology were being used exclusively for spacecraft, this aC (alternating current)—This refers to the standard utility- was true. The truth now is that PV modules pay supplied power, which alternates its direction of flow 60 times back their manufacturing energy investment per second, and for normal household use has a voltage of in about 1.5 years’ time (only a fraction of the approximately 120 or 240 (in the USA). AC is easy to transmit typical warranty period), depending on module over long distances, but it is impossible to store. Most house- type, installation climate, and other conditions. hold appliances require this kind of electricity. Now, in all honesty, this information comes to us DC (direct current)—This is electricity that flows in one courtesy of the module manufacturers. The Na- direction only. PV modules, small wind turbines, and small tional Renewable Energy Laboratory has done hydroelectric turbines produce DC power, and batteries of all some impartial studies on payback time (see kinds store it. Appliances that operate on DC very rarely will the results at operate directly on AC, and vice versa. Conversion devices are .pdf). It concludes that modules installed under necessary. average U.S. conditions reach energy payback in three to four years, depending on construction inverter—An electronic device that converts (transforms) the type. The aluminum frame all by itself can ac- low-voltage DC power we can store in batteries to convention- count for six months to one year of that time. al 120-volt AC power as needed by lights and appliances. This Quicker energy paybacks, down to one to two makes it possible to utilize the lower-cost (and often higher- years, are expected in the future, as more “so- quality) mass-produced appliances made for the conventional lar grade” silicon feedstock becomes available, grid-supplied market. Inverters are available in a wide range and simpler standardized mounting frames are of wattage capabilities. We commonly deal with inverters that developed. have a capacity of anywhere between 150 and 6,000 watts. pV Module—A “solar panel” that makes electricity when ex- posed to direct sunlight. PV is shorthand for photovoltaic. We Maintenance call these panels PV modules to differentiate them from solar It’s almost laughable how easy the maintenance hot-water panels or collectors, which are a completely differ- is for PV modules. Because they have no mov- ent technology and are often what folks think of when we say ing parts, they are virtually maintenance free. “solar panel.” PV modules do not make hot water. Basically, you keep them clean. If it rains irregu- larly or if the birds leave their calling cards, hose solar living sourcebook 99
  9. 9. control technology is Maximum Power Point you all the conveniences of the typical 20-kWh- Tracking, or MPPT controls. These sophisti- per-day California home, while consuming less cated solid-state controllers allow the modules than 10 kWh per day. At $3,500 per installed SunShine to electricity to run at whatever voltage produces the maxi- kilowatt-hour, that’s $35,000 shaved off the ini- mum wattage. This is usually a higher voltage tial system cost! With this kind of careful analy- than batteries will tolerate. The extra voltage is sis applied to electrical use, most of the full-size down-converted to amperage the batteries can home electrical systems we design come in be- digest comfortably. MPPT controls extract an tween $15,000 and $30,000, depending on the average of about 15% more energy from your number of people and intended lifestyle. Simple PV array and do their best work in the winter- weekend cabins with a couple of lights and a The typical American time when most residential systems need all the boom box can be set up for $1,500 or less. With help they can get. Most controllers offer a few the renewable energy rebates and buydowns home consumes about other bells and whistles, like nighttime discon- available in an increasing number of states, 20-30 kilowatt-hours nect and LED indicator lights. See the Controls grid-tie PV can be very cost effective. Typical and Monitors section in Chapter 4 for a com- payback times in California run 6-12 years (an daily. Supplying this plete discussion of controllers. 