New Tool Diagnoses ‘Sick’ Solar Panels In Real-Time


(Credit: Getty Images)

Researchers have created a new tool that analyzes how well a solar farm is generating electricity.

Diagnosing degraded, or “diseased,” solar panels would contribute to lower electric bills on clean energy and cut manufacturing costs. Companies and governments have regularly invested in solar farms and lost money when weather degradation unexpectedly cut panel lifetime short.

As electricity generated from solar energy increasingly matches fossil fuels in price, companies feel pressure to keep panels living past their warranty and stretch the billions of dollars paid up front for their construction.

“We need to look at the heartbeat of a solar farm to understand its diseases,” says Xingshu Sun, a doctoral graduate in electrical and computer engineering at Purdue University.

A solar farm’s “heartbeat” is data on how well it generates electricity. The researchers created an algorithm using the physics of panel degradation that can analyze solar farm data from anywhere, essentially as a portable electrocardiogram (EKG) for solar farms. The findings appear in the journal Progress in Photovoltaics.

The algorithm is in an experimental stage, but already downloadable for other researchers to use.


“It’s the difference between daily life and the doctor’s office. Previously, facilities were just checking a solar farm’s heartbeat in a controlled environment, like with an EKG in a hospital lab,” says Muhammad Ashraful Alam, professor of electrical and computer engineering.

“But a solar farm itself is always generating new field data for us to collect and analyze, so we need to bring the EKG to the field,” Alam says. “This information-driven approach is transformative, because the approach would allow continuous monitoring and decision making. Ours is a first step in that direction.”

Real-time diagnostics would ultimately inform better panel designs—the cost-saving “treatment” that could prolong lifespan and continue to cut electrical bills.

“If you look at solar modules on the market, their designs hardly differ no matter where they are in the world, just like how iPhones sold in the US and China are almost identical,” Sun says. “But solar modules should be designed differently, since they degrade differently in different environments.”

Degradation in humid environments, for example, comes in the form of corrosion, but high altitudes with no humidity cause degradation through the increased concentration of UV light. Like with human diseases, symptoms of corrosion or sun-beaten silicon tend to not show up on a solar panel until many years after the degradation started.

Without knowing when degradation is happening, companies tend to compensate for different weather conditions by under- or over-designing solar panels, driving up manufacturing costs.


The researchers used public solar panel data from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory to pull together parameters of how well the panels are generating electricity, such as resistance and voltage. When researchers fed these parameters into the algorithm, a curve generates to show the power output of a solar cell.

The next step is improving the algorithm over time. In the long term, the researchers hope the algorithm could show how much energy a solar farm produces in 30 years by looking at the relationship between weather forecast data and projection of electric circuit parameters. Integrating the algorithm with other physics-based models could eventually predict the lifetime of a solar farm.

The US-India Partnership to Advance Clean Energy-Research for the Solar Energy Research Institute for India and the United States and the National Science Foundation supported this work.


Device That Integrates Solar Cell And Battery Could Store Electricity Outside The Grid

This image shows a new integrated solar flow battery with a 14.1 percent efficiency. Credit: David Tenenbaum, UW-Madison

Scientists in the United States and Saudi Arabia have harnessed the abilities of both a solar cell and a battery in one device — a “solar flow battery” that soaks up sunlight and efficiently stores it as chemical energy for later on-demand use. Their research, published September 27 in the journal Chem, could make electricity more accessible in remote regions of the world.

While sunlight has increasingly gained appeal as a clean and abundant energy source, it has one obvious limitation — there is only so much sunlight per day, and some days are a lot sunnier than others. In order to keep solar energy practical, this means that after sunlight is converted to electrical energy, it must be stored. Normally this takes two devices — a solar cell and a battery — but the solar flow battery is designed to perform like both.

“Compared with separated solar energy conversion and electrochemical energy storage devices, combining the functions of separated devices into a single, integrated device could be a more efficient, scalable, compact, and cost-effective approach to utilizing solar energy,” says Song Jin, a professor of chemistry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Jin and his team developed the device in collaboration with Jr-Hau He, a professor of electrical engineering at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in Saudi Arabia.

