Solar power

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A solar photovoltaic system array on a rooftop in Hong Kong
The first three concentrated solar power (CSP) units of Spain's Solnova Solar Power Station in the foreground, with the PS10 and PS20 solar power towers in the background
This solar resource map provides a summary of the estimated solar energy available for power generation and other energy applications. It represents the average daily/yearly sum of electricity production from a 1 kW-peak grid-connected solar PV power plant covering the period from 1994/1999/2007 (depending on the geographical region) to 2015. Source: Global Solar Atlas

Solar power is the conversion of energy from sunlight into electricity, either directly using photovoltaics (PV), indirectly using concentrated solar power, or a combination. Concentrated solar power systems use lenses or mirrors and solar 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.[1]

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. Commercial concentrated solar power plants were first developed in the 1980s. As the cost of solar electricity has fallen, the number of grid-connected solar PV systems has grown into the millions and gigawatt-scale photovoltaic power stations are being built. Solar PV is rapidly becoming an inexpensive, low-carbon technology to harness renewable energy from the Sun.

The International Energy Agency said in 2021 that under its "Net Zero by 2050" scenario solar power would contribute about 20% of worldwide energy consumption, and solar would be the world's largest source of electricity.[2] China has the most solar installations. In 2020, solar power generated 3.5% of the world's electricity, compared to under 3% the previous year.[3] In 2020 the unsubsidised levelised cost of electricity for utility-scale solar power was around $36/MWh,[4] and installation cost about a dollar per DC watt.[5]

Mainstream technologies

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, which is thereafter converted into electricity by a turbine.

Photovoltaic cells

Schematics of a grid-connected residential PV power system[6]

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.[7] The German industrialist Ernst Werner von Siemens was among those who recognized the importance of this discovery.[8] In 1931, the German engineer Bruno Lange developed a photo cell using silver selenide in place of copper oxide,[9] 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.[10] These early solar cells cost US$286/watt and reached efficiencies of 4.5–6%.[11] In 1957, Mohamed M. Atalla developed the process of silicon surface passivation by thermal oxidation at Bell Labs.[12][13] The surface passivation process has since been critical to solar cell efficiency.[14]

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.[6] 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.[6]

Many residential PV systems are connected to the grid wherever available, especially in developed countries with large markets.[15] In these grid-connected PV systems, use of energy storage is optional. In certain applications such as satellites, lighthouses, or in developing countries, batteries or additional power generators are often added as back-ups. Such stand-alone power systems permit operations at night and at other times of limited sunlight.

Concentrated solar power

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

Concentrated solar power (CSP), also called "concentrated solar thermal", uses lenses or mirrors and tracking systems to concentrate sunlight, then use the resulting heat to generate electricity from conventional steam-driven turbines.[16]

A wide range of concentrating technologies exists: among the best known are the parabolic trough, the compact linear Fresnel reflector, the dish Stirling 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.[17] Thermal storage efficiently allows up to 24-hour electricity generation.[18]

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 along the focal points of the linear 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.[19] The Solar Energy Generating Systems plants in California and Acciona's Nevada Solar One near Boulder City, Nevada are representatives of this technology.[20][21]

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.[22][23]

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.[24] The 50 kW Big Dish in Canberra, Australia is an example of this technology.[20]

A solar power tower uses an array of tracking reflectors (heliostats) to concentrate light on a central receiver atop a tower. Power towers can achieve higher (thermal-to-electricity conversion) efficiency than linear tracking CSP schemes and better energy storage capability than dish stirling technologies.[20] The PS10 Solar Power Plant and PS20 solar power plant are examples of this technology.

Hybrid systems

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.

CPV/CSP system
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.[25]
Integrated solar combined cycle (ISCC) system
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.
Photovoltaic thermal hybrid solar collector (PVT)
Also known as hybrid PV/T, convert solar radiation into thermal and electrical energy. Such a system combines a solar (PV) module with a solar thermal collector in a complementary way.
Concentrated photovoltaics and thermal (CPVT)
A concentrated photovoltaic thermal hybrid 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.[26] Combinations with other renewables are possible and include wind turbines.[27]
PV-thermoelectric system
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.[28]

The idea is to increase the efficiency of the combined solar/thermoelectric system to convert the solar radiation into useful electricity.

