A photovoltaic system for residential, commercial, or industrial energy supply consists of the solar array and a number of components often summarized as the balance of system (BOS). This term is synonymous with "Balance of Plant". BOS-components include power-conditioning equipment and structures for mounting, typically one or more DC to AC power converters, also known as inverters, an energy storage device, a racking system that supports the solar array, electrical wiring and interconnections, and mounting for other components.
Optionally, a balance of system may include any or all of the following: renewable energy credit revenue-grade meter, maximum power point tracker (MPPT), battery system and charger, GPS solar tracker, energy management software, solar irradiance sensors, anemometer, or task-specific accessories designed to meet specialized requirements for a system owner. In addition, a CPV system requires optical lenses or mirrors and sometimes a cooling system.
The terms "solar array" and "PV system" are often incorrectly used interchangeably, despite the fact that the solar array does not encompass the entire system. Moreover, "solar panel" is often used as a synonym for "solar module", although a panel consists of a string of several modules. The term "solar system" is also an often used misnomer for a PV system.
Conventional c-Si solar cells, normally wired in series, are encapsulated in a solar module to protect them from the weather. The module consists of a tempered glass as cover, a soft and flexible encapsulant, a rear backsheet made of a weathering and fire-resistant material and an aluminium frame around the outer edge. Electrically connected and mounted on a supporting structure, solar modules build a string of modules, often called solar panel. A solar array consists of one or many such panels. A photovoltaic array, or solar array, is a linked collection of solar modules. The power that one module can produce is seldom enough to meet requirements of a home or a business, so the modules are linked together to form an array. Most PV arrays use an inverter to convert the DC power produced by the modules into alternating current that can power lights, motors, and other loads. The modules in a PV array are usually first connected in series to obtain the desired voltage; the individual strings are then connected in parallel to allow the system to produce more current. Solar panels are typically measured under STC (standard test conditions) or PTC (PVUSA test conditions), in watts. Typical panel ratings range from less than 100 watts to over 400 watts. The array rating consists of a summation of the panel ratings, in watts, kilowatts, or megawatts.
Module and Efficiency
A typical "150 watt" PV module is about a square meter in size. Such a module may be expected to produce 0.75 kilowatt-hour (kWh) every day, on average, after taking into account the weather and the latitude, for an insolation of 5 sun hours/day. In the last 10 years, the efficiency of average commercial wafer-based crystalline silicon modules increased from about 12% to 16% and CdTe module efficiency increased from 9% to 13% during same period. Module output and life degraded by increased temperature. Allowing ambient air to flow over, and if possible behind, PV modules reduces this problem. Effective module lives are typically 25 years or more. The payback period for an investment in a PV solar installation varies greatly and is typically less useful than a calculation of return on investment. While it is typically calculated to be between 10 and 20 years, the financial payback period can be far shorter with incentives.
Due to the low voltage of an individual solar cell (typically ca. 0.5V), several cells are wired (also see copper used in PV systems) in series in the manufacture of a "laminate". The laminate is assembled into a protective weatherproof enclosure, thus making a photovoltaic module or solar panel. Modules may then be strung together into a photovoltaic array. In 2012, solar panels available for consumers can have an efficiency of up to about 17%, while commercially available panels can go as far as 27%. It has been recorded that a group from The Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems have created a cell that can reach 44.7% efficiency, which makes scientists' hopes of reaching the 50% efficiency threshold a lot more feasible.
Shading and Dirt
Photovoltaic cell electrical output is extremely sensitive to shading. The effects of this shading are well known. When even a small portion of a cell, module, or array is shaded, while the remainder is in sunlight, the output falls dramatically due to internal 'short-circuiting' (the electrons reversing course through the shaded portion of the p-n junction). If the current drawn from the series string of cells is no greater than the current that can be produced by the shaded cell, the current (and so power) developed by the string is limited. If enough voltage is available from the rest of the cells in a string, current will be forced through the cell by breaking down the junction in the shaded portion. This breakdown voltage in common cells is between 10 and 30 volts. Instead of adding to the power produced by the panel, the shaded cell absorbs power, turning it into heat. Since the reverse voltage of a shaded cell is much greater than the forward voltage of an illuminated cell, one shaded cell can absorb the power of many other cells in the string, disproportionately affecting panel output. For example, a shaded cell may drop 8 volts, instead of adding 0.5 volts, at a particular current level, thereby absorbing the power produced by 16 other cells. It is, thus important that a PV installation is not shaded by trees or other obstructions.