The solar flow battery has three different modes. If energy is needed right away, it can act like a solar cell and immediately convert sunlight to electricity. Otherwise, the device can soak up solar energy by day and store it as chemical energy to deliver it later as electricity when night falls or the sky grows cloudy. The device can also be charged by electrical energy if needed, just like a typical battery. The team’s most recent solar flow battery model is able to store and deliver electricity from solar energy more efficiently than any other integrated device currently in existence.

Jin believes the solar flow battery could help transcend the limitations of the electrical grid by making electricity more readily available to people living in rural areas and providing an alternative source of energy when traditional electrical systems fail.

“These integrated solar flow batteries will be especially suitable as distributed and stand-alone solar energy conversion and storage systems in remote locations and enable practical off-grid electrification,” says Jin.

Manufacturing current solar flow batteries is still too expensive for real-world markets, but Jin believes simpler designs, cheaper solar cell materials, and technological advances could help cut costs in the future. And while the current model is comparatively quite efficient, the team has plans to further improve its design. Some of the current device’s voltage is still going to waste — meaning the scientists may need to tweak the redox species and photoelectrode materials that work in tandem to convert solar energy input into electrical output. But Jin believes that, with further research, solar flow batteries may soon be practical.

“We believe we could eventually get to 25% efficiency using emerging solar materials and new electrochemistry,” says Jin. “At this efficiency range, without using the expensive solar cells, it should be quite competitive with other renewable energy technologies. Then I think commercialization could be possible.


What If You Could Pick Your Renewable Power Source And Pay Less For It?

By: Brian H. Potts

Imagine if you could buy your power directly from a renewable power plant of your choice and pay less for it than you currently pay for electricity from the grid.

No longer would you need to install solar panels on your roof, or buy nonspecific green energy credits to get your renewable power. Instead, you could point to a specific wind farm or solar array and say conclusively that your power was purchased from that plant.

It’s possible. And it’s happening right now in Texas, where a startup called RPD Energy connects local renewable plants with commercial customers. RPD has partnered with Intuit (maker of TurboTax, QuickBooks, ProConnect and Mint) and a retail energy provider—Just Energy—to make it happen.

The program, launched earlier this summer, is called Purely Green. By leveraging Intuit’s larger, corporate wind power procurement, the program will allow tens of thousands of residential and small business customers to purchase power from a specific wind farm—EDP Renewables’ Lone Star II wind farm located near Abilene, TX—at prices that are generally below prevailing market rates.

“At Intuit, we believe in continuously finding new and creative ways to be good stewards of our environment,” explained Sean Kinghorn, Senior Sustainability Program Manager, in an email exchange I had with him last week.

“The Purely Green program—which we believe is the first of its kind in a retail choice state—allows Intuit employees, consumers, and small businesses to benefit from the same local, physical green energy that will be delivered to Intuit’s Plano Texas Campus, which greatly amplifies our ability to make an impact.”

It’s sort of like community solar, except on a bigger scale, and – at least in this case – it’s giving customers access to local renewable power at a discount, relative to current market prices.

More importantly, it’s a program that’s model is replicable elsewhere.

Each partner serves a separate but important role.

RPD Energy identified the large corporate partner (Intuit), found a renewable power plant willing to transact in relatively small blocks of power (1 – 5 MW), and put the terms of the program together with the retail energy provider, Just Energy.

Just Energy bought the power from the Lone Star II wind farm and has agreed to provide that power to residential and small business customers who (because of their size) could not otherwise contract directly with the renewable plant themselves.

And Intuit provides access to a large number of potential program participants through its extensive network of employees, customers, and suppliers.

Program participants benefit from lower costs because they are able to leverage Just Energy’s ability to buy power in bulk. And Intuit’s ability to aggregate program participants significantly lowers Just Energy’s typical customer acquisition costs.

“We are excited to team up with RPD Energy and Intuit to be able to provide innovative, environmentally responsible product options for our customers,” explained Morgan Smith, Just Energy’s Chief Sales Officer.

This is an innovative format that provides smaller customers with access to affordable, local renewable energy, but it requires one key component to work: a large company (like Intuit) to devote resources to implement and manage the program, without passing those costs onto program participants.

So what’s in it for Intuit? According to Kinghorn, this program is a natural extension of their commitment to be good stewards of the environment and allows the company to create a sustainable impact beyond its own commitment to use renewable power.