Solar heating

Solar power is also used directly by utilizing solar thermal collectors for heating applications. Typical architectural applications is for space heating, but applications also exist for process heating, cooking, and for other applications where temperature is required.

Development and deployment

Evolution of solar power production by region
Share of electricity production from solar, 2019[29]
Deployment of Solar Power
Capacity in GW by Technology
Worldwide deployment of solar power by technology since 2006[30]

     Solar PV         CSP - Solar thermal

Growth of solar PV on a semi-log scale since 1992

World electricity generation by source in 2018. Total generation was 26.7 PWh.[31]

  Coal (38%)
  Natural gas (23%)
  Hydro (16%)
  Nuclear (10%)
  Wind (5%)
  Oil (3%)
  Solar (2%)
  Biofuels (2%)
  Other (1%)
Solar Electricity Generation
Year Energy (TWh) % of Total
2004 2.6 0.01%
2005 3.7 0.02%
2006 5.0 0.03%
2007 6.8 0.03%
2008 11.4 0.06%
2009 19.3 0.10%
2010 31.4 0.15%
2011 60.6 0.27%
2012 96.7 0.43%
2013 134.5 0.58%
2014 185.9 0.79%
2015 253.0 1.05%
2016 328.2 1.31%
2017 442.6 1.73%
2019 724.1 2.68%

Early days

The early development of solar technologies starting in the 1860s was driven by an expectation that coal would soon become scarce, such as experiments by Augustin Mouchot.[37] Charles Fritts installed the world's first rooftop photovoltaic solar array, using 1%-efficient selenium cells, on a New York City roof in 1884.[38] 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.[39] 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.[40] 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.[41][42] 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).[43] 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.[44] 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—led to a high level of investment security and to a soaring number of PV deployments in Europe.

Current status

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. In 2012, Tokelau became the first country to be powered entirely by photovoltaic cells, with a 1 MW system using batteries for nighttime power.[45]

Worldwide growth of photovoltaics has averaged 40% per year from 2000 to 2013[46] and total installed capacity reached 303 GW at the end of 2016 with China having the most cumulative installations (78 GW)[47] and Honduras having the highest theoretical percentage of annual electricity usage which could be generated by solar PV (12.5%).[47][46] The largest manufacturers are located in China.[48][49]

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.[50]: 51  As of the end of 2013, worldwide cumulative CSP-capacity reached 3,425 MW.


Actual annual deployments of solar PV vs predictions by the IEA for the period 2002-2016. Predictions have largely and consistently underestimated actual growth.

In 2010, the International Energy Agency predicted that global solar PV capacity could reach 3,000 GW or 11% of projected global electricity generation by 2050—enough to generate 4,500 TWh of electricity.[51] 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).[52]

According to a 2021 study global electricity generation potential of rooftop solar panels is estimated at 27 PWh per year at cost ranging from $40 (Asia) to $240 per MWh (US, Europe). Its practical realization will however depend on the availability and cost of scalable electricity storage solutions.[53]

Photovoltaic power stations

The Desert Sunlight Solar Farm is a 550 MW power plant in Riverside County, California, that uses thin-film CdTe solar modules made by First Solar.[54] 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 the Pavagada Solar Park, Karnataka, India with a generation capacity of 2050 MW.[55]

Largest PV power stations as of February 2020
Name Country Capacity
GWh p.a.
Year Ref
Pavagada Solar Park India 2,050 53 2017 [55][56][57]
Tengger Desert Solar Park China 1,547 43 2016 [58][59]
Bhadla Solar Park India 1,515 40 2017 [60][61][62]
Kurnool Ultra Mega Solar Park India 1,000 24 2017 [63]
China 1,000 2016 [64][65][66]
Longyangxia Dam Solar Park China 850 23 2015 [67][68][69][70]
Rewa Ultra Mega Solar India 750 2018 [71]
Kamuthi Solar Power Project India 648 10.1 2016 [72][73]
Solar Star (I and II) United States 579 1,664 13 2015 [74][75]
Topaz Solar Farm United States 550 1,301 24.6[76] 2014 [77][78][79]

