Solar energy development continues as the market evolves into more profitable photovoltaic system solutions in the long and medium term. The trend shows an exponential growth that started with around 6 GW of installed capacity in 2006 and evolved to almost 300 GW in 2016 worldwide . Such accelerated growth could not even be foreseen back in the old days by the best specialists.
Ten years ago, solar installation costs were high above the clouds, making it very hard for residential homeowners to obtain a solar photovoltaic system.
Policy and incentive schemes were also not clearly established or profitable at all, representing high investment risks that worked against the best environmental desires.
Among other reasons, one of the main limitations for market penetration was the low efficiency of solar systems (defined as the portion of sunlight energy that can be transformed into electricity).
Most panels had efficiencies between 8 to 10 percent, while other traditional sources of energy had efficiency of 40 to 55 percent with the combined cycle generators . The competition was just unbalanced.
Nowadays, solar installation costs are competitive with traditional energy sources. Policy and incentive schemes are solid and profitable in most high-income countries and solar system efficiency has increased as well.
But the solar energy generation is still limited and the question is: why?
Why is solar panel efficiency limited?
To understand efficiency of a solar panel, you must first understand its source of energy – the Sun. Sun emits energy in a form of light which contains photons that can be used by solar cells to transform sunlight (radiation) into electricity.
The problem with solar cell efficiency lies in the physical conversion of this energy.
In 1961, William Shockley and Hans Queisser developed a study that is considered the fundamental principle of the solar photovoltaic industry.
The physical theory proved that there is a maximum possible efficiency of 33.7 percent which a photovoltaic cell (based on a p-n junction) can achieve to obtain electricity from a light source .
In other words, if there is a solar irradiance (incident power received by a surface per area) of 1,000 watts per square meter, then the maximum power output that the solar panel can produce is 337 watts per square meter.
This limitation is known as the Shockley-Queisser limit.
This parameter is associated with the physical process of absorption of a photon to generate an electron and then pass it to the band of conduction .
There is no manufacturing process or technology development that can change this fact (at least not with a silicon p-n junction cells).
This limitation is the maximum theoretical boundary of energy efficiency conversion of a solar cell. In practical terms, efficiency of the energy conversion can be affected by other factors that will be discussed below.
Standard Test Conditions
To establish the efficiency value, manufacturers submit solar panels to several controlled factors that can exist in real world applications. They do this testing to make sure that the design endures these conditions, while at the same time, they verify estimated efficiency (as it is visible in the electrical characteristics of the datasheet).
It is important to know that many manufacturers establish solar cell efficiency based on Standard Test Conditions (STC).
STC are set on maximum possible irradiance (1kW/m2), at temperature of 25 degrees Celsius (77 degrees Fahrenheit) and an air mass of 1.5 (related to the thickness of the atmosphere) .
Nominal Operating Cell Temperature
That is why some manufacturers add the Nominal Operating Cell Temperature (NOCT) among their technical references.
The NOCT is a parameter closer to real life situations and is defined as the temperature reached by an open circuit cell in a module under the following conditions .
- Irradiance of cell surface: 800 watts per square meter
- Wind velocity: 1 m/s
- Ambient temperature: 20 degrees Celsius or 68 degrees Fahrenheit
- Temperature on the surface: 45 degrees Celsius or 113 degrees Fahrenheit
- Mounting System: Open back side (to consider air circulation behind the solar panel for refreshing purposes)
Now that you know how efficiency is specified by manufacturers, we can proceed with the factors that are taken into account for the design of solar panels to maintain acceptable efficiency values.
What factors determine solar panel efficiency?
The first factor is the presence of hail at a speed of 20-30 m/s, solar panels must remain undamaged.
#2 Snow, ice and dust
The second factor that must be taken into account is snow. Thick layers of snow can directly block the sunlight accessing solar panels, and therefore, reduce solar efficiency values to zero .
It is important to know that most solar panels can work with the presence of a three to four centimeter layer of snow (approx. 1.5 inches). If it is more than that, maintenance procedures must be put into motion to avoid further losses.
Dust and dirt, are also contaminating elements that can influence efficiency values.
Ice is another element that can affect solar panels’ efficiency between 25 to 100 percent, depending on the thickness of the ice layer.
To avoid this problem, during the manufacturing process a silicon coating is applied, and it’s advisable to try to keep the ice off your panels during the winter season .
#3 Insulation resistance
Additionally, insulation can also affect solar module efficiency because current leakages can occur along the edges of solar panels.
This factor is especially important for utility-scale projects as higher voltage systems require better insulation properties (linked directly to the selected materials).
#4 Environmental conditions
Higher temperature means more heat, which is linked with electrical losses and voltage drops.
It is estimated that an increase per one unit of temperature above the standard test temperature of 25 degrees Celsius (or 77 degrees Fahrenheit) decreases the energy output by 0.25 to 0.5 percent (depending on the module) .
If you think about it: temperature increase of around 60 degrees Celsius (140°F) could reduce the power outcome of your solar panel by 17.5 percent. So, the effect of temperature can be significant in countries with hot climate.
Humidity is also undesirable to solar panels because of corrosion.
Advanced level of corrosion eventually leads to insulation issues and decreases overall solar panel efficiency.
#5 Selection of a solar panel type
The efficiency of monocrystalline panels varies between 22 to 27 percent.
Polycrystalline panels reach between 15 to 22 percent of efficiency and finally thin film panels between 7 to 13 percent.
The main difference in efficiency values of different panel types lies in the nature of how they have been manufactured. You can see more details about this topic in the recommended reading below.
#6 Design configuration of solar panels
Among other factors associated with the operation of solar panels, the selection of the orientation towards the sun and the presence of a solar tracking system has a great importance on the overall efficiency of your solar system.
