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Solar Photovoltaic Systems in Cold Climates

January 2nd, 2010

solar-photovoltaic-cells.jpgThere is a common belief that a cold climate isn’t favorable for the use of solar photovoltaic systems. This may be due to the misconception that heat from the sun is required to produce electricity, when in fact it is the photon energy that activates the process of the solar cells. Simply put, photons (or light particles) transfer the sun’s energy onto solar cells, which creates an electron flow in the silicon wafer thus generating an electric current. The current produced is carried by metallic wires to either operate electrical appliances or to be stored in batteries for later use. Considering that solar photovoltaic cells function as electronic devices, it’s not surprising that they operate more efficiently in lower temperatures as most electronic devices do. Solar panels have proven to function quite well under extreme cold conditions, as demonstrated by the arrays powering the International Space Station orbiting the Earth. Temperatures around the station can fluctuate anywhere from plus 250 degrees Fahrenheit when facing the sun to minus 250 degrees Fahrenheit in shaded areas.

In colder climates on the Earth’s surface, it isn’t the problem of cooler temperatures that reduces solar photovoltaic energy output, but the lower angle of the sun in winter. The sun’s rays are not as strong, having to travel further through the atmosphere because of the tilt of the earth’s axis. Other factors in winter that can reduce energy output are overcast skies and heavy snowfall, prevalent in northern climates. Yet solar photovoltaic systems have shown great promise in areas such as Antarctica, for example, where at certain times of the year sunshine is available 24 hours a day for several months.

Meanwhile, in the coldest regions, the annual mean temperature ranges near minus 50 degrees Fahrenheit. In these remote locations, solar photovoltaic technology is welcome news to environmentalists who are hoping use the relatively new technology of solar-powered systmes to prevent damage to sensitive wildlife areas by reducing the carbon footprint. Power generated by solar panel technology will also help reduce the demand for increasingly costly diesel fuel used for scientific observation stations. In the near future this technology may become useful in the Arctic as well, where communities of Inuit people have become increasingly dependent on carbon based fossil fuels. With the increasing cost of oil and other traditional fossil fuels, in addition to soaring transportation costs, sustainable solar photovoltaic is looking much more appealing as a renewable energy source in these harsh climates.

A small but growing area of interest in solar technology is the design and building of solar greenhouses for use in colder climates. Building northern greenhouses requires a combination of passive solar for heating and solar photovoltaic for power and lighting. The obvious benefit for farmers means higher yields as the growing season can be extended several months or possibly year round in favorable conditions. Advancement in solar cell design, including new materials and processes such as thin film technology, is the key to increased usage and lower cost of solar power for use in all climates. With increasing investment in alternative means of energy, solar photovoltaic power is a viable option in the quest for energy independence.

This article on solar photovoltaic systems was supplied to us by Karl Martin from Constant Content.

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