Concentrating solar power stations

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

Commercial concentrating solar power (CSP) plants, also called "solar thermal power stations", were first developed in the 1980s. The 377  MW Ivanpah Solar Power Facility, located in California's Mojave Desert, is the world's largest solar thermal power plant project. Other large CSP plants include the Solnova Solar Power Station (150 MW), the Andasol solar power station (150 MW), and Extresol Solar Power Station (150 MW), all in Spain. The principal advantage of CSP is the ability to efficiently add thermal storage, allowing the dispatching of electricity over up to a 24-hour period. Since peak electricity demand typically occurs at about 5 pm, many CSP power plants use 3 to 5 hours of thermal storage.[80]

Largest operational solar thermal power stations
Name Capacity
Location Notes
Ivanpah Solar Power Facility 392 Mojave Desert, California, USA Operational since February 2014. Located southwest of Las Vegas.
Solar Energy Generating Systems 354 Mojave Desert, California, USA Commissioned between 1984 and 1991. Collection of 9 units.
Mojave Solar Project 280 Barstow, California, USA Completed December 2014
Solana Generating Station 280 Gila Bend, Arizona, USA Completed October 2013
Includes a 6h thermal energy storage
Genesis Solar Energy Project 250 Blythe, California, USA Completed April 2014
[81] 200 Logrosán, Spain Completed 2012–2013[82]
Noor I 160 Morocco Completed 2016
Solnova Solar Power Station 150 Seville, Spain Completed in 2010
Andasol solar power station 150 Granada, Spain Completed 2011. Includes a 7.5h thermal energy storage.
Extresol Solar Power Station 150 Torre de Miguel Sesmero, Spain Completed 2010–2012
Extresol 3 includes a 7.5h thermal energy storage
For a more detailed, sourced and complete list, see: List of solar thermal power stations#Operational or corresponding article.


Cost per watt

Swanson's law – the PV learning curve
Solar PV – LCOE for Europe until 2020 (in euro-cts. per kWh)[83]
Economic photovoltaic capacity vs installation cost in the United States with and without the federal Investment Tax Credit (ITC)

The typical cost factors for solar power include the costs of the modules, the frame to hold them, wiring, inverters, labour cost, any land that might be required, the grid connection, maintenance and the solar insolation that location will receive.

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.[84] 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.

Current installation prices

Utility-scale PV system prices
Country Cost ($/W) Year and references
Australia 2.0 2013[52]: 15 
China 1.4 2013[52]: 15 
France 2.2 2013[52]: 15 
Germany 1.4 2013[52]: 15 
Italy 1.5 2013[52]: 15 
Japan 2.9 2013[52]: 15 
United Kingdom 1.9 2013[52]: 15 
United States 0.70 2020[85]

In 2021 in the US, residential solar cost from 2 to 4 dollars/watt (but solar shingles cost much more)[86] and utility solar costs were around $1/watt.[87]

Productivity by location

The productivity of solar power in a region depends on solar irradiance, which varies through the day and is influenced by latitude and climate. It also depends on the temperature, and the local soiling conditions.

The locations with highest annual solar irradiance lie in the arid tropics and subtropics. Deserts lying in low latitudes usually have few clouds, and can receive sunshine for more than ten hours a day.[88][89] These hot deserts form the Global Sun Belt circling the world. This belt consists of extensive swathes of land in Northern Africa, Southern Africa, Southwest Asia, Middle East, and Australia, as well as the much smaller deserts of North and South America.[90] Africa's eastern Sahara Desert, also known as the Libyan Desert, has been observed to be the sunniest place on Earth according to NASA.[91][92]

Different measurements of solar irradiance (direct normal irradiance, global horizontal irradiance) are mapped below :

Levelized cost of electricity

The PV industry has adopted 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 , has estimated that PV systems will pay back their investors in 8 to 12 years.[93] 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.[94]

Shi Zhengrong has said that, as of 2012, unsubsidised solar power was 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".[95]

