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A big issue for solar and wind energy is that the power they deliver is not constant. Unlike coal or nuclear power stations which produce a steady stream of power whatever the weather, wind and solar suffer from extreme fluctuations. For wind energy, a drop in wind speed can mean a 90% power loss over a large area in just a few seconds.

For solar energy, there are many different types of fluctuations. In the UK for instance, winter months produce only a quarter of the amount of energy as summer months. Obviously solar energy production takes place only between dawn and dusk, and even during the day, clouds can cause major fluctuations in solar energy output. These fluctuations make it hard for electricity grid operators to really use renewable energy since they need to guarantee power is delivered 100% of the time.

At the moment, because renewable energy makes up such a small component of our electricity generation in the UK these fluctuations are irrelevant. However as the proportion of renewables connected to the grid increases these effects will eventually become more significant. In southern Germany, where solar energy makes up over 4% of the electricity generated and at times represents 30% of the electricity on the grid, energy companies are starting to think carefully about how to use this resource most effectively.

Several can be done to decrease the impact from these fluctuations in renewable energy:

The first thing is to have a strong and efficient electricity grid. This is the case in Germany where energy can be efficiently and almost instantaneously moved from one part of the grid to another. This means that when there is a surplus of energy in one part of the country, energy can be transported at very short notice to where there is an energy deficit. Interestingly, as the amount of solar energy in a country increases, short term fluctuations caused by clouds are “ironed out” as shaded solar panels in one region are compensated for by unshaded solar panels in another.

In addition, as some of you may have heard, there is something called a ‘smart grid’ in development. This term is used to refer to lots of different things but on its most basic level it implies that energy demand can be controlled in some way. This could be very helpful for renewable energy since energy demand can be matched to when there is an abundance of solar energy in the middle of the day.

Another tool that can be used is prediction mechanisms. Using weather forecasting and remote monitoring, the amount of solar energy expected can be predicted. Providing this information to energy companies allows them to use various forms of reserve energy such as gas turbines or hydroelectricity which can be turned on and off in a matter of minutes.

The ultimate solution though, is to find a cheap means of storing energy. This would make all the fluctuations from renewable energy irrelevant. Researchers around the world are busy working on a wide range of different energy storage technologies. One of the most familiar ways of storing energy is to use a battery. Regular alkaline batteries are far too expensive and not durable enough to be used on a large scale, but there is huge number of new types of battery being worked on that could soon bring the cost down dramatically.

Besides batteries, there is a wide range of other technologies in development that could all be used to store renewable energy. Examples of these include; compressed-air energy storage, pumped hydro-electricity, molten-salt, fly-wheels and hydrogen, to name a few. Of course each technology has advantages and disadvantages, but it remains that we have a number of potential solutions for storing renewable energy. So the fact that the sun doesn’t always shine is certainly not a reason not to support solar energy.

The whole idea of this feed-in-tariff business is that you earn money by selling units of energy produced by your solar panels. So much so that after 25 years of operation you’ve made your money back and have even turned a tidy profit. This means that in order to know whether putting up some solar panels makes any sense, you need to know exactly how much energy they’re going to produce over the 25-year guarantee period.

Easy, you might say – the calculation is pretty straightforward. You find out the average annual irradiation (sunnyness level) from your local weather station, and multiply by the efficiency of your solar panels and the number of square metres you have. This will give you a nice number and away we go. The only problem is you might be more than 50% wrong because we’ve missed out a couple of variables. Variables such as temperature coefficient, tilt angle, diffuse-light fraction, solar cell type, shading losses, inverter losses, cable losses, degradation, module de-rate factor, mismatch losses, anti-reflective coatings, snow and lightning strikes, to name a few.

Of course there are an infinite number of effects that can influence the output of your photovoltaic system (solar eclipse, anyone?). The question is whether you have considered the important ones or not.

Knowledgeable installers use one of a number computer programs designed specifically to take these factors into account. You type in what type of solar panel you’re using, how many, where they are, what angle they’re tilted at, what direction they’re facing and then press ‘go’. It then calculates the amount of energy you’ll produce each month and even the return on investment if you want it to. Behind these models is actually some physics that describes the behaviour of solar cells under different light intensities and correctly.

The most commonly used model in Europe is called PVSyst, developed at the University of Geneva. This software package contains information on a large number of different solar panel types and is capable of taking into account many of the above listed factors. Installers across Europe use this software package to predict the energy yield of residential solar systems, as do many banks pondering whether to provide multi-million euro loans to super-large PV power projects. Even with this advanced software package however, some of these factors are very complex, and improving these models is an active area of research.

Here, I’ll deal with a couple of these complications as examples. When you buy a solar panel, it invariably comes with a power rating. Full size modules are generally around 200W. What does this mean though? In principle, the power rating indicates what you get when the panel is illuminated by full-sunlight. ‘Full sunlight’ is not very specific, so the international community has defined what is known as Standard Test Conditions (STC), which corresponds to an irradiation of 1000 W/m2 and a cell temperature of 25oC, when the light has a specific spectrum (or colour) known as Air Mass Index 1.5. So the power of your solar panel comes from its performance under exactly these conditions. In general this is measured using special type of lamp called a ‘solar simulator’ that tries to reproduce the AM1.5 spectrum as closely as possible. Calibrating these lamps precisely is notoriously difficult and there are very few testing centers around the world that are truly trusted. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Colorado, USA uses at least two different lamps and one outdoor measurement to record STC performance, after a long period of calibration.

Because measuring the STC performance is so tricky, the power rating you get has a plus or minus 5 percent error margin. This is hard to include in your simulation. In addition, manufacturers will often deliberately under-rate the power of their solar panels to be sure they don’t fall below the warranty. This means you may well get considerably more power than you expect.

Another factor that adds to uncertainty is the degradation factor. When you buy solar panels they are normally guaranteed for 20 years, but only to 80% of the initial power output. This means the manufacturer expects them to degrade 1% per year on average. When calculating performance in the models, people also tend to use a 1% degradation rate per year. This is only a rough estimate however. During the certification process, solar panels are given all sports of nasty treatment to test their reliability to breaking point. This doesn’t tell you much about the rate of degradation when the solar panels are outside under normal operation though. The only reliable way to test degradation over 20 years is to wait 20 years, but this is complicated by the fact that technology improves reliability much faster than that. So the degradation of solar panels made in 2008 has only been tested since, well, 2008.

What these issues highlight is that understanding the energy yield output of your solar panels is not as straightforward as it may at first seem. When having your system designed, make sure who-ever you’re dealing with has some experience, and if possible, get a second opinion.

The other critical piece of information for understanding the financial viability of a solar installation is how much you will get paid per kWh under the feed-in-tariff. Unfortunately, the UK government has not released the final figures yet, which means no-one in the UK can make a reliable financial plan for getting solar panels, even when the launch date for the feed-in-tariff is just 4 months away.

Hopefully I will be able to update you on this in the near future. For now though, it’s better to be more conservative with your numbers than too ambitious….