Photovoltaic Power

What is Photovoltaic Power

You’ve probably seen calculators that have solar cells– calculators that never ever need batteries, and in some cases where it doesn’t even have an off button. As long as you have enough light, they seem to work for life. You could have seen bigger photovoltaic panels– on emergency road indications or call boxes, on buoys, even in parking lots to power lights. Although these bigger panels aren’t as common as solar powered calculators, they’re out there, and not that hard to find if you understand where to look. There are solar cell selections on satellites, where they are used to power the electrical systems.
You have probably also been hearing about the “solar revolution” for the last 20 years– the concept that one day we will certainly all use free electrical energy from the sun. This is a seductive pledge: On a bright, sunny day, the sun shines roughly 1,000 watts of energy per square meter of the world’s surface area, and if we might gather all that energy we could easily power our houses and workplaces for free.

Solar panels soak up energy to produce hydrogen at SunLine Transit Fir
Image courtesy DOE/NREL
Photo credit SunLine Transit Company
Solar panels soak up energy to produce hydrogen at SunLine Transit Firm.

In this short article, we will examine solar cells to learn how they convert the sun’s energy straight into electrical energy. In the process, you will discover why we are getting closer to utilizing the sun’s energy on a daily basis, and why we still have more study to do prior to the process ends up being expense reliable.

Transforming Photons to Electrons

The solar cells that you see on calculators and satellites are photovoltaic cells or modules (modules are simply a group of cells electrically communicated and packaged in one frame). Photovoltaics, as the word implies (image = light, voltaic = electricity), transform sunlight directly into electrical power. When used nearly specifically in space, photovoltaics are utilized a growing number of in less exotic methods. They could even power your residence. How do these devices work?
Photovoltaic (PV) cells are made of unique materials called semiconductors such as silicon, which is currently the most typically made use of. Basically, when light strikes the cell, a certain portion of it is absorbed within the semiconductor product. This suggests that the energy of the absorbed light is moved to the semiconductor. The energy knocks electrons loose, permitting them to flow easily. PV cells also all have several electrical fields that act to force electrons freed by light absorption to stream in a specific direction. This flow of electrons is a current, and by putting metal contacts on the top and bottom of the PV cell, we can draw that existing off to utilize externally. For instance, the current can power a calculator. This existing, together with the cell’s voltage (which is an outcome of its integrated electrical field or fields), specifies the power (or wattage) that the solar cell can produce.

That’s the fundamental procedure, but there’s truly far more to it. Let’s take a deeper look into one example of a PV cell: the single crystal silicon cell.


Silicon has some unique chemical properties, particularly in its crystalline form. An atom of silicon has 14 electrons, organized in 3 various shells. The very first 2 shells, those closest to the center, are entirely complete. The outer shell, however, is just half full, having only four electrons. A silicon atom will constantly search for ways to fill its last shell (which wants to have eight electrons). To do this, it will certainly share electrons with four of its next-door neighbor silicon atoms. It” s like every atom holds hands with its neighbors, except that in this case, each atom has 4 hands joined to 4 neighbors. That’s what types the crystalline structure, which structure ends up being essential to this kind of PV cell.
We’ve now described pure, crystalline silicon. Pure silicon is a poor conductor of electrical power because none of its electrons are free to move about, as electrons are in excellent conductors such as copper. Instead, the electrons are all secured the crystalline structure. The silicon in a solar cell is modified slightly so that it will certainly work as a solar battery.

Silicon in Solar battery

A solar cell has silicon with impurities— other atoms blended in with the silicon atoms, changing the method things work a bit. We normally think about impurities as something unfavorable, however in our case, our cell wouldn’t work without them. These impurities are in fact put there on purpose. Consider silicon with an atom of phosphorous occasionally, maybe one for every million silicon atoms. Phosphorous has five electrons in its outer shell, not 4. It still bonds with its silicon neighbor atoms, however in a sense, the phosphorous has one electron that doesn’t have anybody to hold hands with. It doesn’t type part of a bond, but there is a favorable proton in the phosphorous nucleus holding it in location.
When energy is added to pure silicon, for example in the form of heat, it can trigger a couple of electrons to break devoid of their bonds and leave their atoms. A hole is left behind in each case. These electrons then roam arbitrarily around the crystalline lattice trying to find another hole to fall into. These electrons are called free carriers, and can carry electrical current. There are so few of them in pure silicon, however, that they aren’t very beneficial. Our impure silicon with phosphorous atoms blended in is a different story. It turns out that it takes a lot less energy to knock loose one of our “additional” phosphorous electrons since they aren’t tied up in a bond– their neighbors aren’t holding them back. As an outcome, a lot of these electrons do break totally free, and we have a lot more totally free carriers than we would have in pure silicon. The procedure of including impurities on purpose is called doping, and when doped with phosphorous, the resulting silicon is called N-type (“n”for negative) since of the occurrance of free electrons. N-type doped silicon is a far better conductor than pure silicon is.