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."[96] In 2020, the UNDP project "Enhanced Rural Resilience in Yemen" (ERRY) -which uses community-owned solar microgrids- managed to cuts energy costs to just 2 cents per hour (whereas diesel-generated electricity costs 42 cents per hour).[97] As of October 2020, the unsubsidised levelised cost of electricity for utility-scale solar power is around $36/MWh.[4]

Grid parity

Grid parity, the point at which the cost of photovoltaic electricity is equal to or cheaper than the price of grid power, is more easily achieved in areas with abundant sun and high costs for electricity such as in California and Japan.[98] In 2008, the levelized cost of electricity for solar PV was $0.25/kWh or less in most of the OECD countries. By late 2011, the fully loaded cost was predicted to fall below $0.15/kWh for most of the OECD and to reach $0.10/kWh in sunnier regions. These cost levels are driving three emerging trends: vertical integration of the supply chain, origination of power purchase agreements (PPAs) by solar power companies, and unexpected risk for traditional power generation companies, grid operators and wind turbine manufacturers.[99]

Grid parity was first reached in Spain in 2013,[100] Hawaii and other islands that otherwise use fossil fuel (diesel fuel) to produce electricity, and most of the US is expected to reach grid parity by 2015.[101][failed verification][102]

In 2007, General Electric's Chief Engineer predicted grid parity without subsidies in sunny parts of the United States by around 2015; other companies predicted an earlier date:[103] the cost of solar power will be below grid parity for more than half of residential customers and 10% of commercial customers in the OECD, as long as grid electricity prices do not decrease through 2010.[99]

Self consumption

In cases of self-consumption of solar energy, the payback time is calculated based on how much electricity is not purchased from the grid.[104] However, in many cases, the patterns of generation and consumption do not coincide, and some or all of the energy is fed back into the grid. The electricity is sold, and at other times when energy is taken from the grid, electricity is bought. The relative costs and prices obtained affect the economics. In many markets, the price paid for sold PV electricity is significantly lower than the price of bought electricity, which incentivizes self consumption.[105] Moreover, separate self consumption incentives have been used in e.g. Germany and Italy.[105] Grid interaction regulation has also included limitations of grid feed-in in some regions in Germany with high amounts of installed PV capacity.[105][106] By increasing self consumption, the grid feed-in can be limited without curtailment, which wastes electricity.[107]

A good match between generation and consumption is key for high self-consumption. The match can be improved with batteries or controllable electricity consumption.[107] However, batteries are expensive and profitability may require the provision of other services from them besides self consumption increase.[108] Hot water storage tanks with electric heating with heat pumps or resistance heaters can provide low-cost storage for self consumption of solar power.[107] Shiftable loads, such as dishwashers, tumble dryers and washing machines, can provide controllable consumption with only a limited effect on the users, but their effect on self-consumption of solar power may be limited.[107]

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.[109]

Net metering

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

In net metering the price of the electricity produced is the same as the price supplied to the consumer, and the consumer is billed on the difference between production and consumption. Net metering can usually be done with no changes to standard electricity meters, which accurately measure power in both directions and automatically report the difference, and because it allows homeowners and businesses to generate electricity at a different time from consumption, effectively using the grid as a giant storage battery. With net metering, deficits are billed each month while surpluses are rolled over to the following month. Best practices call for perpetual roll over of kWh credits.[110] 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.[111]

Feed-in tariffs (FIT)

With feed-in tariffs, the financial burden falls upon the consumer. They reward the number of kilowatt-hours produced over a long period of time, but because the rate is set by the authorities, it may result in perceived overpayment. The price paid per kilowatt-hour under a feed-in tariff exceeds the price of grid electricity. Net metering refers to the case where the price paid by the utility is the same as the price charged.

The complexity of approvals in California, Spain and Italy has prevented comparable growth to Germany even though the return on investment is better.[citation needed] In some countries, additional incentives are offered for building-integrated photovoltaics (BIPV) compared to stand alone PV:[citation needed]

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

Solar Renewable Energy Credits (SRECs)

Alternatively, Solar Renewable Energy Certificates (SRECs) allow for a market mechanism to set the price of the solar-generated electricity subsidy. In this mechanism, 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 all solar facilities are eligible and can be installed in 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,[112] Germany,[113] Israel,[114] 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.[115]

In 2004, the German government introduced the first large-scale feed-in tariff system, under the German Renewable Energy Act, which resulted in an explosive growth of PV installations in Germany[citation needed]. 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[citation needed].

