A photovoltaic system, also PV system or solar power system, is a power system designed to supply usable solar power by means of photovoltaics. It consists of an arrangement of several components, including solar panels to absorb and convert sunlight into electricity, a solar inverter to change the electric current from DC to AC, as well as mounting, cabling and other electrical accessories to set up a working system. It may also use a solar tracking system to improve the system's overall performance and include an integrated battery solution, as prices for storage devices are expected to decline. Strictly speaking, a solar array only encompasses the ensemble of solar panels, the visible part of the PV system, and does not include all the other hardware, often summarized as balance of system (BOS). Moreover, PV systems convert light directly into electricity and shouldn't be confused with other technologies, such as concentrated solar power or solar thermal, used for heating and cooling.
PV systems range from small, rooftop-mounted or building-integrated systems with capacities from a few to several tens of kilowatts, to large utility-scale power stations of hundreds of megawatts. Nowadays, most PV systems are grid-connected, while off-grid or stand-alone systems only account for a small portion of the market.
Operating silently and without any moving parts or environmental emissions, PV systems have developed from being niche market applications into a mature technology used for mainstream electricity generation. A rooftop system recoups the invested energy for its manufacturing and installation within 0.7 to 2 years and produces about 95 percent of net clean renewable energy over a 30-year service lifetime.
Modern Photovoltaic System
A photovoltaic system converts the sun's radiation into usable electricity. It comprises the solar array and the balance of system components. PV systems can be categorized by various aspects, such as, grid-connected vs. stand alone systems, building-integrated vs. rack-mounted systems, residential vs. utility systems, distributed vs. centralized systems, rooftop vs. ground-mounted systems, tracking vs. fixed-tilt systems, and new constructed vs. retrofitted systems. Other distinctions may include, systems with microinverters vs. central inverter, systems using crystalline silicon vs. thin-film technology, and systems with modules from Chinese vs. European and U.S.-manufacturers.
About 99 percent of all European and 90 percent of all U.S. solar power systems are connected to the electrical grid, while off-grid systems are somewhat more common in Australia and South Korea. PV systems rarely use battery storage. This may change soon, as government incentives for distributed energy storage are being implemented and investments in storage solutions are gradually becoming economically viable for small systems. A solar array of a typical residential PV system is rack-mounted on the roof, rather than integrated into the roof or facade of the building, as this is significantly more expensive. Utility-scale solar power stations are ground-mounted, with fixed tilted solar panels rather than using expensive tracking devices. Crystalline silicon is the predominant material used in 90 percent of worldwide produced solar modules, while rival thin-film has lost market-share in recent years. About 70 percent of all solar cells and modules are produced in China and Taiwan, leaving only 5 percent to European and US-manufacturers. The installed capacity for both, small rooftop systems and large solar power stations is growing rapidly and in equal parts, although there is a notable trend towards utility-scale systems, as the focus on new installations is shifting away from Europe to sunnier regions, such as the Sunbelt in the U.S., which are less opposed to ground-mounted solar farms and cost-effectiveness is more emphasized by investors.
Driven by advances in technology and increases in manufacturing scale and sophistication, the cost of photovoltaics is declining continuously. There are several million PV systems distributed all over the world, mostly in Europe, with 1.4 million systems in Germany alone as well as North America with 440,000 systems in the United States, The energy conversion efficiency of a conventional solar module increased from 15 to 20 percent over the last 10 years and a PV system recoups the energy needed for its manufacture in about 2 years. In exceptionally irradiated locations, or when thin-film technology is used, the so-called energy payback time decreases to one year or less. Net metering and financial incentives, such as preferential feed-in tariffs for solar-generated electricity, have also greatly supported installations of PV systems in many countries. The levelized cost of electricity from large-scale PV systems has become competitive with conventional electricity sources in an expanding list of geographic regions, and grid parity has been achieved in about 30 different countries.
As of 2015, the fast-growing global PV market is rapidly approaching the 200 GW mark – about 40 times the installed capacity of 2006. Photovoltaic systems currently contribute about 1 percent to worldwide electricity generation. Top installers of PV systems in terms of capacity are currently China, Japan and the United States, while half of the world's capacity is installed in Europe, with Germany and Italy supplying 7% to 8% of their respective domestic electricity consumption with solar PV. The International Energy Agency expects solar power to become the world's largest source of electricity by 2050, with solar photovoltaics and concentrated solar thermal contributing 16% and 11% to the global demand, respectively.