Several methods have been developed to determine shading losses from trees to PV systems over both large regions using LiDAR, but also at an individual system level using sketchup. Most modules have bypass diodes between each cell or string of cells that minimize the effects of shading and only lose the power of the shaded portion of the array. The main job of the bypass diode is to eliminate hot spots that form on cells that can cause further damage to the array, and cause fires. Sunlight can be absorbed by dust, snow, or other impurities at the surface of the module. This can reduce the light that strikes the cells. In general these losses aggregated over the year are small even for locations in Canada. Maintaining a clean module surface will increase output performance over the life of the module. Google found that cleaning the flat mounted solar panels after 15 months increased their output by almost 100%, but that the 5% tilted arrays were adequately cleaned by rainwater.
Insolation and Energy
Solar insolation is made up of direct, diffuse, and reflected radiation. The absorption factor of a PV cell is defined as the fraction of incident solar irradiance that is absorbed by the cell. At high noon on a cloudless day at the equator, the power of the sun is about 1 kW/m², on the Earth's surface, to a plane that is perpendicular to the sun's rays. As such, PV arrays can track the sun through each day to greatly enhance energy collection. However, tracking devices add cost, and require maintenance, so it is more common for PV arrays to have fixed mounts that tilt the array and face solar noon (approximately due south in the Northern Hemisphere or due north in the Southern Hemisphere). The tilt angle, from horizontal, can be varied for season, but if fixed, should be set to give optimal array output during the peak electrical demand portion of a typical year for a stand-alone system. This optimal module tilt angle is not necessarily identical to the tilt angle for maximum annual array energy output. The optimization of the photovoltaic system for a specific environment can be complicated as issues of solar flux, soiling, and snow losses should be taken into effect. In addition, recent work has shown that spectral effects can play a role in optimal photovoltaic material selection. For example, the spectral albedo can play a significant role in output depending on the surface around the photovoltaic system and the type of solar cell material. For the weather and latitudes of the United States and Europe, typical insolation ranges from 4 kWh/m²/day in northern climes to 6.5 kWh/m²/day in the sunniest regions. A photovoltaic installation in the southern latitudes of Europe or the United States may expect to produce 1 kWh/m²/day. A typical 1 kW photovoltaic installation in Australia or the southern latitudes of Europe or United States, may produce 3.5–5 kWh per day, dependent on location, orientation, tilt, insolation and other factors. In the Sahara desert, with less cloud cover and a better solar angle, one could ideally obtain closer to 8.3 kWh/m²/day provided the nearly ever present wind would not blow sand onto the units. The area of the Sahara desert is over 9 million km². 90,600 km², or about 1%, could generate as much electricity as all of the world's power plants combined.
Modules are assembled into arrays on some kind of mounting system, which may be classified as ground mount, roof mount or pole mount. For solar parks a large rack is mounted on the ground, and the modules mounted on the rack. For buildings, many different racks have been devised for pitched roofs. For flat roofs, racks, bins and building integrated solutions are used. Solar panel racks mounted on top of poles can be stationary or moving, see Trackers below. Side-of-pole mounts are suitable for situations where a pole has something else mounted at its top, such as a light fixture or an antenna. Pole mounting raises what would otherwise be a ground mounted array above weed shadows and livestock, and may satisfy electrical code requirements regarding inaccessibility of exposed wiring. Pole mounted panels are open to more cooling air on their underside, which increases performance. A multiplicity of pole top racks can be formed into a parking carport or other shade structure. A rack which does not follow the sun from left to right may allow seasonal adjustment up or down.