Subsequently, Spain, Italy, Greece—that enjoyed an early success with domestic solar-thermal installations for hot water needs—and France introduced feed-in tariffs[citation needed]. None has replicated the programmed decrease of FIT in new contracts though, making the German incentive relatively less and less attractive compared to other countries. California, Greece, France and Italy have 30–50% more insolation than Germany, making them financially more attractive.

Grid integration

Construction of the Salt Tanks which provide efficient thermal energy storage[116] so that output can be provided after sunset, and output can be scheduled to meet demand requirements.[117] The 280 MW Solana Generating Station is designed to provide six hours of energy storage. This allows the plant to generate about 38% of its rated capacity over the course of a year.[118]
Thermal energy storage. The Andasol CSP plant uses tanks of molten salt to store solar energy.
Pumped-storage hydroelectricity (PSH). This facility in Geesthacht, Germany, also includes a solar array.

The overwhelming majority of electricity produced worldwide is used immediately since storage is usually more expensive and because traditional generators can adapt to demand. Both solar power and wind power are variable renewable energy, meaning that all available output must be taken whenever it is available by moving through transmission lines to where it can be used now. Since solar energy is not available at night, storing its energy is potentially an important issue particularly in off-grid and for future 100% renewable energy scenarios to have continuous electricity availability.[119]

Solar electricity is inherently variable and predictable by time of day, location, and seasons. In addition, solar is intermittent due to day/night cycles and unpredictable weather. How much of a special challenge solar power is in any given electric utility varies significantly. In a utility, solar is well matched to daytime cooling demands. In utilities, solar displaces other forms of generation, reducing their capacity factors.

In an electricity system without grid energy storage, generation from stored fuels (coal, biomass, natural gas, nuclear) must go up and down in reaction to the rise and fall of solar electricity (see load following power plant). While hydroelectric and natural gas plants can quickly respond to changes in load, coal, biomass and nuclear plants usually take considerable time to respond to load and can only be scheduled to follow the predictable variation. Depending on local circumstances, beyond about 20–40% of total generation, grid-connected intermittent sources like solar tend to require investment in some combination of grid interconnections, energy storage or demand side management. Integrating large amounts of solar power with existing generation equipment has caused issues in some cases. For example, in Germany, California and Hawaii, electricity prices have been known to go negative when solar is generating a lot of power, displacing existing baseload generation contracts.[120][121]

Conventional hydroelectricity works very well in conjunction with solar power; water can be held back or released from a reservoir as required. Where a suitable river is not available, pumped-storage hydroelectricity uses solar power to pump water to a high reservoir on sunny days, then the energy is recovered at night and in bad weather by releasing water via a hydroelectric plant to a low reservoir where the cycle can begin again.[122] This cycle can lose 20% of the energy to round trip inefficiencies, this plus the construction costs add to the expense of implementing high levels of solar power.

Concentrated solar power plants may use thermal storage to store solar energy, such as in high-temperature molten salts. These salts are an effective storage medium because they are low-cost, have a high specific heat capacity, and can deliver heat at temperatures compatible with conventional power systems. This method of energy storage is used, for example, by the Solar Two power station, allowing it to store 1.44 TJ in its 68 m3 storage tank, enough to provide full output for close to 39 hours, with an efficiency of about 99%.[123]

In stand alone PV systems batteries are traditionally used to store excess electricity. With grid-connected photovoltaic power system, excess electricity can be sent to the electrical grid. Net metering and feed-in tariff programs give these systems a credit for the electricity they produce. This credit offsets electricity provided from the grid when the system cannot meet demand, effectively trading with the grid instead of storing excess electricity. Credits are normally rolled over from month to month and any remaining surplus settled annually.[124] When wind and solar are a small fraction of the grid power, other generation techniques can adjust their output appropriately, but as these forms of variable power grow, additional balance on the grid is needed. As prices are rapidly declining, PV systems increasingly use rechargeable batteries to store a surplus to be later used at night. Batteries used for grid-storage can stabilize the electrical grid by leveling out peak loads for around an hour or more. In the future, less expensive batteries could play an important role on the electrical grid, as they can charge during periods when generation exceeds demand and feed their stored energy into the grid when demand is higher than generation.