Your solar panels will have the best power output when the solar panel surface is perpendicular to solar rays. However, as the sun moves across the sky, the angle changes as well.
What you can do to ensure direct irradiance is to install a tracking system. Its downside are higher installation costs.
Solar panel efficiency also changes over the time. Every year that passes after your solar system installation, the efficiency value drops by about 0.5 percent per year.
Nevertheless, solar panel manufacturers have to guarantee that the performance of your solar system will not drop below 80 percent when in warranty, which usually lasts 25 years.
Finally, shading is also an important part of the design of any solar system. If your system is shaded for the most sunny time of the day, solar panel output will be affected severely.
New solar technologies to improve efficiency
Despite low efficiency rates among current solar panels, there are several innovative proposals and technologies that aim to change how efficient can solar panels get in the close future.
#1 Reducing the shading effects of wires
Among available proposals is the reduction of the shading effect on solar cells caused by bus bars.
Bus bars are located vertically and horizontally across a solar panel. They can be easily identified by any person as silver wires forming a grid inside a solar panel. They transport electricity generated by solar cells.
These wires, even as tiny as they are, reflect the incoming light in sections where they pass by. In the end, this translates into less irradiance received by solar panels, and therefore, generation of less power.
The idea is to reduce the thickness of these wires, or in the best case to eliminate their interference with the sunlight by placing them on the back of a panel. This would achieve a uniform smooth colored panel .
#2 Innovative gallium arsenide triple-junction structure
Another interesting feature that has been set in motion is the development of the new generation of powerful solar cells – from gallium arsenide.
Gallium arsenide cells have a triple-junction structure (different from silicon p-n junction) that can be chemically modified to acquire more light radiation than ordinary cells.
Among remarkable advantages of these cells is:
- Excellent ultraviolet, radiation and moisture resistance;
- Great performance in the presence of low light;
- Flexibility and low weight;
- Efficiency values over 28.8 percent (!).
#3 Cadmium telluride thin film cells
As new compounds are used for the creation of solar cells, new methodologies are also evolving around the manufacturing process to provide high efficiency solar cells.
The solar energy market is ruled by silicon semiconductors, included even in the design of thin film solar panels, but in the short to medium term, new photovoltaic materials like cadmium telluride are starting to gain their share on the market, as promising materials for the development of thin film panels.
The obstacle for their large-scale market introduction arises during the manufacturing process.
Some components seem to be very unstable because cadmium chloride has to be used during the manufacture. However, a new manufacture approach could deliver positive results, if cadmium chloride gets replaced with magnesium chloride .
Unlike cadmium chloride, magnesium chloride is abundant and low cost resource that can be obtained from the seawater. This material can also boost efficiency of the thin film panels up to 15 percent.
#4 Perovskite, the wonder material
The ultimate and most promising technology for improvement of efficiency is the perovskite component.
Perovskite, a compound of calcium, titanium and oxygen, offers the possibility to achieve efficiency levels above the current maximum of 22 percent at lower manufacturing costs.
The secret lies in the low costs of raw materials and fabrication methods (printing techniques) that do not require high temperatures and such a high precision as the silicon cells do.
How to easily improve the efficiency of your solar cells
When you would like to improve efficiency of your solar cells, you should consider the effect of factors discussed above. As you can see, there are some factors that cannot be influenced (environmental conditions, hail, etc.), but some other can be controlled or selected to obtain the best possible efficiency.
For example: solar panel maintenance helps eliminate snow, dust, dirt and ice – all of which are obstructions for the sunlight to reach the panel’s surface, and therefore reduce efficiency of solar cells.
By keeping your panels free of dirt, you can improve their efficiency.
Other factors such as the type of a panel, its orientation, and the minimum shade configuration are crucial parameters that will determine overall efficiency.
These parameters are generally selected by a solar designer (but that does not mean that you cannot intervene in the process, especially in the selection of the solar panel type) who needs to consider:
- the irradiation value in your area;
- average cloud density;
- air pollution;
- the best inclination for the solar panel depending on the location and the selected mounting system.
We have discussed the limits of the conversion of sunlight into electricity for silicon p-n junction cells; the overall effect of several factors on the efficiency of solar panels; the new promising technologies or proposals to elevate such efficiency values and the options that you can implement to improve the efficiency conversion of your photovoltaic system.
Nevertheless, we haven’t discussed what exactly the use of solar panels with higher or lower efficiency values means for you.
Efficiency is associated with the ability of solar cells to produce the maximum amount of electricity from a light energy source.
Does it mean that if my solar panels have low efficiency they will produce less power?
No, it doesn’t.
If you select a solar panel with a power output of 200 W and an efficiency of 14 percent, and then choose another solar panel with the same power output but with an efficiency of 20 percent, both panels will produce the same 200 W output!
Where is the difference then?!
The difference lies in the size of the panel–lower efficiency panels require more space to produce the same power output. This means that a 14 percent efficient solar panel will be bigger in size.
So, the question that arises is…
Does solar panel efficiency matter?
The answer is: it depends. In some applications like solar cars, satellites, lighting and electronic devices size will matter, as the space availability is limited, and each inch of the panel needs to produce the maximum possible power to supply the required load.
Utility-scale projects must also take into the account optimal selection of the size and efficiency, as bigger panels require higher installation costs due to the longer wiring and stronger mounting structures (along with higher land rental costs) .
However, in residential solar systems, the availability of space on a roof or in a courtyard is sufficient to supply the desired load. Even though, this also depends on your expectations–meaning that if the demanded energy load exceeds the available space for the installation, high efficiency solar panels should be considered.
It is important to highlight that you should settle the balance between costs, efficiency, power load and space with your solar installer at the beginning because this decision will affect the overall performance of your solar system and the total cost of your project.