Our students have been experimenting with solar power: report from renewable energy Masters module in solar photovoltaics

Good news, bad news and controversy have forced the topic of solar photovoltaics (PV) into the headlines over the last couple of months. The good news is that the quarter between April and June saw the fastest ever growth in solar installation in the UK. 14,500 new systems were installed. This boom in solar installation, fuelled by the government’s Feed in Tariff, has created new jobs and connected 122 MW of new solar power to the grid.

[twothirds]The controversy revolves around this issue of the size of the new PV installations. Since August only installation under 50Kw have been eligable for the top rate of Feed in Tariff payments. (To give you a sense of what that means our biggest PV roof is 20Kw). The government’s intention was to stop large subsidy payments going to so called “solar farms”; solar installations that exist purely to sell green electricity to the grid. Before the cut in subsidy Caroline Lucas warned that it would hamper the development of Britain’s fledgling solar industry saying that it would be “bad news for jobs, bad news for the economy and bad news for the environment”. The change in policy dealt with the solar farm issue, but also dealt a blow to community scale solar developments and large solar installations planned for schools, hospitals and housing associations.

Regardless of the various political wrangles over subsidies and funding, PV is a vital part of the energy mix. It’s important that people understand how to install,  design and specify appropriate PV systems. Last week a group of students on our Renewable Energy and Built Environment master’s course spent a week getting to grips with the technology. This was actually a two week ‘double module’. As well as learning how to install and specify solar PV systems students also set up an experiment that runs for the month in between the two week long modules. This year the students compared the output of several systems they temporarily installed on the roof of the WISE building.

Student Richard Jackson explains: “We split into five groups. Each group had to design, and then build a different kind of PV installation. This obviously includes everything you’d need to do on a real commercial installation: positioning the system based on a computer analysis of shading and local weather patterns, physically building the structure for the systems and then doing the wiring”.

PV Roof

The student’s experiment was designed to compare the output of solar systems that track the sun. The solar installations most of us are familiar with are simply fixed, immovably to a roof. What the students wanted to find out is whether the output can be increased by making the solar panels move and track the sun across the sky. “We tested several commercially available systems that can move a solar panel so that it either follows the sun across the sky, or constantly moves searching out the lightest part of the sky even on cloudy days”.

Students are increasingly looking for places where they can learn about this technology in a practical way. Designing, installing and experimenting with solar systems is becoming an increasingly popular option amongst students on all of our master’s courses.

Regardless of the controversy around PV and the Feed in Tariff, PV is still a technology with the potential to create jobs and supply the grid with low carbon electricity. It’s vital that people get to grips how it works and continue to experiment with ways of improving it.[/twothirds]

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  • Solar pv panel

    Can you explain Ways tο Mаkе Money frοm Solar PV Panels?

  • Hi – so how did the various systems perform? I have a fixed PV array that I’ve been considering converting to tracking, even if only manually, but systems that track the brightest areas of sky definitely sound like a good idea.

    • Anonymous

      Hi Steve, we’ll find out from the students. Sounds like a good follow up blog post. Watch this space for the results

  • Suggested MSc topic: developing a low voltage domestic economy. Our domestic 240v systems were designed for heating, tungsten lighting, and valve powered radios and tellies. We now have solar PV producing low voltages, running it through an inverter (horribly inefficient) to produce 240v (which cannot be stored), and then feeding it back through multiple bricks to drive LED lighting, mobile phones, computers, iPods, etc – all at low voltage. How daft is that. But how practical is it to store and use the output from solar PV in a domestic situation without inverters, transformers, etc?

    • Anonymous

      Hi John, I’ve passed you research suggestion on to the team. Thanks

  • Suggested MSc topic: developing a low voltage domestic economy. Our domestic 240v systems were designed for heating, tungsten lighting, and valve powered radios and tellies. We now have solar PV producing low voltages, running it through an inverter (horribly inefficient) to produce 240v (which cannot be stored), and then feeding it back through multiple bricks to drive LED lighting, mobile phones, computers, iPods, etc – all at low voltage. How daft is that. But how practical is it to store and use the output from solar PV in a domestic situation without inverters, transformers, etc?

    • Paul Foulkes

      Even more annoying is that a lot of this material exists already for fitting to boats and campers etc. 12, 24 and 48V equipment is readily available. We need a decision on an industry standard voltage and materials ( domestic power outlets etc)  to kick start manufacturers into large scale production. This will then mean PV systems will become more attractive to consumers and builders alike. A house could be built with mixed voltages, 24V for most small equipment and maybe only a 2 or 3 kw mains supply for heavy white goods equipment.
      We need to rethink our needs and not only are supply answers

  • Paul Foulkes

    Did you test different types of panels, poly, mono, thin film etc?

    • Anonymous

      Hi Paul, no the test was to distinguish between trackers. That could be an interesting next step to test combinations of panel types AND different trackers together. I will suggest that to the team. 

  • Abryan50

    So are the tracking PV systems viable and who makes them?

    • Anonymous

      Hopefully we’ll have a full report of the result written up for the blog in the next week. A lot of people here seem interested so I’ll try and get raw data for you all to look at too. As for who makes them, I’ll make sure some details are included in the write up – but I’m afraid I don’t know off the top of my head

  • Giles Tayler

    Could you comment on George Monbiot’s comments in the guardian about micro generation and feed in tarrifs? He thinks it is all a con and that they don’t produce very much at all in our part of the world………

  • Vp Oag

     (To give you a sense of what that means our biggest PV roof is 20Kw). Going from this link took us to the article regarding the PV roof re-fit. This stated that the max generated from 112 sqm was only 13.5 kW. It then stated that as of October 2006 the roof has produced 2885 kWh. Is that actually over 4 and a half years?…..as that equates to 641 kWh per daylight hours per year! This bears no relationship to the article on Photovoltaic solar electricity which states “Over the course of a year, a surface of just one square metre receives around 800 kWh (units) in the form of solar energy”. I know is says RECEIVES, not GENERATES……BUT  what the hell are you trying to tell us?

    What we want to know in real terms, is for the average uk household,  how many kWh/year/sqm will be generated.