HOW SOLAR PV WORKS

Solar cells are made of the same kinds of semiconductor materials, such as silicon, used in the microelectronics industry. For solar cells, a thin semiconductor wafer is specially treated to form an electric field, positive on one side and negative on the other. When light energy strikes the solar cell, electrons are knocked loose from the atoms in the semiconductor material. If electrical conductors are attached to the positive and negative sides, forming an electrical circuit, the electrons can be captured in the form of an electric current -- that is, electricity. This electricity can then be used to power a load, such as a light or a tool.

A number of solar cells electrically connected to each other and mounted in a support structure or frame is called a photovoltaic module. Modules are designed to supply electricity at a certain voltage, such as a common 24 volts system. The current produced is directly dependent on how much light strikes the module. Multiple modules can be wired together to form an array. In general, the larger the area of a module or array, the more electricity that will be produced. Photovoltaic modules and arrays produce direct-current (dc) electricity. They can be connected in both series and parallel electrical arrangements to produce any required voltage and current combination.

Today's most common PV devices use a single junction, or interface, to create an electric field within a semiconductor such as a PV cell. In a single-junction PV cell, only photons whose energy is equal to or greater than the band gap of the cell material can free an electron for an electric circuit. In other words, the photovoltaic response of single-junction cells is limited to the portion of the sun's spectrum whose energy is above the band gap of the absorbing material, and lower-energy photons are not used.

One way to get around this limitation is to use two (or more) different cells, with more than one band gap and more than one junction, to generate a voltage. These are referred to as "multijunction" cells (also called "cascade" or "tandem" cells). Multijunction devices can achieve a higher total conversion efficiency.

Types of Solar Modules

Crystalline Silicon (c-Si) Modules

Historically, crystalline silicon (c-Si) has been used as the light-absorbing semiconductor in most solar cells, even though it is a relatively poor absorber of light and requires a considerable thickness (several hundred microns) of material. Nevertheless, it has proved convenient because it yields stable solar cells with good efficiencies (11-19%, half to two-thirds of the theoretical maximum) and uses process technology developed from the huge knowledge base of the microelectronics industry.

Two types of crystalline silicon are used in the industry. The first is monocrystalline, produced by slicing wafers (up to 155mm diameter and 350 microns thick) from a high-purity single crystal boule. The second is multicrystalline silicon, made by sawing a cast block of silicon first into bars and then wafers. The main trend in crystalline silicon cell manufacture is toward multicrystalline technology.

For both mono- and multicrystalline Si, a semiconductor homojunction is formed by diffusing phosphorus (an n-type dopant) into the top surface of the boron doped (p-type) Si wafer. Screen-printed contacts are applied to the front and rear of the cell, with the front contact pattern specially designed to allow maximum light exposure of the Si material with minimum electrical (resistive) losses in the cell.

The most efficient production cells use monocrystalline c-Si with laser grooved, buried grid contacts for maximum light absorption and current collection.

Some companies are productionizing technologies that by-pass some of the inefficiencies of the crystal growth/casting and wafer sawing route. One route is to grow a ribbon of silicon, either as a plain two-dimensional strip or as an octagonal column, by pulling it from a silicon melt.

Another is to melt silicon powder on a cheap conducting substrate. These processes may bring with them other issues of lower growth/pulling rates and poorer uniformity and surface roughness.

Each c-Si cell generates about 0.5V, so 36 cells are usually soldered together in series to produce a module with an output to charge a 12V battery. The cells are hermetically sealed under toughened, high transmission glass to produce highly reliable, weather resistant modules that may be warranted for up to 25 years.

Modules are designed to meet rigorous certification tests set by international standards agencies.

Thin Film Modules

The high cost of crystalline silicon wafers (they make up 40-50% of the cost of a finished module) has led the industry to look at cheaper materials to make solar cells.

The selected materials are all strong light absorbers and only need to be about 1micron thick, so materials costs are significantly reduced. The most common materials are amorphous silicon (a-Si, still silicon, but in a different form), or the polycrystalline materials: cadmium telluride (CdTe) and copper indium (gallium) diselenide (CIS or CIGS).

Each of these three is amenable to large area deposition (on to substrates of about 1 meter dimensions) and hence high volume manufacturing. The thin film semiconductor layers are deposited on to either coated glass or stainless steel sheet.