Common battery technologies used in today's home PV systems include, the valve regulated lead-acid battery– a modified version of the conventional lead–acid battery, nickel–cadmium and lithium-ion batteries.[citation needed] Lead-acid batteries are currently the predominant technology used in small-scale, residential PV systems, due to their high reliability, low self-discharge and investment and maintenance costs, despite shorter lifetime and lower energy density.[citation needed] Lithium-ion batteries have the potential to replace lead-acid batteries in the near future, as they are being intensively developed and lower prices are expected due to economies of scale provided by large production facilities such as the Gigafactory 1. In addition, the Li-ion batteries of plug-in electric cars may serve as future storage devices in a vehicle-to-grid system. Since most vehicles are parked an average of 95% of the time, their batteries could be used to let electricity flow from the car to the power lines and back. Other rechargeable batteries used for distributed PV systems include, sodium–sulfur and vanadium redox batteries, two prominent types of a molten salt and a flow battery, respectively.[125][126][127]

The combination of wind and solar PV has the advantage that the two sources complement each other because the peak operating times for each system occur at different times of the day and year. The power generation of such solar hybrid power systems is therefore more constant and fluctuates less than each of the two component subsystems.[27] Solar power is seasonal, particularly in northern/southern climates, away from the equator, suggesting a need for long term seasonal storage in a medium such as hydrogen or pumped hydroelectric.[128] The Institute for Solar Energy Supply Technology of the University of Kassel pilot-tested a combined power plant linking solar, wind, biogas and pumped-storage hydroelectricity to provide load-following power from renewable sources.[129]

Research is also undertaken in this field of artificial photosynthesis. It involves the use of nanotechnology to store solar electromagnetic energy in chemical bonds, by splitting water to produce hydrogen fuel or then combining with carbon dioxide to make biopolymers such as methanol. Many large national and regional research projects on artificial photosynthesis are now trying to develop techniques integrating improved light capture, quantum coherence methods of electron transfer and cheap catalytic materials that operate under a variety of atmospheric conditions.[130] Senior researchers in the field have made the public policy case for a Global Project on Artificial Photosynthesis to address critical energy security and environmental sustainability issues.[131]

Environmental impacts

Part of the Senftenberg Solarpark, a solar photovoltaic power plant located on former open-pit mining areas close to the city of Senftenberg, in Eastern Germany. The 78 MW Phase 1 of the plant was completed within three months.

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

Greenhouse gases

The life-cycle greenhouse-gas emissions of solar power are in the range of 22 to 46 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.[132][needs update] For comparison (of weighted averages), a combined cycle gas-fired power plant emits some 400–599 g/kWh,[133] an oil-fired power plant 893 g/kWh,[133] a coal-fired power plant 915–994 g/kWh[134] and a geothermal high-temp. power plant 91–122 g/kWh.[133] The life cycle emission intensity of hydro, wind and nuclear power are lower than solar's as of 2011[needs update] as published by the IPCC, and discussed in the article Life-cycle greenhouse-gas emissions of energy sources. Similar to all energy sources where 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 400 litres (105 US gal) of water consumption monthly.[135]

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.[136] For a site with insolation of 1700 kWh/m2/year, typical of southern Europe, NREL researchers estimated GHG emissions of 45 gCO
e/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.[137]

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.[138]

Manufacturing of solar panels requires nitrogen trifluoride (NF3) which is a potent greenhouse gas and with increase of PV production its usage has increased by over 1000% over the last 25 years.[139]

Energy payback

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.[140] In 2000 the energy payback time of PV systems was estimated as 8 to 11 years[141] and in 2006 this was estimated to be 1.5 to 3.5 years for crystalline silicon PV systems[132] and 1–1.5 years for thin film technologies (S. Europe).[132] 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.[142]

Another economic measure, closely related to the energy payback time, is the energy returned on energy invested (EROEI) or energy return on investment (EROI),[143] 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,[144] 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.[145]

Water use

Solar power includes plants with among the lowest water consumption per unit of electricity (photovoltaic), and also power plants with among the highest water consumption (concentrating solar power with wet-cooling systems).