A grid connected system is connected to a larger independent grid (typically the public electricity grid) and feeds energy directly into the grid. This energy may be shared by a residential or commercial building before or after the revenue measurement point. The difference being whether the credited energy production is calculated independently of the customer's energy consumption (feed-in tariff) or only on the difference of energy (net metering). Grid connected systems vary in size from residential (2–10 kWp) to solar power stations (up to 10s of MWp). This is a form of decentralized electricity generation. The feeding of electricity into the grid requires the transformation of DC into AC by a special, synchronizing grid-tie inverter. In kilowatt-sized installations the DC side system voltage is as high as permitted (typically 1000V except US residential 600 V) to limit ohmic losses. Most modules (60 or 72 crystalline silicon cells) generate 160 W to 300 W at 36 volts. It is sometimes necessary or desirable to connect the modules partially in parallel rather than all in series. One set of modules connected in series is known as a 'string'.
Scale of System
Photovoltaic systems are generally categorized into three distinct market segments: residential rooftop, commercial rooftop, and ground-mount utility-scale systems. Their capacities range from a few kilowatts to hundreds of megawatts. A typical residential system is around 10 kilowatts and mounted on a sloped roof, while commercial systems may reach a megawatt-scale and are generally installed on low-slope or even flat roofs. Although rooftop mounted systems are small and display a higher cost per watt than large utility-scale installations, they account for the largest share in the market. There is, however, a growing trend towards bigger utility-scale power plants, especially in the "sunbelt" region of the planet.
Large utility-scale solar parks or farms are power stations and capable of providing an energy supply to large numbers of consumers. Generated electricity is fed into the transmission grid powered by central generation plants (grid-connected or grid-tied plant), or combined with one, or many, domestic electricity generators to feed into a small electrical grid (hybrid plant). In rare cases generated electricity is stored or used directly by island/standalone plant. PV systems are generally designed in order to ensure the highest energy yield for a given investment. Some large photovoltaic power stations such as Solar Star, Waldpolenz Solar Park and Topaz Solar Farm cover tens or hundreds of hectares and have power outputs up to hundreds of megawatts.
Rooftop, Mobile, and Portable
A small PV system is capable of providing enough AC electricity to power a single home, or even an isolated device in the form of AC or DC electric. For example, military and civilian Earth observation satellites, street lights, construction and traffic signs, electric cars, solar-powered tents, and electric aircraft may contain integrated photovoltaic systems to provide a primary or auxiliary power source in the form of AC or DC power, depending on the design and power demands. In 2013, rooftop systems accounted for 60 percent of worldwide installations. However, there is a trend away from rooftop and towards utility-scale PV systems, as the focus of new PV installations is also shifting from Europe to countries in the sunbelt region of the planet where opposition to ground-mounted solar farms is less accentuated.
Portable and mobile PV systems provide electrical power independent of utility connections, for "off the grid" operation. Such systems are so commonly used on recreational vehicles and boats that there are retailers specializing in these applications and products specifically targeted to them. Since recreational vehicles (RV) normally carry batteries and operate lighting and other systems on nominally 12-volt DC power, RV PV systems normally operate in a voltage range chosen to charge 12-volt batteries directly, and addition of a PV system requires only panels, a charge controller, and wiring.
In urban and suburban areas, photovoltaic arrays are commonly used on rooftops to supplement power use; often the building will have a connection to the power grid, in which case the energy produced by the PV array can be sold back to the utility in some sort of net metering agreement. Some utilities, such as Solvay Electric in Solvay, NY, use the rooftops of commercial customers and telephone poles to support their use of PV panels. Solar trees are arrays that, as the name implies, mimic the look of trees, provide shade, and at night can function as street lights.
Uncertainties in revenue over time relate mostly to the evaluation of the solar resource and to the performance of the system itself. In the best of cases, uncertainties are typically 4% for year-to-year climate variability, 5% for solar resource estimation (in a horizontal plane), 3% for estimation of irradiation in the plane of the array, 3% for power rating of modules, 2% for losses due to dirt and soiling, 1.5% for losses due to snow, and 5% for other sources of error. Identifying and reacting to manageable losses is critical for revenue and O&M efficiency. Monitoring of array performance may be part of contractual agreements between the array owner, the builder, and the utility purchasing the energy produced. Recently, a method to create "synthetic days" using readily available weather data and verification using the Open Solar Outdoors Test Field make it possible to predict photovoltaic systems performance with high degrees of accuracy. This method can be used to then determine loss mechanisms on a local scale - such as those from snow or the effects of surface coatings (e.g. hydrophobic or hydrophilic) on soiling or snow losses. (Although in heavy snow environments with severe ground interference can result in annual losses from snow of 30%.) Access to the Internet has allowed a further improvement in energy monitoring and communication. Dedicated systems are available from a number of vendors. For solar PV systems that use microinverters (panel-level DC to AC conversion), module power data is automatically provided. Some systems allow setting performance alerts that trigger phone/email/text warnings when limits are reached. These solutions provide data for the system owner and the installer. Installers are able to remotely monitor multiple installations, and see at-a-glance the status of their entire installed base.