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By Béla Lipták, PE, Columnist
Solar technology began in 212 BCE when Archimedes concentrated the sun's rays to ignite Roman ships. Now our space stations are powered by solar panels and lifted into space by hydrogen peroxide engines. It was in 1861 when Auguste Mouchout created the first steam engine powered by solar energy, and in 1883 Charles Fritz first turned the sun's rays into electricity. It took almost a century until, in 1954, Calvin Fuller and his team at Bell Laboratories constructed the first silicon solar panels, which had an efficiency of 6% and a cost of $300 per watt of electricity produced.
Today, solar cell efficiency can exceed 30%, and the installed costs have dropped below $10/Wp. Wp is the peak electricity produced under "standard conditions"—equivalent to bright sun in the tropics (25 °C and light intensity of 1 kW/m2). On average, each Wp produces about 5 kWh/day. The key limitation of PV cells is that any given semiconductor only responds to a certain wavelength of radiation and can therefore convert only a portion of it to electricity. This limitation is gradually being overcome.
The cost of conventionally generated electricity in the United States averages about 10¢/kWh. In contrast, solar electricity costs around 15¢ to 17 ¢ per kWh. Once installed, the fuel (solar energy) is practically free, and the useful life of the cells range between 25 to 35 years. The energy payback period (the number of years it takes for the cells to generate the energy that was needed to manufacture them) ranges between one and four years.
As of 2010, the total global electricity generating capacity is 4800 gW, the installed solar generating capacity in only around 25 gW or 0.5%. On the other hand, solar is the fastest growing power-generation technology in the world, increasing at an annual rate of 60%. Last year the First Solar Co. ranked Number 7 on Fortune's list of the fastest growing companies, and thin-film and nano-solar technologies might even exceed that rate. Today's market share of thin-film solar cells (copper indium gallium selenide (CIGS) is approximately 15%. The commercially available thin-film solar cells have an efficiency of 11%.
The total use of renewable energy in the United States (including hydraulic and biomass) is around 10%, and the total use of solar energy is about 0.2%, while that of Portugal, for example, is nearly 50% (Figure 1). On the other hand, the trend suggests that we will be catching up in the coming years. For example, the Westland Solar project in the San Joaquin Valley will be the world's largest solar power plant. It will generate 5 gW on 30,000 acres of land. Increased use of solar energy is also motivated by factors such as the high transportation expenses of gasoline. In Afghanistan, for example, the cost of delivering gasoline is hundreds of dollars per gallon.
In the coming articles, I will concentrate on the software needs for control and optimization of solar energy storage and transportation systems, giving particular emphasis to my reversible fuel cell design (http://belaliptakpe.com/solar-hydrogen-power-plant/). Some of these software packages might seem overly complex, but at a time of unmanned drones and Google's unmanned cars, they should be feasible. I will start the discussion with small units serving individual homes and smaller industrial plants.
The optimization software needed for PV systems with both storage and grid connections has to 1) provide total automation, including record-keeping, 2) provide capability to reconfigure the system to automatically maximize profitability and 3) provide self-diagnostics.
In developing the software package, the primary goal must be simplicity, so its operation does not require more understanding from the homeowner than what's needed for operating a thermostat. To provide this requires total automation, so that the system will safely operate on its own, without the need for the homeowner to take any action at all. On the other hand, the software must allow the homeowner (or preferably the electric company) to update any data or setpoint, such as changes in the price of electricity (during normal, night or peak periods, if they differ). If the home has electric car(s) charging during the night, the software package must be provided with the target amount of electricity needed to be in battery storage in the morning.
The main components of a simple installation are the solar collectors and the intelligent, bi-directional electric meter, which is furnished by the electric utility company. Such a system has no electricity storage capability. Therefore, when solar electricity is insufficient or unavailable (at night or on cloudy days), it obtains some or all of the electricity needed from the grid (red direction of electricity flow in Figure 2). Inversely, when excess solar energy is available (beyond the needs of the household) it is sent to the grid (green direction in Figure 2).
Billing is done on the basis of net electricity used (or generated) during the month. This net amount is a function of the size of the solar collectors, the insolation in the area, the weather conditions and other factors (dirt build-up or collector maintenance, etc.)
The economics of the operation is a function of the contract with the electric utility and is also affected by government support. The utility either charges (or pays) a flat rate for the electricity or a rate that changes with the time of the day. If the second is the case, it's likely that the night rate is the lowest, and the "peak rate" is the highest. Peak rate is usually applied when the power plant is operating at nearly full capacity (usually because of high air conditioning loads on hot summer days). Under these conditions, receiving the excess solar energy is advantageous to the utility because it does not need to start up its emergency generators. Sending "peak electricity" to the utility is also advantageous to the homeowners if the rate paid is higher.
It is the utility company that takes government subsidies and regulations into consideration, so that the homeowner just receives a monthly statement without requiring any additional paperwork. Besides direct subsidies, the government in some countries guarantees a fixed rate for the solar energy sent to the grid. This rate is often higher than its "market value." In such cases the utility is required to distribute that extra cost among the "non-solar" households.
“Solar is the fastest growing power-generation technology in the world, increasing at an annual rate of 60%.”
As shown in Figure 2, the electric meter is an intelligent one that automatically considers the electricity flows in both directions and displays the net total (cost or payment) at any time during the month. The software provided by the utility is automatically adjusted for times of day variations in cost rate or times of "peak periods," so the homeowner is not burdened with adjusting them.
The software in the intelligent electric meter should also be able to perform other control tasks, such as to automatically charge the batteries of the electric car(s) when the electricity is inexpensive ("night time"), and to maximize the amount of electricity sent to the grid (by temporarily turning off optional users) during periods when peak electricity rates apply on hot summer days.
None of this software, nor the intelligent net-billing utility meters themselves exist today, but as energy costs increase, they will. The purpose of this series of articles is not only to describe software that is available, but also to describe the control software needs of the future as renewable energy systems become more complex and sophisticated.
Our tax dollars should be invested in new technologies that guarantee an energy future that is inexhaustible, clean and free. The use of solar shingles is already cost-effective in the southern half of the United States and installing them would not only eliminate unemployment, oil imports, energy wars and the destruction of nature, but would also lower unemployment, because of the millions of carpenters, electricians and laborers that their installation would require.