In fact, just part of our solar cell is N-type. The other part is doped with boron, which has only 3 electrons in its external shell instead of 4, to end up being P-type silicon. Instead of having free electrons, P-type silicon (“p”for favorable ) has free holes. Holes actually are just the absence of electrons, so they lug the opposite (positive) charge. They move around much like electrons do.

So where has all this gotten us?

N-type Plus P-type Silicon

The fascinating part begins when you put N-type silicon together with P-type silicon. Keep in mind that every PV cell has at least one electrical field. Without an electrical field, the cell wouldn’t work, and this field types when the N-type and P-type silicon touch. Suddenly, the free electrons in the N side, which have been looking all over for holes to fall under, see all the free holes on the P side, and there’s a mad rush to fill them in.
Already, our silicon was all electrically neutral. Our additional electrons were balanced out by the additional protons in the phosphorous. Our missing electrons (holes) were cancelled by the missing protons in the boron. When the holes and electrons mix at the junction between N-type and P-type silicon, however, that neutrality is interrupted. Do all the totally free electrons fill all the free holes? No. If they did, then the entire arrangement wouldn’t be extremely helpful. Right at the junction, however, they do blend and form a barrier, making it harder and harder for electrons on the N side to cross to the P side. Ultimately, balance is reached, and we have an electric field separating the 2 sides.

The effect of the electrical field in a PV cell

The effect of the electrical field in a PV cell

This electric field acts as a diode, permitting (as well as pushing) electrons to stream from the P side to the N side, however not the other way around. It’s like a hill– electrons can quickly drop the hill (to the N side), but can’t climb it (to the P side).

So we’ve got an electric field functioning as a diode where electrons can only relocate one direction. Let’s see what occurs when light hits the cell.

When Light Hits the Cell

When light, through photons, strikes our solar cell, its energy frees electron-hole pairs.
Each photon with enough energy will usually free precisely one electron, and lead to a complimentary hole as well. If this happens close sufficient to the electrical field, or if totally free electron and free hole occur to roam into its variety of influence, the field will certainly send out the electron to the N side and the hole to the P side. This causes more disruption of electrical neutrality, and if we supply an external current path, electrons will stream through the path to their initial side (the P side) to unify with holes that the electrical field sent out there, doing work for us along the method. The electron flow provides the current, and the cell’s electrical field causes a voltage. With both existing and voltage, we have power, which is the item of the two.

Operation of a PV cell
Operation of a PV cell

Just how much sunshine energy does our PV cell soak up? Regrettably, the most that our simple cell might take in is around 25 percent, and most likely is 15 percent or less. Why so little?

Energy Loss

Why does our solar cell soak up just about 15 percents of the sunshine’s energy? Visible light is just part of the electromagnetic spectrum. Electro-magnetic radiation is not monochromatic– it is made up of a range of various wavelengths, and for that reason energy levels.

Light can be separated into various wavelengths, and we can see them through a rainbow. Because the light that hits our cell has photons of a vast array of energies, it ends up that a few of them won’t have enough energy to form an electron-hole pair. They’ll simply go through the cell as if it were transparent. Still other photons have too much energy. Just a certain amount of energy, measured in electron volts (eV) and specified by our cell product (about 1.1 eV for crystalline silicon), is required to knock an electron loose. We call this the band gap energy of a material. If a photon has more energy than the needed quantity, then the additional energy is lost (unless a photon has actually twice the needed energy, and can develop more than one electron-hole pair, but this effect is not substantial). These 2 impacts alone make up the loss of around 70 percent of the radiation energy event on our cell.

Why can’t we choose a material with a really low band space, so we can make use of more of the photons? Sadly, our band gap also determines the strength (voltage) of our electric field, and if it’s too low, then what we make up in additional current (by taking in more photons), we lose by having a small voltage. Remember that power is voltage times current. The ideal band gap, balancing these two impacts, is around 1.4 eV for a cell made from a single product.