Photovoltaic power plants use very little water for operations. Life-cycle water consumption for utility-scale operations is estimated to be 45 litres (12 US gallons) per megawatt-hour for flat-panel PV solar. Only wind power, which consumes essentially no water during operations, has a lower water consumption intensity.[146]

Concentrating solar power plants with wet-cooling systems, on the other hand, have the highest water-consumption intensities of any conventional type of electric power plant; only fossil-fuel plants with carbon-capture and storage may have higher water intensities.[147] A 2013 study comparing various sources of electricity found that the median water consumption during operations of concentrating solar power plants with wet cooling was 3.1 cubic metres per megawatt-hour (810 US gal/MWh) for power tower plants and 3.4 m3/MWh (890 US gal/MWh) for trough plants. This was higher than the operational water consumption (with cooling towers) for nuclear at 2.7 m3/MWh (720 US gal/MWh), coal at 2.0 m3/MWh (530 US gal/MWh), or natural gas at 0.79 m3/MWh (210 US gal/MWh).[146] A 2011 study by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory came to similar conclusions: for power plants with cooling towers, water consumption during operations was 3.27 m3/MWh (865 US gal/MWh) for CSP trough, 2.98 m3/MWh (786 US gal/MWh) for CSP tower, 2.60 m3/MWh (687 US gal/MWh) for coal, 2.54 m3/MWh (672 US gal/MWh) for nuclear, and 0.75 m3/MWh (198 US gal/MWh) for natural gas.[148] The Solar Energy Industries Association noted that the Nevada Solar One trough CSP plant consumes 3.2 m3/MWh (850 US gal/MWh).[149] The issue of water consumption is heightened because CSP plants are often located in arid environments where water is scarce.

In 2007, the US Congress directed the Department of Energy to report on ways to reduce water consumption by CSP. The subsequent report noted that dry cooling technology was available that, although more expensive to build and operate, could reduce water consumption by CSP by 91 to 95 percent. A hybrid wet/dry cooling system could reduce water consumption by 32 to 58 percent.[150] A 2015 report by NREL noted that of the 24 operating CSP power plants in the US, 4 used dry cooling systems. The four dry-cooled systems were the three power plants at the Ivanpah Solar Power Facility near Barstow, California, and the Genesis Solar Energy Project in Riverside County, California. Of 15 CSP projects under construction or development in the US as of March 2015, 6 were wet systems, 7 were dry systems, 1 hybrid, and 1 unspecified.

Although many older thermoelectric power plants with once-through cooling or cooling ponds use more water than CSP, meaning that more water passes through their systems, most of the cooling water returns to the water body available for other uses, and they consume less water by evaporation. For instance, the median coal power plant in the US with once-through cooling uses 138 m3/MWh (36,350 US gal/MWh), but only 0.95 m3/MWh (250 US gal/MWh) (less than one percent) is lost through evaporation.[151] Since the 1970s, the majority of US power plants have used recirculating systems such as cooling towers rather than once-through systems.[152]

Land use, deforestation and residential opposition

Life-cycle surface power density of solar power is estimated at 6.63 W/m2 which is two orders of magnitude less than fossil fuels and nuclear power.[153] Capacity factor of PV is also relatively low, usually below 15%.[154] As result, PV requires much larger amounts of land surface to produce the same nominal amount of energy as sources with higher surface power density and capacity factor. According to a 2021 study obtaining 80% from PV by 2050 would require up to 2.8% of total landmass in European Union and up to 5% in countries like Japan and South Korea. Occupation of such large areas for PV farms is likely to drive residential opposition as well as lead to deforestation, removal of vegetation and conversion of farm land.[155]

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. The study excluded nuclear power and biomass.[156]