8%-17% return on investment!). Commercial demand with PV- paybacks with tax incentives typically pay back in half that time. generated electricity can Powering Down Other chapters in this Sourcebook present an be costly; however, it The downside to all this good news is that the extensive discussion of electrical conservation, initial cost of a PV system is still high. After for both off and on grid (utility power), and of- makes perfect economic decades of cheap, plentiful utility power, we’ve fer many of the lights and appliances discussed. sense as a long-term turned into a nation of power hogs. The typical We strongly recommend reading these sections American home consumes about 20-30 kilo- before beginning system sizing. We are not pro- investment. watt-hours daily. Supplying this demand with posing any substantial lifestyle changes, just PV-generated electricity can be costly; however, the application of appropriate technology and it makes perfect economic sense as a long-term common sense. Stay away from 240-volt watt investment. Fortunately, at the same time that hogs, electric space heaters, cordless electric PV-generated power started to become afford- appliances, standard incandescent light bulbs, able and useful, conservation technologies instant-on TVs, and monster side-by-side re- for electricity started to become popular, and frigerators, and our friendly technical staff can given the steadily rising cost of utility power, work out the rest with you. even necessary. The two emerging technologies dovetail together beautifully. Every kilowatt- hour you can trim off your projected power PV Performance in use in a standalone (off-grid) PV-based system will reduce your initial setup cost by as much the Real World as $3,500. Using a bit of intelligence and care in Okay, here’s the dirt under the rug. Skeptics and your lighting and appliance selection will allow pessimists knew it all along: PV modules could not possibly be all that perfect and simple. Even the most elegant technology is never quite per- Photovoltaic Summary fect. There are a few things to watch out for, be- aDVaNtageS DiSaDVaNtageS ginning with . . . Wattage ratings on PV modules are given under ideal laboratory conditions. As- 1. No moving parts 1. High initial cost suming you can avoid or eliminate shadows, the 2. Ultralow maintenance 2. Works only in direct sunlight two most important factors that affect module 3. Extremely long life 3. Sensitive to shading performance out in the real world are percent- 4. Noncorroding parts 4. Lowest output during age of full Sun and operating temperature. 5. Easy installation shortest days 6. Modular design 5. Low-voltage output difficult ShaDoWS 7. Universal application to transmit Short of outright physical destruction, hard 8. Safe low-voltage output shadows are the worst possible thing you can do 9. Simple controls to a PV module. Even a tiny amount of shading 10. Long-term economic dramatically affects module output. Electron payback flow is like water flow. It flows from high volt- age to low voltage. Normally the module is high 100 gaiam real goods
  10. 10. and the battery, or load, is lower. A shaded por- rectly to the pump without any batteries), derate tion of the module drops to very low voltage. by 20%, or even by 30% for really hot summer Electrons from other portions of the module climates if you want to make sure the pump will SunShine to electricity and even from other modules in the array will run strongly in hot weather. find it easier to flow into the low-voltage shaded area than into the battery. These electrons just end up making heat and are lost to us. This is Module Mounting why bird droppings are a bad thing on your PV Modules will catch the maximum sunlight, and module. A fist-size shadow will effectively shut therefore have the maximum output, when they off a PV module. Don’t intentionally install your are perpendicular (at right angles) to the Sun. modules where they will get shadows during the This means that tracking the Sun across the prime midday generating time from 10 a.m. to 3 sky from east to west will give you more power p.m. Early or late in the day, when the Sun is at output. But tracking mounts are expensive and extreme angles, little power is being generated prone to mechanical and/or electrical problems, anyway, so don’t sweat shadows then. Sailors and PV prices have been coming down. Unless may find shadows unavoidable at times, but just you’ve got a summertime high-power applica- The best year-round keep them clear as much as practical. tion, like water pumping, tracking mounts don’t make a good investment anymore. angle for your modules Full SuN PV systems are most productive if the mod- is approximately equal As mentioned above, most of us seldom see ules are approximately perpendicular to the Sun at solar noon, the most energy-rich time of day to your latitude. 100% full-Sun conditions. If you are not getting full, bright, shadow-free sunlight, then your for a PV module. The best year-round angle for PV output will be reduced. If you are not get- your modules is approximately equal to your ting bright enough sunlight to cast fairly sharp- latitude. Because the angle of the Sun changes edged shadows, then you do not have enough seasonally, you may want to adjust the angle of sunlight to harvest much useful electricity. your mounting rack seasonally. In the winter, Most of us actually receive 80%-85% of a “full modules should be at the angle of your latitude Sun” (defined as 1,000 watts per square meter) plus approximately 10 degrees; in the summer, on a clear sunny day. High altitudes and desert your latitude minus a 10-degree angle is ideal. locations will do better