New Solar Panel Technology May Boost Efficiency

Philip Jia/Guardian

Renewable energy sources — specifically solar panels — have become increasingly popular in the United States. And now, in light of their popularity, researchers’ new methods and data can predict how to generate the most power from sun energy.

Using solar panels (known as solar photovoltaic, or PV, systems), sunlight can be used to create energy. Placement of the panels greatly determines how much of this energy can be obtained.

Environmental engineering professor Jan Kleissl and a team of graduate students are working to increase the efficiency of solar panels. To do this, they are using public satellite data to determine at which orientation solar panels can operate at maximum efficiency. This can be found by tracking the data of angles, positioning and the solar panel’s level of rotation for a year. Kleissl and his team also monitor how much extra energy a tracking solar panel can receive versus a fixed panel.

“We take publicly available satellite data of sunshine (solar irradiance) and simulate how much solar energy systems at different orientations would be able to produce over the year,” Kleissl said. “The optimum orientation consisting of an azimuth and a tilt angle is found and displayed on a map.”

The map, which is publicly available on Google Earth, predicts the energy output of the solar panels. The goal is to make solar panels “see” the sun as long as possible, maximizing energy output. As efficiency and output increases, the price of solar power decreases, making it a better alternative to fossil fuels.

Kleissl published a paper in Renewable Energy that summarized his research on ray-tracking technologies, using data gathered from May to October 2010. The paper said solar panels must be installed at optimal angles toward the sun to obtain maximum energy.

The research team are working with the California Energy Commission, the Department of Energy and the California Public Utility Commission.

“[The purpose is to] lower costs, provide expertise and facilitate grid-integration of solar power in California and the nation,” Kleissl said.

Kleissl hopes that in providing this information, solar panels will be installed where they will be most effective.

The methods for optimizing solar panels are not new, but Kleissl’s work is the first to apply it to the entire country, not just a single site.  Using this research, firms can increase the amount of energy they receive from panels, which may be very valuable in coastal areas such as San Diego and Los Angeles.  The result would lessen reliance on other forms of energy, especially during peak hours of energy consumption.

Moving forward, Kleissl will start looking more into the economic side of the issue.

“We will refine results geographically by examining shading,” Kleissl said. “We will take into account electricity tariffs to optimize economics of solar power.”

Until now, one of the complaints about solar energy is its high cost. Kleissl hopes to make solar panels a more attractive alternative as the country continue to shift their sources of energy production.

Kleissl realizes that the solar power technology is far from saturated, and he is eager to begin more projects.

“There are many challenges and fun projects in solar power,” Kleissl said.

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