Most people automatically assume that solar only thrives in sunny and warm climates.
Sunshine, of course, is a requirement to generate solar energy. But warmth? Snow would surely be an inhibitor, right?
Not so much, it turns out, according to a study conducted by engineering researchers at Ontario, Canada-based Queens University and Michigan Technological University .
Sunshine can penetrate snow to hit solar panels. So it’s not so much the presence of snow, researchers found — but the actual orientation and tilt angle of the solar system that determined the extent of its performance.
“A common misperception is about solar is that it only works in warm weather,” said Thomas Kimbis, vice president of the Solar Energy Industries Association based in Washington, D.C. “In truth, PV systems perform slightly better in cold weather.”
In fact, Kimbis added, two of the top five markets for PV during the last quarter are cold weather states: New Jersey and Massachusetts. And up until just a few years ago, the world’s largest solar plant was located in Ontario.
“Most PV systems work slightly better in cold weather because of the fundamental characteristics of silicon semiconductor cells powering most PV systems,” Kimbis explained. “It’s not specific to solar cells; it’s the physics of semiconductors. The photoelectric effect of the semiconductors has consistently been found more efficient at lower temperatures, such as those found in cold weather climates in the U.S. compared to rooftop temperatures in Arizona that can easily reach 150 degrees Fahrenheit. This result has been verified at Sandia National Laboratories test facilities and universities across the world.”
Now, researchers at Michigan Tech’s Keweenaw Research Center are working with engineering company DNV GL on a two-year study. They are hoping to uncover further information about how solar systems can be optimized to harness the sun’s energy and minimize snow losses.
DNV GL has installed an array of solar panels at Keweenaw Research Center in Calumet, Mich., and tilted them at angles ranging from zero to 45 degrees.
According to the university, the study team plans to vary the angle of the panels throughout the year to test a model that predicts how snowfall and other variables affect the solar energy generation. The model was developed at DNV GL by a team led by principal engineer Tim Townsend.
Michigan Tech has set up a website where it posts detailed stats of the day’s weather at the location of the solar array, including the wind chill level, humidity, ambient pressure, snow depth and water precipitation.
Three webcams on the site show the range of angles at which the researchers have set up the panels.
Despite all the research efforts in play, Kimbis emphasized that solar installations rely on the same kind of technology despite variations in climate. “No different technologies are needed in Idaho than Arizona,” he said.
Snowy solar panel photo CC-licensed by Flickr user julianb.
By Kristine Wong