Due to their outdoor usage, solar cables are specifically designed to be resistant against UV radiation and extremely high temperature fluctuations and are generally unaffected by the weather. A number of standards specify the usage of electrical wiring in PV systems, such as the IEC 60364 by the International Electrotechnical Commission, in section 712 "Solar photovoltaic (PV) power supply systems", the British Standard BS 7671, incorporating regulations relating to microgeneration and photovoltaic systems, and the US UL4703 standard, in subject 4703 "Photovoltaic Wire".
A solar tracking system tilts a solar panel throughout the day. Depending on the type of tracking system, the panel is either aimed directly at the sun or the brightest area of a partly clouded sky. Trackers greatly enhance early morning and late afternoon performance, increasing the total amount of power produced by a system by about 20–25% for a single axis tracker and about 30% or more for a dual axis tracker, depending on latitude. Trackers are effective in regions that receive a large portion of sunlight directly. In diffuse light (i.e. under cloud or fog), tracking has little or no value. Because most concentrated photovoltaics systems are very sensitive to the sunlight's angle, tracking systems allow them to produce useful power for more than a brief period each day. Tracking systems improve performance for two main reasons. First, when a solar panel is perpendicular to the sunlight, it receives more light on its surface than if it were angled. Second, direct light is used more efficiently than angled light. Special Anti-reflective coatings can improve solar panel efficiency for direct and angled light, somewhat reducing the benefit of tracking.
Trackers and sensors to optimize the performance are often seen as optional, but tracking systems can increase viable output by up to 45%. PV arrays that approach or exceed one megawatt often use solar trackers. Accounting for clouds, and the fact that most of the world is not on the equator, and that the sun sets in the evening, the correct measure of solar power is insolation – the average number of kilowatt-hours per square meter per day. For the weather and latitudes of the United States and Europe, typical insolation ranges from 2.26 kWh/m²/day in northern climes to 5.61 kWh/m²/day in the sunniest regions.
For large systems, the energy gained by using tracking systems can outweigh the added complexity (trackers can increase efficiency by 30% or more). For very large systems, the added maintenance of tracking is a substantial detriment. Tracking is not required for flat panel and low-concentration photovoltaic systems. For high-concentration photovoltaic systems, dual axis tracking is a necessity. Pricing trends affect the balance between adding more stationary solar panels versus having fewer panels that track. When solar panel prices drop, trackers become a less attractive option.
Systems designed to deliver alternating current (AC), such as grid-connected applications need an inverter to convert the direct current (DC) from the solar modules to AC. Grid connected inverters must supply AC electricity in sinusoidal form, synchronized to the grid frequency, limit feed in voltage to no higher than the grid voltage and disconnect from the grid if the grid voltage is turned off. Islanding inverters need only produce regulated voltages and frequencies in a sinusoidal waveshape as no synchronization or co-ordination with grid supplies is required.
A solar inverter may connect to a string of solar panels. In some installations a solar micro-inverter is connected at each solar panel. For safety reasons a circuit breaker is provided both on the AC and DC side to enable maintenance. AC output may be connected through an electricity meter into the public grid. The number of modules in the system determines the total DC watts capable of being generated by the solar array; however, the inverter ultimately governs the amount of AC watts that can be distributed for consumption. For example, a PV system comprising 11 kilowatts DC (kWDC) worth of PV modules, paired with one 10-kilowatt AC (kWAC) inverter, will be limited to the inverter's output of 10 kW. As of 2014, conversion efficiency for state-of-the-art converters reached more than 98 percent. While string inverters are used in residential to medium-sized commercial PV systems, central inverters cover the large commercial and utility-scale market. Market-share for central and string inverters are about 50 percent and 48 percent, respectively, leaving less than 2 percent to micro-inverters.
Maximum power point tracking (MPPT) is a technique that grid connected inverters use to get the maximum possible power from the photovoltaic array. In order to do so, the inverter's MPPT system digitally samples the solar array's ever changing power output and applies the proper resistance to find the optimal maximum power point.
