Solar panels make up a very small portion of the world's electricity production, held back by the higher cost per watt compared to fossil fuels - as much as 10 times higher, depending on the circumstances. They have become routine in certain limited applications, such as powering buoys or devices in deserts and other remote areas, and in experimental form they have even been used to power automobiles in races such as the World solar challenge across Australia.
Currently the costs associated with solar electric panels make them impractical in applications where conventional "grid" power is readily available. If energy costs climb sufficiently, or if a production breakthrough should occur that reduces production costs of the solar cells themselves, this may not be true in the relatively near future. Also many installations are driven by tax breaks and green sensibilities.
In 2001 Japan had 0.6 MWp of installed solar power peak capacity, while Germany had 0.26 MWp and the United States 0.16 MWp. At this point the entire world solar electricity production is about the same as one large windmill produces. In the U.S. cost of installing solar had fallen from $55 per peak watt in 1976 to about $4 per peak watt in 2001.
Solar panels on spacecraft
Probably the most successful use of solar panels is on spacecraft, including most spacecraft that orbit the Earth and Mars, and spacecraft going to other destinations in the inner solar system. In the outer solar system, the sunlight is too weak to produce sufficient power and radioisotope thermal generators are used.
Research is underway to develop solar power satellites: space-based solar plants — satellites with large arrays of photovoltaic cells that would beam the energy to Earth using microwaves or lasers. Japanese and European space agencies have announced plans to develop such power plants in the first quarter of the 21st century.
As opposed to chemical rockets, which are powered by a chemical reaction of the propellant, and uses the exhaust gases as reaction mass, some spacecraft propulsion methods have a method of expelling reaction mass powered by electricity. Either solar energy or nuclear energy is used. These methods typically have a higher specific impulse. The amount of reaction mass needed always grows exponentially with the delta-v to be produced, but more mildly if the specific impulse is high (but it should not be too high because for large specific impulse the power needed is proportional to it). With solar power the acceleration that can be produced is very low (much too low for a launch), but enduring. Typical burn times are months instead of minutes. The power the solar panel produces per kg, as an upper limit of the power the spacecraft has at its disposal per kg spacecraft (including solar panels) is an important factor. See also energy needed for propulsion methods.
Crystalline silicon and gallium arsenide are typical choices of materials for solar panels. Gallium arsenide crystals are grown especially for photovoltaic use, but silicon crystals are available in less-expensive standard ingots, which are produced mainly for consumption in the microelectronics industry.
When exposed to direct sunlight at 1 AU, a 6-centimeter diameter silicon cell can produce a current of about 0.5 ampere at 0.5 volt. Gallium arsenide is more efficient. Crystalline ingots are sliced into wafer-thin disks, polished to remove slicing damage, dopants are introduced into the wafers, and metallic conductors are deposited onto each surface: a thin grid on the sun-facing side and usually a flat sheet on the other. Spacecraft solar panels are constructed of these cells cut into appropriate shapes, protected from radiation and handling damage on the front surface by bonding on a cover glass, and cemented onto a substrate (either a rigid panel or a flexible blanket), and electrical connections are made in series-parallel to determine total output voltage. The cement and the substrate must be thermally conductive, because in flight the cells tend to heat up from absorbing infrared energy that is not converted to electricity. Since cell heating reduces the operating efficiency it is desirable to minimize the heating. The substrate is supported on a deployable structural framework. The resulting assemblies are called solar panels or solar arrays.
A solar panel is a collection of solar cells. Although each solar cell provides a relatively small amount of power, many solar cells spread over a large area can provide enough power to be useful. To get the most power, solar panels have to be pointed directly at the Sun. Spacecraft are built so that the solar panels can be pivoted as the spacecraft moves. Thus, they can always stay in the direct path of the light rays no matter how the spacecraft is pointed. Spacecraft are usually designed with solar panels that can always be pointed at the Sun, even as the rest of the body of the spacecraft moves around, much as a tank turret can be aimed independently of where the tank is going. A tracking mechanism is often incorporated into the solar arrays to keep the array pointed towards the sun.
Solar panels need to have a lot of surface area that can be pointed towards the Sun as the spacecraft moves. More exposed surface area means more electricity can be converted from light energy from the Sun. Sometimes, satellite scientists purposefully orient the solar panels to "off point," or out of direct alignment from the Sun. This happens if the batteries are completely charged and the amount of electricity needed is lower than the amount of electricity made. The extra power will just be vented by a shunt into space as heat.
To date, solar power, other than for propulsion, has been practical for spacecraft operating no farther from the sun than the orbit of Mars. For example, Magellan, Mars Global Surveyor, and Mars Observer used solar power as did the Earth-orbiting, Hubble Space Telescope. For future missions, it is desirable to reduce solar array mass, and to increase the power generated per unit area. This will reduce overall spacecraft mass, and may make the operation of solar-powered spacecraft feasible at larger distances from the sun. The Rosetta space probe, launched March 2, 2004, will use solar panels as far as the orbit of Jupiter (5.25 AU); previously the furthest use was the Stardust spacecraft at 2 AU.
Solar array mass could be reduced with thin-film photovoltaic cells, flexible blanket substrates, and composite support structures. Solar array efficiency could be improved by using new photovoltaic cell materials and solar concentrators that intensify the incident sunlight.
Photovoltaic concentrator solar arrays for primary spacecraft power are devices which intensify the sunlight on the photovoltaics. This design uses a flat lens, called a Fresnel lens, which takes a large area of sunlight and concentrates it onto a smaller spot. The same principle is used to start fires (or burn ants!) with a magnifying glass on a sunny day.
Solar concentrators put one of these lenses over every solar cell. This focuses light from the large concentrator area down to the smaller cell area. This allows the quantity of expensive solar cells to be reduced by the amount of concentration. Concentrators work best when there is a single source of light and the concentrator can be pointed right at it. This is ideal in space, where the Sun is a single light source. Solar cells are the most expensive part of solar arrays, and arrays are often a very expensive part of the spacecraft. This technology allows costs to be cut significantly due to the utilization of less material.
- http://www.tectosol.staticip.de/index_en.htm Solar electricity yield of a photovoltaic system