We have other losses too. Our electrons need to stream from one side of the cell to the other through an external circuit. We can cover the bottom with a metal, permitting excellent conduction, however if we completely cover the top, then photons can’t survive the nontransparent conductor and we lose all our present (in some cells, transparent conductors are utilized on the leading surface area, however not in all). If we put our contacts only at the sides of our cell, then the electrons have to travel an extremely far away (for an electron) to reach the contacts. Bear in mind, silicon is a semiconductor– it’s not almost as excellent as a metal for transporting existing. Its internal resistance (called series resistance) is fairly high, and high resistance means high losses. To reduce these losses, our cell is covered by a metallic contact grid that reduces the distance that electrons have to take a trip while covering just a small part of the cell surface area. However, some photons are blocked by the grid, which can’t be too little otherwise its own resistance will be expensive.

Finishing the Cell

There are a couple of more steps left prior to we can really use our cell. Silicon takes place to be an extremely glossy material, meanings that it is extremely reflective. Photons that are reflected can’t be made use of by the cell. Because of that, an antireflective coating is used to the top of the cell to reduce reflection losses to less than 5 percent.

The final step is the glass cover plate that protects the cell from the elements. PV modules are made by linking several cells (generally 36) in series and parallel to accomplish beneficial levels of voltage and present, and putting them in a sturdy frame full with a glass cover and positive and unfavorable terminals on the back.

Basic structure of a generic silicon PV cell

Basic structure of a generic silicon PV cell

Single crystal silicon isn’t the only product made use of in PV cells. Polycrystalline silicon is likewise used in an attempt to cut production expenses, although resulting cells aren’t as efficient as single crystal silicon. Amorphous silicon, which has no crystalline structure, is likewise utilized, once again in an attempt to decrease manufacturing costs. Other materials used include gallium arsenide, copper indium diselenide and cadmium telluride. Because various materials have different band gaps, they seem to be “tuned” to different wavelengths, or photons of different energies. One way efficiency has actually been improved is to utilize 2 or more layers of different materials with various band spaces. The greater band gap product is on the surface area, soaking up high-energy photons while permitting lower-energy photons to be absorbed by the lower band gap product beneath. This method can lead to much higher efficiencies. Such cells, called multi-junction cells, can have more than one electrical field.

Powering a Residence

Now that we have our PV module, exactly what do we finish with it? Exactly what would you need to do to power your residence with solar power? Although it’s not as simple as simply slapping some modules on your roof, it’s not exceptionally challenging to do, either.
To start with, not every roof has the correct orientation or angle of inclination to take advantage of the sun’s energy. Non-tracking PV systems in the Northern Hemisphere ought to point towards real south (this is the orientation). They should be inclined at an angle equivalent to the location’s latitude to take in the maximum amount of energy year-round. A various orientation and/or inclination might be used if you wish to make the most of energy manufacturing for the early morning or afternoon, and/or the summer or winter. Obviously, the modules ought to never be shaded by nearby trees or structures, no matter the time of day or the time of year. In a PV module, even if just among its 36 cells is shaded, power production will be lowered by more than half.

If you have a home with an unshaded, south-facing roof, you have to decide exactly what size system you need. This is complicated by the realities that your electrical energy production depends upon the weather, which is never ever entirely predictable, and that your electrical power need will likewise vary. These obstacles are relatively simple to clear. Meteorological data gives average monthly sunlight levels for different geographical areas. This takes into consideration rainfall and cloudy days, as well as altitude, humidity, and other more subtle aspects. You need to create for the worst month, so that you’ll have adequate electrical energy all year. With that information, and understanding your typical family need (your utility costs easily lets you understand just how much energy you make use of monthly), there are simple techniques you can utilize to identify simply how many PV modules you’ll require. You’ll also have to decide on a system voltage, which you can manage by deciding how many modules to wire in series.


You could have already guessed a couple of issues that we’ll need to solve. Initially, what do we do when the sun isn’t shining? Certainly, nobody would accept only having electrical power during the day, and after that just on clear days, if they have a selection. We need energy storagebatteries. Unfortunately, batteries add a lot of expense and upkeep to the PV system. Presently, nevertheless, it’s a necessity if you want to be totally independent. One way around the issue is to connect your residence to the utility grid, buying power when you need it and offering to them when you produce more than you need. This way, the utility acts as a practically boundless storage system. The energy needs to agree, naturally, and in many cases will certainly buy power from you at a much lower rate than their own market price. You will likewise need special equipment to make certain that the power you sell to your energy is simultaneous with theirs– that it shares the same sinusoidal waveform and frequency. Security is a problem as well. The utility needs to see to it that if there’s a power failure in your area, your PV system won’t try to feed electrical power into lines that a lineman may think is dead. This is called islanding.