Anti-islanding is a protection mechanism that immediately shuts down the inverter preventing it from generating AC power when the connection to the load no longer exists. This happens, for example, in the case of a blackout. Without this protection, the supply line would become an "island" with power surrounded by a "sea" of unpowered lines, as the solar array continues to deliver DC power during the power outage. Islanding is a hazard to utility workers, who may not realize that an AC circuit is still powered, and it may prevent automatic re-connection of devices.
Although still expensive, PV systems increasingly use rechargeable batteries to store a surplus to be later used at night. Batteries used for grid-storage also stabilize the electrical grid by leveling out peak loads, and play an important role in a smart grid, as they can charge during periods of low demand and feed their stored energy into the grid when demand is high.
Common battery technologies used in today's PV systems include the valve regulated lead-acid battery– a modified version of the conventional lead–acid battery, nickel–cadmium and lithium-ion batteries. Compared to the other types, lead-acid batteries have a shorter lifetime and lower energy density. However, due to their high reliability, low self discharge as well as low investment and maintenance costs, they are currently the predominant technology used in small-scale, residential PV systems, as lithium-ion batteries are still being developed and about 3.5 times as expensive as lead-acid batteries. Furthermore, as storage devices for PV systems are stationary, the lower energy and power density and therefore higher weight of lead-acid batteries are not as critical as, for example, in electric transportation. Other rechargeable batteries that are considered for distributed PV systems include sodium–sulfur and vanadium redox batteries, two prominent types of a molten salt and a flow battery, respectively. In 2015, Tesla motors launched the Powerwall, a rechargeable lithium-ion battery with the aim to revolutionize energy consumption.
PV systems with an integrated battery solution also need a charge controller, as the varying voltage and current from the solar array requires constant adjustment to prevent damage from overcharging. Basic charge controllers may simply turn the PV panels on and off, or may meter out pulses of energy as needed, a strategy called PWM or pulse-width modulation. More advanced charge controllers will incorporate MPPT logic into their battery charging algorithms. Charge controllers may also divert energy to some purpose other than battery charging. Rather than simply shut off the free PV energy when not needed, a user may choose to heat air or water once the battery is full.
Monitoring and Metering
The metering must be able to accumulate energy units in both directions or two meters must be used. Many meters accumulate bidirectionally, some systems use two meters, but a unidirectional meter (with detent) will not accumulate energy from any resultant feed into the grid. In some countries, for installations over 30 kWp a frequency and a voltage monitor with disconnection of all phases is required. This is done where more solar power is being generated than can be accommodated by the utility, and the excess can not either be exported or stored. Grid operators historically have needed to provide transmission lines and generation capacity. Now they need to also provide storage. This is normally hydro-storage, but other means of storage are used. Initially storage was used so that baseload generators could operate at full output. With variable renewable energy, storage is needed to allow power generation whenever it is available, and consumption whenever it is needed.
The two variables a grid operator have are storing electricity for when it is needed, or transmitting it to where it is needed. If both of those fail, installations over 30kWp can automatically shut down, although in practice all inverters maintain voltage regulation and stop supplying power if the load is inadequate. Grid operators have the option of curtailing excess generation from large systems, although this is more commonly done with wind power than solar power, and results in a substantial loss of revenue. Three-phase inverters have the unique option of supplying reactive power which can be advantageous in matching load requirements.
Photovoltaic systems need to be monitored to detect breakdown and optimize their operation. There are several photovoltaic monitoring strategies depending on the output of the installation and its nature. Monitoring can be performed on site or remotely. It can measure production only, retrieve all the data from the inverter or retrieve all of the data from the communicating equipment (probes, meters, etc.). Monitoring tools can be dedicated to supervision only or offer additional functions. Individual inverters and battery charge controllers may include monitoring using manufacturer specific protocols and software. Energy metering of an inverter may be of limited accuracy and not suitable for revenue metering purposes. A third-party data acquisition system can monitor multiple inverters, using the inverter manufacturer's protocols, and also acquire weather-related information. Independent smart meters may measure the total energy production of a PV array system. Separate measures such as satellite image analysis or a solar radiation meter (a pyranometer) can be used to estimate total insolation for comparison. Data collected from a monitoring system can be displayed remotely over the World Wide Web, such as OSOTF.