The three partners only launched the Purely Green program for Intuit’s customers a few months ago, so the program is still in its infancy. However, if the program is successful, then these companies could diversify their generation portfolio and allow customers to choose from a variety of energy sources in the future, including solar arrays and hydro-electric plants.

Industry players in other markets could also pick up the idea as well, and fundamentally change the way many Americans purchase renewable energy in the future.


Seeing Is Believing When It Comes To Adopting Green Energy, Study Suggests

People are more likely to invest in solar energy technology when they see it being used in their communities, U of A sociologist finds.

People are more likely to invest in renewable energy technology like solar panels if they can see it being used where they live—which is why governments should invest more to promote green energy, says a U of A environmental sociologist. (Photo: Getty Images)

By: Bev Betkowski

Governments at all levels need to invest more heavily in promoting renewable energy if they want citizens to adopt these technologies, new research suggests.

University of Alberta environmental sociologist John Parkins led a study to find out what motivates Canadians to use renewable energy, specifically solar panels, in their everyday lives.

After surveying 2,065 people across the country about their knowledge of energy issues and their beliefs, the researchers found that people are more likely to invest in costly technology like rooftop solar panels when they can see it being used in their own communities.

“If you are immersed in an environment where these technologies are all around you, they become more familiar and doable,” said Parkins, who conducted the study with fellow researchers from the Faculty of Agricultural, Life & Environmental Sciences and the University of New Brunswick.

“Seeing the technologies in use creates this sensory environment that enhances the desire to do the right thing, to make a decision that would otherwise be difficult to make,” he said. Public investment in solar panels on community and government buildings such as schools, hockey rinks and town halls can make a difference in people’s adoption intention, he believes. “They can promote renewable energy by making it more visible to people.”

“I don’t see very many solar panels on municipal buildings. There’s still a lot of work to do.”

He added that financial incentives, such as rebate programs and technological breakthroughs, may not be enough to get people to transition from conventional energy sources like oil and gas to renewables like wind and solar power, which comes with its own set of hotly debated issues such as affordability, and concerns about noise and impact on wildlife.

“There are environmental and economic challenges with these technologies, and there’s no perfect solution. Making the switch isn’t as ethically simple as it sounds,” he said—noting, however, that “if we don’t pursue renewable energy, the alternatives are worse.”

Currently, solar power accounts for only 0.3 per cent of total electricity production in Canada, but it’s a viable technology that could be broadly adopted across the country, Parkins believes.

In exploring people’s attitudes, the study gauged their levels of engagement in energy issues, environmental values, and factual and subjective knowledge about energy sources.

“We found that if someone is more engaged in this way, they are also more inclined to adopt the use of solar panels. That’s not surprising, but the idea is that just general levels of civic engagement matter,” Parkins said.

He added that governments can encourage people to think and learn about energy systems in general; they don’t have to be experts in it. Promoting conversations about renewable energy alternatives through town-hall meetings or public information sessions can help to increase renewable energy adoption.

“An engaged citizen is more confident and willing to adopt renewable energy technology.”


The Los Angeles Lakers Just Partnered With LG To Bring Solar Power To Training Center

By: Anmar Frangoul

  • The Lakers’ UCLA Health Training Center is now home to 456 solar panels that are set to produce an estimated 245,000 kilowatt hours per year.
  • The basketball team could save around $38,000 annually by turning to solar power.

Arland Communications. The Lakers’ UCLA Health Training Center is now home to 456 solar panels.

After signing LeBron James earlier this summer, the Los Angeles Lakers are also looking to steal a march on rivals when it comes to sustainability.

The Lakers’ UCLA Health Training Center is now home to 456 solar panels that are set to produce an estimated 245,000 kilowatt hours per year, enough to power 35 homes.

The 375-watt solar panels were provided by LG Solar and were installed by Vaha Energy, LG Electronics USA said in a statement Monday. The move is expected to save the Lakers around $38,000 each year.

“We are thrilled with the addition of our new LG Solar panels,” Joseph McCormack, chief financial officer and senior vice president of finance at the Lakers, said in a statement. “One of our goals as an organization is to be at the forefront of energy efficiency, and these panels further our commitment to sustainability.”

The Lakers are the latest major U.S. sports team to embrace renewable energy. In January, for example, Major League Baseball’s San Diego Padres announced that their ground, Petco Park, would be home to a 336,520-watt solar power system.