Industrial photovoltaic farms use vast amount of space due to relatively low surface power density and occasionally face opposition from local residents, especially in countries with high population density or when the installation involves removal of existing trees or shrubs. Construction of Cleve Hill Solar Park in Kent (United Kingdom) composed of 880'000 panels up to 3.9 m high on 490 hectares of land[157] faced opposition on the grounds of not only "destroying the local landscape" but also large-scale lithium-ion battery facility which was perceived as prone to an explosion.[158] The solar farm divided Greenpeace (which opposed) and Friends of the Earth (which supported it).[159] Similar concerns about deforestation were raised when large amounts of trees were removed for installation of solar farms in New Jersey[160] and others.[161]

Other issues

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 a buffer layer for certain CIGS cells in the form of cadmium sulfide.[162] The amount of cadmium used in thin-film solar cells 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.[132] Most of these emissions 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.[163]

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.[162]

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.[164][165] This adverse effect does not apply to PV solar power plants, and some of the claims may have been overstated or exaggerated.[166]

While average solar panel life time is estimated to exceed 20 years, high temperatures, sand or weather can significantly accelerate the aging process. Due to vast space requirements by solar power it is estimated that amount of toxic (e.g. cadmium) waste that needs to be processed is 300 times higher per unit of energy than for nuclear power. Recycling is a significant challenge due to the large volumes of waste. In 2013, a US-based Solyndra solar farm left over 5,670 metric tons of hazardous waste after it bankrupted after 4 years of operations.[139]

Manufacturing of solar panels requires rare-earth elements, producing low-level radioactive waste during the mining process.

International Energy Agency study projects the demand for mined resources such as lithium, graphite, cobalt, copper, nickel and rare earths will rise 4x by 2040 and notes insufficient supply of these materials to match demand imposed by expected large-scale deployments of decentralized technologies solar and wind power, and required grid upgrades.[167][168] According to a 2018 study significant increase of PV solar power would require 3000% increase in supply of these metals by 2060, thermal solar — 6000%, requiring significant increase in mining operations.[169]

Political issues

Majority of the PV panels is manufactured in China using silicon sourced from one particular region of Xinjiang, which raises concerns about human rights violations (Xinjang internment camps) as well as supply chain dependency.[170]

Emerging technologies

Concentrator photovoltaics

CPV modules on dual axis solar trackers in Golmud, China

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.[171] 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.[172]

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.[173][174][175][176] 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.[177] Although not floating, other dual-use facilities with solar power include fisheries.[178]

Solar updraft tower

The solar updraft tower (SUT) is a design concept for a renewable-energy power plant for generating electricity from low temperature solar heat. Sunshine heats the air beneath a very wide greenhouse-like roofed collector structure surrounding the central base of a very tall chimney tower. The resulting convection causes a hot air updraft in the tower by the chimney effect. This airflow drives wind turbines, placed in the chimney updraft or around the chimney base, to produce electricity. As of mid 2018, although several prototype models have been built, no full-scale practical units are in operation. Scaled-up versions of demonstration models are planned to generate significant power. They may also allow development of other applications, such as to agriculture or horticulture, to water extraction or distillation, or to improvement of urban air pollution

Perovskite solar cells

Perovskite solar cells 1.jpg

A perovskite solar cell (PSC) is a type of solar cell which includes a perovskite-structured compound, most commonly a hybrid organic-inorganic lead or tin halide-based material, as the light-harvesting active layer. Perovskite materials, such as methylammonium lead halides and all-inorganic caesium lead halide, are cheap to produce and simple to manufacture. Solar cell efficiencies of laboratory-scale devices using these materials have increased from 3.8% in 2009 to 25.5% in 2020 in single-junction architectures, and, in silicon-based tandem cells, to 29.15%, exceeding the maximum efficiency achieved in single-junction silicon solar cells. Perovskite solar cells have therefore been the fastest-advancing solar technology as of 2016. With the potential of achieving even higher efficiencies and very low production costs, perovskite solar cells have become commercially attractive. Core problems and research subjects include their short- and long-term stability.

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Further reading

  • Sivaram, Varun (2018). Taming the Sun: Innovation to Harness Solar Energy and Power the Planet. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. ISBN 978-0-262-03768-6.

External links

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