Greater Cincinnati:  Get answers to your questions about photovoltaic systems, solar home heating, and renewable energy systems.  If you have question that is not covered here, please feel free to contact us at 513-766-6025.

What is photovoltaics (solar electricity)

Photovoltaic (or PV) modules convert light energy to electricity.

What's the difference between PV and other solar energy technologies?

There are two main types of solar energy technologies:

  1. Photovoltaic (PV) systems, which convert sunlight directly to electricity by means of PV cells made of semiconductor materials.
  2. Solar water heating systems, which contain a solar collector that faces the sun and either heats water directly or heats a “working fluid” that, in turn, is used to heat water.
How does sunlight effect life on Earth?

All life on earth is supported by the sun, which produces an amazing amount of energy. Only a very small percentage of this energy strikes the earth but that is still enough to provide all our needs. A nearly constant 1.36 kilowatts per square meter (the solar constant) of solar radiant power impinges on the earth’s outer atmosphere. Approximately 70% of this extraterrestrial radiation makes it through our atmosphere on a clear day. In the southwestern United States, the solar irradiance at ground level regularly exceeds 1,000 w/m2. In some mountain areas, readings over 1,200 w/m2 are often recorded. Average values are lower for most other areas, but maximum instantaneous values as high as 1,500 w/m2 can be received on days when puffy-clouds are present to focus the sunshine. These high levels seldom last more than a few minutes. The atmosphere is a powerful absorber and reduces the solar power reaching the earth at certain wavelengths. The part of the spectrum used by silicon PV modules is from 0.3 to 0.6 mirometers, approximately the same wavelengths to which the human eye is sensitive. These wavelengths encompass the highest energy region of the solar spectrum.

What if my house doesn't face south?

Solar works best if the system faces due south but southeast and southwest facing systems produce almost as much heat as those facing due south. East and west facing systems still work but will not provide as much power. A solar site assessment will allow the installer to accurately predict how much energy your system will produce and discuss options. It is also common to mount systems on the ground near the home, in cases where the home suffers from shading or sub optimum orientation.

What are the components of a photovoltaic (PV) system?

A PV system is made up of different components. These include PV modules (groups of PV cells), which are commonly called PV panels; one or more batteries; a charge regulator or controller for a stand-alone system; an inverter for a utility-grid-connected system and when alternating current (ac) rather than direct current (dc) is required; wiring; and mounting hardware or a framework.

How long do PV systems last?

A well-designed and maintained PV system will operate for more than 20 years. The PV module, with no moving parts, has an expected lifetime exceeding 30 years. Experience shows most system problems occur because of poor or sloppy installation. Failed connections, insufficient wire size, components not rated for dc application, and so on, are the main culprits. The next most common cause of problems is the failure of electronic parts included in the Balance of Systems (BOS) – the controller, inverter, and protection components. Batteries will fail quickly if they are used outside their operating specification. In most applications, batteries are fully recharged shortly after use. In many PV systems the batteries are discharged AND recharged slowly, maybe over a period of days or weeks. Some batteries will fail quickly under these conditions. Be sure the batteries specified for your system are appropriate for the application.

How much electricity does a photovoltaic (PV) system generate?

A 10% efficient PV system in most areas of the United States will generate about 180 kilowatt-hours per square meter. A PV system rated at 1 kilowatt will produce about 1800 kilowatt-hours a year. Most PV panels are warranted to last 20 years or more (perhaps as many as 30 years) and to degrade (lose efficiency) at a rate of less than 1% per year. Under these conditions, a PV system could generate close to 36,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity over 20 years and close to 54,000 kilowatt-hours over 30 years. This means that a PV system generates more than $10,000 worth of electricity over 30 years.

What does energy conversion efficiency mean?

Energy conversion efficiency is an expression of the amount of energy produced in proportion to the amount of energy consumed, or available to a device. The sun produces a lot of energy in a wide light spectrum, but we have so far learned to capture only small portions of that spectrum and convert them to electricity using photovoltaics. So, today’s commercial PV systems are about 15% to 17% efficient, which might seem low.

Can photovoltaic systems operate normally in grid-connected mode and still operate critical loads when utility service is disrupted?

Yes, however battery storage must be used. This type of system is extremely popular for homeowners and small businesses where a critical backup power supply is required for critical loads such as refrigeration, water pumps, lighting and other necessities.

What are the advantages of a PV system?

PV systems have no moving parts, are modular, easily expandable and even transportable in some cases. Energy independence and environmental compatibility are two attractive features of PV systems. The fuel (sunlight) is free, and no noise or pollution is created from operating PV systems. In general, PV systems that are well designed and properly installed require minimal maintenance and have long service lifetimes.

What are the disadvantages of a PV system?

The high cost of PV modules and equipment (as compared to conventional energy sources) is the primary limiting factor for the technology. Consequently, the economic value of PV systems is realized over many years. It can only be used in locations with good solar resources (lots of sunshine) and may require a large surface area to meet the electric demand.

Can I use photovoltaics (PV) to power my home?

PV can be used to power your entire home’s electrical systems, including lights, cooling systems, and appliances. PV systems today can be blended easily into both traditional and nontraditional homes. The most common practice is to mount modules onto a south-facing roof.

Can I use photovoltaics (PV) to power my business?

PV systems can be blended into virtually every conceivable structure for commercial buildings. You will find PV being used outdoors for security lighting as well as in structures that serve as covers for parking lots and bus shelters, generating power at the same time. Indoors, PV systems are used to offset and operate all kinds of electrical systems, including lights, cooling systems, and appliances.

When will solar and wind electric systems replace coal and nuclear power plants?

The US electrical power infrastructure has been built on coal and natural gas. It will take time to replace this infrastructure with renewable energy resources. As public demand for clean energy increases, and society acknowledges that our supply of natural gas is dwindling, the existing industry will be forced to shift to renewable energy sources. Fossil-based energy pollutes the environment, and nuclear energy creates hazardous waste. If we stop to consider the environmental and health costs of fossil-fuel and nuclear energy, then solar and wind energy already makes sense today.

How much space would be needed for photovoltaic systems to meet the entire electrical needs of the United States?

If PV were a primary energy source, what would the world look like? Would PV collectors cover every square inch of available land? Contrary to some popular notions, the landscape of a world relying on PV would be almost indistinguishable from the landscape we know today. The impact of PV on the landscape would be low, for three reasons. First, PV systems have siting advantages over other technologies; for example, PV can be put on roofs and can even be an integral part of a building, such as a skylight. Second, even ground-mounted PV collectors are efficient from the perspective of land use. Third, adequate sunlight is ubiquitous and often abundant, and present in predictable amounts almost everywhere. As we move away from fossil-fuel energy, PV will become important because of its land-use advantages.

How do I know if I have enough sunlight for PV?

A photovoltaic (PV) system needs unobstructed access to the sun’s rays for most or all of the day. Climate is not really a concern, because PV systems are relatively unaffected by severe weather. In fact, some PV modules actually work better in colder weather. Most PV modules are angled to catch the sun’s rays, so any snow that collects on them usually melts quickly.