PCE of solar panels improved by lower temperatures

Solar panels will generate more electricity over their lifetime if operating temperatures are lowered by a few degrees, researchers at KAUST have shown.

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The solar power conversion efficiency (PCE) of a panel decreases as it gets hotter and finding ways of keeping them cool could improve the return on investment of solar power systems.

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The long-standing focus of photovoltaics (PV) research has been to improve solar modules’ PCE and make solar power more cost-competitive than non-renewable power generation. The higher the PCE, the better the PV system’s financial payback over its lifetime or the lower its levelised cost of energy (LCOE).

“All solar cells generate heat, which can lower the electrical output and shorten the module lifetime,” said Lujia Xu, a postdoc in Stefaan De Wolf’s team. Panels can regularly reach 60-65oC, but heat’s impact on LCOE rarely receives much consideration, the team in Saudi Arabia said.

Now, Xu, De Wolf and their colleagues have developed a metric that directly compares the LCOE gains by reducing the module temperature with the LCOE gains for improving module efficiency. Under typical operating conditions, the same improvement in LCOE by finding a hard-won one per cent gain in PCE could be achieved by lowering the module temperature by as little as 3oC, they showed.

The key factor was that hotter panels fail far more rapidly. “A 4 oC decrease in module temperature would improve the module time to failure by more than 50 per cent, and this improvement increases to over 100 per cent with a 7 oC reduction,” Xu said in a statement.

The team then developed a model to first predict the module temperature and subsequently find ways to lower it. The most effective approach was to locate modules in a windy environment with proper mounting to enable effective heat transfer to the surrounding environment. They also showed they could achieve significant gains by making modifications at the module level. The EVA (ethylene vinyl acetate) polymer encapsulant used to seal the module strongly absorbs heat from sunlight.

“Replacing EVA with a more transparent material, or even adapting an encapsulant-free module technology, would be beneficial,” Xu said.

“Our results show that researchers should pay more attention to module temperature,” said De Wolf. “Because crystalline silicon solar-cell efficiency is approaching the practical upper limit, it is timely to consider other ways to decrease the LCOE, which might be even more significant than further marginal gains in cell efficiency.”

The team’s findings have been published in Joule.