on sunlight availability. On a practical level, many residential systems On the high desert plateaus, 105%-110% of full will have power to burn in the summer, and Sun is normal. They don’t call it the “sunbelt” seasonal adjustment may be unnecessary. for nothing. Generally speaking, most PV arrays end up on fixed mounts of some type. Tracking mounts teMperature are rarely used for residential systems anymore. The power output from all PV module types Small water-pumping arrays are the most com- fades somewhat at higher temperatures. This mon use of tracking mounts now. This rule is not a serious consideration until ambient of thumb is far from ironclad; there are many temperatures climb above 80°F, but that’s not good reasons to use either kind of mounting. uncommon in full Sun. The backs of modules For a more thorough examination, see the PV should be as well ventilated as practical. Al- Mounting section, which includes a large selec- ways allow some airspace behind the modules tion of mounting technologies. if you want decent output in hot weather. On the positive side of this same issue, all modules Proper Pv mounting plus 10° increase output at lower temperatures, as in the for winter angle. wintertime, when most residential applications can use a boost. We have seen cases when mod- plus 10° for ules were producing 30%-40% over specs on a summer clear, cold winter morning with a fresh reflec- tive snow cover and hungry batteries. As a general rule of thumb, we usually de- your latitude rate official manufacturer-specified “nameplate” PV module output by about 25%-30% (grid-tie S in degrees systems) to 40%-50% (off-grid, battery-based leVel GrounD systems) for the real world. For panel-direct systems (where the modules are connected di- solar living sourcebook 101
  11. 11. System Examples SunShine to electricity Following are several examples of photovoltaic- ately. Water delivered to the raised storage tank based electrical systems, starting from simple is your stored energy. The brighter the Sun, the and working up to complex. All the systems that faster the pump will run. This kind of system use batteries can also accept power input from (without battery storage) is called PV-direct and wind or hydro sources as a supplement or as the is the most efficient way to utilize PV energy. primary power source. PV-based systems con- Eliminating the electrochemical conversion of stitute better than 95% of Gaiam Real Goods’ the battery saves about 20%-25% of the energy, renewable energy sales, so the focus here will be a very significant chunk! However, PV-direct mostly on them. systems work only with DC motors that can use the variable power output of the PV mod- a SiMple Solar puMpiNg SySteM ule, and of course this simple system works only In this simple system, all energy produced by when the Sun shines. the PV module goes directly to the water pump. There’s one component of a PV-direct system No electrical energy is stored; it’s used immedi- you won’t find in other systems. The PV-direct controller, or Linear Current Booster (LCB), is Pv-direct water unique to systems without batteries. This solid- pumping PV modules state device will down-convert excess voltage into amperage that will keep the pump running under low-light conditions when it would oth- erwise stall. An LCB can boost pump output by as much as 40%, depending on climate and load conditions. We usually recommend them for float switch PV-direct pumping systems. For more information about solar pumping, storage tank see Chapter 7, “Water Development.” linear current booster a utility iNtertie SySteM Without BatterieS This is the simplest and most cost effective way to connect PV modules to regular utility power. well All incoming PV-generated electrons are con- verted to household AC power by the intertie in- verter and delivered to the main household cir- cuit breaker panel, where they displace an equal number of utility-generated electrons. That’s power you didn’t have to buy from the utility pump company. If the incoming PV power exceeds a utility intertie what your house can use at the moment, the ex- without batteries cess electrons will be forced out through your electric meter, turning it backward. If the PV power is insufficient, that shortfall is automati- solar power AC to grid cally and seamlessly made up by utility power. solar PV array It’s like water seeking its own level (except it’s really fast water!). When your intertie system is pushing excess power out through the meter, the utility is paying you regular electric rates for your excess power. You sell power to the utility during the daytime; it sells power back to you at AC utility meter night. This treats the utility grid like a big 100%- DC voltage efficient battery. However, if utility power fails, input main utility AC voltage breaker panel even if it’s sunny, your PV system will be shut off output for the safety of utility workers. 102 gaiam real goods