The semiconductor junctions are formed in different ways, either as a p-i-n device in amorphous silicon, or as a hetero-junction (e.g. with a thin cadmium sulphide layer) for CdTe and CIS. A transparent conducting oxide layer (such as tin oxide) forms the front electrical contact of the cell, and a metal layer forms the rear contact.

Thin film technologies are all complex. They have taken at least twenty years, supported in some cases by major corporations, to get from the stage of promising research (about 8% efficiency at 1cm2 scale) to the first manufacturing plants producing early product.

Amorphous silicon is the best developed of the thin film technologies. In its simplest form, the cell structure has a single sequence of p-i-n layers. Such cells suffer from significant degradation in their power output (in the range 15-35%) when exposed to the sun.

The mechanism of degradation is called the Staebler-Wronski Effect, after its discoverers. Better stability requires the use of a thinner layers in order to increase the electric field strength across the material. However, this reduces light absorption and hence cells efficiency.

This has led the industry to develop tandem and even triple layer devices that contain p-i-n cells stacked one on top of the other. In the cell at the base of the structure, the a-Si is sometimes alloyed with germanium to reduce its band gap and further improve light absorption. All this added complexity has a downside though; the processes are more complex and process yields are likely to be lower.

In order to build up a practically useful voltage from thin film cells, their manufacture usually includes a laser scribing sequence that enables the front and back of adjacent cells to be directly interconnected in series, with no need for further solder connection between cells.

As before, thin film cells are laminated to produce a weather resistant and environmentally robust module. Although they are less efficient (production modules range from 5 to 8%), thin films are potentially cheaper than c-Si because of their lower materials costs and larger substrate size.

However, some thin film materials have shown degradation of performance over time and stabilized efficiencies can be 15-35% lower than initial values. Many thin film technologies have demonstrated best cell efficiencies at research scale above 13%, and best prototype module efficiencies above 10%. The technology that is most successful in achieving low manufacturing costs in the long run is likely to be the one that can deliver the highest stable efficiencies (probably at least 10%) with the highest process yields.

Amorphous silicon is the most well-developed thin film technology to-date and has an interesting avenue of further development through the use of "microcrystalline" silicon which seeks to combine the stable high efficiencies of crystalline Si technology with the simpler and cheaper large area deposition technology of amorphous silicon.

However, conventional c-Si manufacturing technology has continued its steady improvement year by year and its production costs are still falling too.

The emerging thin films technologies are starting to make significant in-roads in to grid connect markets, particularly in Germany, but crystalline technologies still dominate the market. Thin films have long held a niche position in low power (<50W) and consumer electronics applications, and may offer particular design options for building integrated applications.

Types of Mounting Systems Fixed vs. Tracking

While it is not difficult to determine optimal tilt and azimuth for a system design, the type of mounting selected will impact the options. A fixed system means that the PV panels are installed at a set tilt and azimuth and will not move. Panels can be fixed in any type of rack or mounting system. A tracking system is one that moves to track the sun. There are two different axis that can be tracked- the tilt that would change over the course of a year, and the azimuth, which would change over the course of a day. Tracking with either a one or two axis system allows the PV module production to stay closer to maximum capacity for many additional hours. Motorized trackers can be single or dual axis trackers that turn arrays to face the sun throughout the day and year. Motorized trackers are typically used in large, field-mounted arrays, as they add cost to a system and consume a small amount of the power produced. Additionally, as PV systems are often touted for being low-maintenance with “no moving parts,” the added maintenance is a definite trade-off with a motorized tracker.

Trackers are useful if the site is appropriate. There needs to be no obstacles in the east and west that will block the sun since the trackers will orient the PV panels to face the sun from early morning to late afternoon. Individual dual axis trackers will improve panel output by as much as 30%. However, it is important to realize that the largest gains for the trackers occur during the longest days of summer. There are not large gains in the winter. When utilized in large-scale arrays such as this project the trackers must be positioned so as not to shadow the adjacent tracker. This means that there are shadowing/spacing considerations that dictate much larger areas needed per mW than a well designed fixed mount system. While tracking type systems can offer benefits to certain projects, the variables of down time, maintenance, replacement and additional land needed must be factored into the analysis to determine the most desireable type of system for a given location/installation.