If you decide to make use of batteries, bear in mind that they will need to be preserved, and after that replaced after a particular variety of years. The PV modules should last 20 years or more, however batteries just won’t have that type of useful life. Batteries in PV systems can also be extremely unsafe because of the energy they save and the acidic electrolytes they contain, so you’ll require a well-ventilated, non-metallic enclosure for them.

Deep-cycle Batteries

What sort of batteries are utilized in PV systems? Although numerous different kinds are commonly made use of, the one quality that they ought to all share is that they are deep-cycle batteries. Unlike your automobile battery, which is a shallow-cycle battery, deep-cycle batteries can discharge more of their stored energy while still preserving long life. Automobile batteries release a big existing for an extremely brief time– to begin your automobile– and are then immediately recharged as you drive. PV batteries generally need to release a smaller sized existing for a longer duration (such as all night), while being charged throughout the day.

The most frequently utilized deep-cycle batteries are lead-acid batteries (both sealed and vented) and nickel-cadmium batteries. Nickel-cadmium batteries are more expensive, but last longer and can be discharged more completely without harm. Even deep-cycle lead-acid batteries can’t be discharged One Hundred Percent without seriously reducing battery life, and normally, PV systems are created to discharge lead-acid batteries no more than 40 percent or HALF.

Also, the use of batteries requires the setup of another part called a charge controller. Batteries last a lot longer if care is taken so that they aren’t overcharged or drained too much. That’s what a charge controller does. Once the batteries are completely charged, the charge controller doesn’t let current from the PV modules continue to stream into them. Likewise, once the batteries have actually been drained to a specific predetermined level, regulated by determining battery voltage, lots of charge controllers will certainly not allow more current to be drained from the batteries till they have actually been recharged. The use of a charge controller is important for long battery life.

DC to Air Conditioner

The other problem is that the electricity generated by your PV modules, and extracted from your batteries if you opt to use them, is direct current, while the electricity supplied by your energy (and the kind that every home appliance in your house makes use of) is rotating existing. You will certainly require an inverter, a device that transforms DC to A/C. A lot of big inverters will certainly likewise allow you to instantly manage how your system works. Some PV modules, called AC modules, really have an inverter already developed into each module, eliminating the need for a huge, central inverter, and simplifying wiring problems.

General schematic of a residential PV system with battery storage
General schematic of a residential PV system with battery storage

Include the installing hardware, circuitry, junction boxes, grounding devices, overcurrent protection, DC and Air Conditioning disconnects and other devices and you have yourself a system. Electrical codes should be followed (there’s a section in the National Electrical Code simply for PV), and it’s highly recommended that the setup be done by a certified electrician who has experience with PV systems. When installed, a PV system needs very little upkeep (particularly if no batteries are made use of), and will certainly provide electricity cleanly and quietly for Twenty Years or more.

If photovoltaics are such a fantastic source of free energy, then why doesn’t the whole world work on solar power? Some individuals have a flawed principle of solar power. While it’s real that sunlight is free, the electricity created by PV systems is not. As you can see from our discussion of a family PV system, a fair bit of hardware is required. Presently, an installed PV system will cost someplace around $9 per peak Watt. To give you a concept of just how much a residence system would cost, let’s think about the Solar Home— a design domestic house in Raleigh, North Carolina, with a PV system established by the North Carolina Solar Center to show the innovation. It’s a relatively little home, and it is approximated that its 3.6-kW PV system covers about half of the overall electricity needs (this system doesn’t use batteries– it’s communicated to the grid). However, at $9 per Watt, this installed system would cost you around $32,000.

That’s why PV is generally used in remote areas, far from a standard source of electrical power. Today, it simply can’t take on the energies. Costs are coming down as research is being done, however. Analysts are positive that PV will certainly one day be cost efficient in metropolitan locations in addition to remote ones. Part of the issue is that producing needs to be done on a huge scale to decrease expenses as much as possible. That kind of demand for PV, nevertheless, won’t exist up until rates are up to competitive levels. It’s a Catch-22 scenario. However, demand and module efficiencies are continuously increasing, rates are falling, and the world is becoming increasingly aware of ecological concerns associated with traditional source of power, making photovoltaics an innovation with a bright future.


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