  12. 12. How Much PV Area to Equal U.S. Electric Production? SunShine to electricity here’s the simple answer: A square mile (5,280 x 5,280 feet) equals 27,878,400 A solar-electric array, using today’s off-the-shelf tech- square feet. Divided by 23 square feet per module, nology, sited in sunny, largely empty Nevada, that’s big we can fit 1,212,104 modules per square mile. At enough to deliver all the electricity the U.S. currently 0.966 kilowatt-hours per module per day, our square uses, would cover a square almost exactly 100 miles mile will deliver 1,170,971kWh per day on aver- per side. age, or 427,404,328kWh per year. Back to our goal of 4,038,000,000,000kWh divided by 427,404,328kWh per here’s the proof in more detail: year per square mile, it looks like we need about 9,448 According to the Energy Information Administration of square miles of surface to meet the electrical needs of the U.S. Department of Energy, the United States. That’s a square area about 97 miles on aer/txt/ptb0802a.html, the U.S. produced 4,038 billion a side. This is about 60% of the approximately 16,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity in 2005. square miles currently occupied by Note that this is “production,” not the Nevada Test Site and the sur- “use.” Transmission inefficiencies and rounding Nellis Air Force Range other losses are covered. N e VA D A ( and www. We’ll want our PV modules in a environmental/default. sunny area to make the best of our in- htm). vestment. Nevada, thanks to climate What about the cost/benefit of and military/government activities, such a project? Let’s look at the has a great deal of almost empty and cost of an array that would produce very sunny land. So looking at the This area— just one-quarter of the required National Solar Radiation Data Base the nevada electricity that is produced in the Test site and nellis for Tonopah, Nevada http://rredc air Force base—could U.S. Currently small commercial or, a deliver twice the needed residential systems cost about $5- flat-plate collector on a fixed mount energy to meet the entire $6 per peak watt including typical facing south at a fixed tilt equal to u.s. needs, using existing government and utility incentives. If the latitude, 38.07° in this case, saw a photovoltaic technology. economies of scale, advances in ef- yearly average of 6.1 hours of “full- ficiencies, and government subsidies sun” per day in the years 1961 through 1990. A “full- are considered, the job might get done for $2/watt (just sun” is defined as 1,000 watts per square meter. guessing here, but you get the idea). Therefore, our For PV modules, we’ll use the large Sharp 208-watt quarter-sized 596,000 megawatt array would cost a cool module, which the California Energy Commission, $1.19 trillion. This certainly is a lot of money; but then greengrid/certified_pv_modules the potential benefits can be enormous. For one, think .html, rates at 183.3 watts output, based on lab-tested of the jobs created. The Apollo Alliance (www.apolloal- performance. 183.3 watts times 6.1 hours equals 1,118 says that “Renewable power production is watt-hours or 1.118 kilowatt-hours per day per module labor intensive. . . . Solar PV creates 7.24 jobs per MW.” at our Tonopah site. At 65 x 39 inches this module However, worldwide PV production in 2005 was only presents 17.6 square feet of surface area. We’ll allow 1,652 megawatts (, so we’ve got a some space between rows of modules for maintenance ways to go to meet this potential demand. access and for sloping wintertime Sun, so let’s say that As a practical measure, PV power production hap- each module will need 23 square feet. pens during the daytime, and so long as we use lights Conversion from PV module DC output to conven- at night, we will continue to use substantial power at tional AC power isn’t perfectly efficient. Looking at the night. Also, out in the desert, solar thermal collection real-world performance figures from the California may be a more efficient power generation technology. Energy Commission, But however you run the energy collection system, certified_invert ers.html, we see that the SatCon Power large solar-electric farms on what is otherwise fairly Systems 75kW model AE-75-60-PV-D is rated at 96% useless desert land could add substantially to the efficiency. We’ll probably be using larger inverters, electrical independence and security of any country. but this is a typical efficiency for large intertie invert- The existing infrastructure of coal, nuclear, and hydro ers. We’d better also deduct about 10% for whatever power plants could continue to provide reliable power other losses might occur—dirty modules, etc. So our at night, but nonrenewable resource use and carbon 1.118kWh per module per day becomes 0.966kWh by dioxide production would be greatly reduced. the time it hits the AC grid. solar living sourcebook 103
