Solar photovoltaic

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Photovoltaic (PV) panels convert sunlight into electricity. Typical solar panels have an efficiency of about 10%; expensive ones perform at 20%. (Fundamental physical laws limit the efficiency of photovoltaic systems to at best 60% with perfect concentrating mirrors or lenses, and 45% without concentration. A mass-produced device with efficiency greater than 30% would be quite remarkable.) The average power delivered by south-facing 20%-efficient photovoltaic panels in Britain would be

Figure 6.5 shows data to back up this number. Let's give every person 10 m2 of expensive (20%-efficient) solar panels and cover all south-facing roofs. These will deliver

Figure 6.3. Solar power generated by a 3 m2 hot-water panel (green), and supplementary heat required (blue) to make hot water in the test house of Viridian Solar. (The photograph shows a house with the same model of panel on its roof.) The average solar power from 3 m2 was 3.8kWh/d. The experiment simulated the hot-water consumption of an average European household - 100 litres of hot (60 ° C) water per day. The 1.5-2 kWh/d gap between the total heat generated (black line, top) and the hot water used (red line) is caused by heat-loss. The magenta line shows the electrical power required to run the solar system. The average power per unit area of these solar panels is 53 W/m2.

Solar heating: 13 kWh/d

Wind: 20 kWh/d

Figure 6.4. Solar thermal: a 10 m2 array of thermal panels can deliver (on average) about 13 kWh per day of thermal energy.

5 kWh per day per person.

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Fantasy time: solar farming

If a breakthrough of solar technology occurs and the cost of photovoltaics came down enough that we could deploy panels all over the countryside, what is the maximum conceivable production? Well, if we covered 5% of the UK with 10%-efficient panels, we'd have

10% x 100 W/m2 x 200 m2 per person ~ 50 kWh/day/ person.

I assumed only 10%-efficient panels, by the way, because I imagine that solar panels would be mass-produced on such a scale only if they were very cheap, and it's the lower-efficiency panels that will get cheap first. The power density (the power per unit area) of such a solar farm would be

This power density is twice that of the Bavaria Solarpark (figure 6.7).

Could this flood of solar panels co-exist with the army of windmills we imagined in Chapter 4? Yes, no problem: windmills cast little shadow, and ground-level solar panels have negligible effect on the wind. How audacious is this plan? The solar power capacity required to deliver this 50 kWh per day per person in the UK is more than 100 times all the photovoltaics in the whole world. So should I include the PV farm in my sustainable production stack? I'm in two minds. At the start of this book I said I wanted to explore what the laws of physics say about the limits of sustainable energy, assuming money is no object. On those grounds, I should certainly go ahead, industrialize the countryside, and push the PV farm onto the stack. At the same time, I want to help people figure out what we should be doing between now and 2050. And today, electricity from solar farms would be four times as expensive as the market rate. So I feel a bit irresponsible as I include this estimate in the sustainable production stack in figure 6.9 - paving 5% of the UK with solar panels seems beyond the bounds of plausibility in so many ways. If we seriously contemplated doing such a thing, it would quite probably be better to put the panels in a two-fold sunnier country and send some of the energy home by power lines. We'll return to this idea in Chapter 25.


Manufacturing a solar panel consumes more energy than it will ever deliver.

False. The energy yield ratio (the ratio of energy delivered by a system over its lifetime, to the energy required to make it) of a roof-mounted, grid-connected solar system in Central Northern Europe is 4, for a system with a lifetime of 20 years (Richards and Watt, 2007); and more than 7 in

Figure 6.7. A solar photovoltaic farm: the 6.3 MW (peak) Solarpark in Mühlhausen, Bavaria. Its average power per unit land area is expected to be about 5 W/m2. Photo by SunPower.

Total UK land area: 4000 m2 per person buildings: 48 m2 gardens: 114 m2

roads: 60 m2 water: 69 m2

arable land:

2800 m

Figure 6.8. Land areas per person in Britain.

a sunnier spot such as Australia. (An energy yield ratio bigger than one means that a system is A Good Thing, energy-wise.) Wind turbines with a lifetime of 20 years have an energy yield ratio of 80.

Aren't photovoltaic panels going to get more and more efficient as technology improves?

I am sure that photovoltaic panels will become ever cheaper; I'm also sure that solar panels will become ever less energy-intensive to manufacture, so their energy yield ratio will improve. But this chapter's photovoltaic estimates weren't constrained by the economic cost of the panels, nor by the energy cost of their manufacture. This chapter was concerned with the maximum conceivable power delivered. Photovoltaic panels with 20% efficiency are already close to the theoretical limit (see this chapter's endnotes). I'll be surprised if this chapter's estimate for roof-based photo-voltaics ever needs a significant upward revision.

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