Solar electricity is created by using Photovoltaic (PV) technologyby converting solar energy into solar electricity from sunlight. Photovoltaic systems use sunlight to power ordinary electrical equipment, for example, household appliances, computers and lighting. The photovoltaic (PV) process converts free solar energy - the most abundant energy source on the planet - directly into solar power. Note that this is not the familiar "passive" or Solar electricity thermal technology used for space heating and hot water production.
A PV cell consists of two or more thin layers of semi-conducting material, most commonly silicon. When the silicon is exposed to light, electrical charges are generated and this can be conducted away by metal contacts as direct current (DC). The electrical output from a single cell is small, so multiple cells are connected together and encapsulated (usually behind glass) to form a module (sometimes referred to as a "panel"). The PV module is the principle building block of a PV system and any number of modules can be connected together to give the desired electrical output.
PV equipment has no moving parts and as a result requires minimal maintenance. It generates solar electricity without producing emissions of greenhouse or any other gases, and its operation is virtually silent.
What is PV power used for?
PV systems supply solar electricity to many applications in the UK, ranging from systems supplying power to city buildings (which are also connected to the normal local solar power network) to systems supplying power to garden lights or to remote telecom relay stations.
The main area of interest in the UK today is grid connect PV systems. These systems are connected to the local solar electricity network. This means that during the day, the solar electricity generated by the PV system can either be used immediately (which is normal for systems installed on offices and other commercial buildings), or can be sold to one of the electricity supply companies (which is more common for domestic systems where the occupier may be out during the day). In the evening, when the electrical system is unable to provide the electricity required, power can be bought back from the network. In effect, the grid is acting as a Solar electricity energy storage system, which means the PV system does not need to include battery storage.
Grid connect PV systems are often integrated into buildings. PV technology is ideally suited to use on buildings, providing pollution and noise-free solar power without using extra space. The use of photovoltaics on buildings has grown substantially in the UK over the last few years, with many impressive examples already in operation.
PV systems can be incorporated into buildings in various ways. Sloping rooftops are an ideal site, where modules can simply be mounted using frames. Photovoltaic systems can also be incorporated into the actual building fabric, for example PV roof tiles are now available which can be fitted as would standard tiles. In addition, PV can also be incorporated as building facades, canopies and sky lights amongst many other applications.
Stand-alone photovoltaic systems have been used for many years in the UK to supply solar electricity to applications where grid solar power supplies are unavailable or difficult to connect to. Examples include monitoring stations, radio repeater stations, telephone kiosks and street lighting. There is also a substantial market for PV technology in the leisure industry, with battery chargers for boats and caravans, as well as for powering garden equipment such as solar electricity fountains. These systems normally use batteries to store the solar power, if larger amounts are required they can be combined with another source of power - a biomass generator, a wind turbine or diesel generator to form a hybrid power supply system.
PV technology is also widely used in the developing world. The technology is particularly suited here, where electricity grids are unreliable or non-existent, with remote locations often making PV power supply the most economic option. In addition, many developing countries have high solar radiation levels year round.