  13. 13. could drive a car without any gauges, warning lights, or speedometer—but this doesn’t encour- age system reliability or longevity. SunShine to electricity The Real Goods Weekend Getaway Kit is an example of a small-cabin or weekend retreat system. It has all the basic components of a resi- dential power system: A power source (the PV module), a storage system (the deep-cycle bat- tery), a controller to prevent overcharging, safe- ty equipment (fuses), and monitoring equip- ment. The Weekend Getaway Kit (see p. 115) is supplied as a simple DC-only system. It will run 12-volt DC equipment, such as RV lights and appliances. An optional inverter can be added at any time to provide conventional AC power, and that takes us to our next example. a Full-Size houSeholD SySteM small cabin systems Let’s look at an example of a full-size residen- to run a few lights and There is a minimum of hardware for these tial system to support a family of three or more. an appliance intertie systems; a power source (the PV mod- The power source, storage, control, monitoring, or two can start at ules), an intertie inverter, a circuit breaker, and under $1,000. and safety components have all been increased some wiring to connect everything. See the sep- in size from the small-cabin system, but most arate section specifically on Utility Intertie for important, we’ve added an inverter for conven- more information. tional AC power output. The majority of house- a SMall CaBiN pV SySteM hold electrical needs are run by the inverter, With BatterieS allowing conventional household wiring and a greater selection in lighting and appliance Most PV systems are designed to store some of choices. We’ve found that when the number of the collected energy for later use. This allows lights gets above five, AC power is much easier you to run lights and entertainment equipment to wire, plus fixtures and lamps cost significant- at night, or to temporarily run an appliance that ly less due to mass production, so the inverter takes more energy than the PV system is deliver- pays for itself in appliance savings. ing. Batteries are the most cost-effective energy Often, with larger systems like this, we com- storage technology available so far, but batter- bine and preassemble all the safety, control, and ies are a mixed blessing. The electrical/chemical inverter functions using an engineered, UL- conversion process isn’t 100% efficient, so you Batteries are the have to put back about 20% more energy than approved power center. This isn’t a necessity, but we’ve found that most folks appreciate the most cost-effective you took out of the battery, and the storage ca- pacity is finite. Batteries are like buckets, they energy storage can get only so full and can empty just so far. A The typical real goods full-time system takes only 4’x8’ of floor space inside your utility room. technology available so charge controller becomes a necessary part of your system to prevent over- (and sometimes far, but batteries are a under-) charging. Batteries can also be danger- mixed blessing. ous. Although the lower battery voltage is gen- erally safer to work around than conventional AC house current, it is capable of truly awe-in- spiring power discharges if accidentally short- circuited. So fuses and safety equipment also become necessary whenever you add batteries to a system. Fusing ensures that no youngster, probing with a screwdriver into some unfor- tunate place, can burn the house down. And finally, a monitoring system that displays the battery’s approximate state of charge is essential for reliable performance and long battery life. Monitoring could be done without—just as you 104 gaiam real goods
  14. 14. Handy Formulas for Estimating SunShine to electricity Household Renewable Energy Installations [Photovoltaic (PV) array size (watts)] x [solar Wind = 7¢/kWh radiation (hours/day)] x [system efficiency] = PV = 14¢/kWh (Real Goods residential cost) [system output (watt-hours/day)] Hydro = 11¢/kWh Geothermal = 11¢/kWh off-grid Solar Nuclear = 14¢/kWh [Average daily electric usage (watt-hours/day)] ÷ Centralized PV = 15¢/kWh [solar radiation (hours/day)] ÷ [55% off-grid (Source: “Solar Revolution” by Travis Bradford) system efficiency] = [PV watts required] Ballpark estimate: In 2005, about 50% of the electricity produced in [PV array size (W)] x 3 = [Output (Wh/day)] the U.S. was from coal, 20% from nuclear, 16% from [Output (Wh/day)] x ⅓ = [PV array size (W)] natural gas, and 10% from renewables (mostly hydro). Only about one-third of this power actually reached on-grid Solar the consumer—the rest was lost along the way (due to [Average daily electric usage (kilowatt-hours/day)] conversion, transmission, distribution, etc.). Source: ÷ [solar radiation (hours/day)] ÷ [70% on-grid system efficiency] = [PV kilowatts required] Ballpark estimate: Battery Bank Sizing [PV array size (kW)] x 4 = [Output (kWh/day)] [kWh/day] x [3-5 days of storage] x 3 = [Output (kWh/day)] x ¼ = [PV array size (kW)] [kWh size for battery bank] 1kW = 75 sq. ft. of PV panels Charge Controller Sizing 1MW (system rating) of PV energy powers 130 [PV Short-circuit current amps] x 1.56 = homes at the U.S. average of 31kWh/day (220 [Total amp size] homes in California at 18kWh/day average) 1MW (system rating) of wind energy powers 250 Fusing/Breakers Sizing average U.S. homes (450 homes in California) [Short-circuit current amps] x 1.56 = [Fuse/breaker amp size] Wholesale Cost of producing electricity Coal = 4¢/kWh Natural gas = 6¢/kWh tidy appearance, fast installation, UL approval, household and maintain full charge on an emer- and ease of future upgrades that preassembled gency back-up battery bank is fed back into the power centers bring to the system. utility grid, earning money for the system own- Because family sizes, lifestyles, local climates, er. If household power requirements exceed the and available budgets vary widely, the size and PV input, e.g., at night or on a cloudy day, the components that make up a larger residential shortfall is automatically and seamlessly made system are customized for each individual ap- up by the grid. If the grid power fails, power will plication. System sizing is based on the custom- be drawn instantly from the back-up batteries er’s estimate of needs and an interview with one to support the household. Switching time in of our friendly technical staff. See the “System case of grid failure is so fast that only your home Sizing” hints and worksheets in Chapter 4 or in computer may notice. This is the primary differ- the Appendix. ence between intertie systems with and without batteries. Batteries will allow continued opera- a utility iNtertie SySteM tion if the utility fails. They’ll provide back-up With BatterieS power for your essential loads and will allow In this type of intertie system, the customer has you to store and use any incoming PV energy. both a renewable energy system and conven- A number of federal and state programs ex- tional utility-supplied grid power. Any renew- ist to hasten this emerging technology, and an able energy beyond what is needed to run the increasing number of them have real dollars to solar living sourcebook 105
  15. 15. SunShine to electricity a full-size household system has all these spend! These dollars usually appear as refunds, technical staff, with over 60,000 solar systems parts. buydowns, or tax credits to the consumer— under its collective belt, has become rather that’s you. Programs and available funds vary good at this. We don’t charge for this personal with time and state. For the latest information, service, so long as you purchase your system call your State Energy Office, listed in the Ap- components from us. We do need to know what pendix, or check the Database of State Incen- makes your house, site, and lifestyle unique. So tives for Renewable Energy on the Internet at filling out the household electrical demands portion of our sizing worksheets is the first very necessary step, usually followed by a phone call (whenever possible) and a customized system System Sizing quote. Worksheets, wattage charts, and other We’ve found from experience that there’s no helpful information for system sizing are in- such thing as “one size fits all” when it comes cluded at the end of Chapter 4, our “panel to to energy systems. Everyone’s needs, expecta- plug” chapter—which also just happens to cover tions, budget, site, and climate are individual, batteries, safety equipment, controls, monitors, and your power system, in order to function and all the other bits and pieces you need to reliably, must be designed with these individual know a little about to assemble a safe, reliable factors accounted for. Our friendly and helpful renewable energy system. What’s It Going to Cost Me to Go Solar? three easy steps to get a ballpark calcula- able in your state. For instance, in California, tion for utility-tied systems:* you can multiply your gross installed cost by 1. Find your daily utility usage by divid- 0.65 to account for rebates and tax credits. In ing the kilowatt-hours (kWh) used on an New York or New Jersey, multiply by 0.5. For average month’s utility bill by 30. commercial systems, multiply by 0.3. 2. Divide that number by 5 (the aver- What ongoing savings can i expect? age number of peak Sun hours in the U.S.) Whatever you’re now paying the utility for and multiply by 1.43 to account for system electricity will change to $0 (service charges losses. This is the size of the solar system, in will still apply). kilowatts, that you will need for taking care of 100% of your electrical needs. Call our techs at 800-919-2400 for more 3. Multiply that number by $9,000 ($9/ information on how solar can work for your watt installed) for a good ballpark idea of the house. gross installed cost. Can state rebate incentives take a chunk *For off-grid systems, roll up an estimated out of that price? Go to to watt-hour calculation using our system sizing find out what grants or incentives are avail- worksheet on pages 173-175 or page 579. 106 gaiam real goods