In the first quarter of 2019, the United States installed 2.7 gigawatts of solar-photovoltaic cells. This is a record number of installations, the most in the first quarter of any year, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.
States are making it easier to install solar equipment as they provide incentives, rebates and approve solar farms with use permits.
Installing solar equipment is mandated by California. Every home built after 2020 is required to have a photovoltaic (PV) system. There is expected to be a 15–30% year-over-year increase for residential solar power.
So, what exactly is the benefit of solar power? For one, PV installations have minimal to no adverse effects on the environment. Solar-energy systems do not produce air pollutants or carbon dioxide. They have a beneficial carbon footprint with no emissions or any other detrimental byproducts or pollutants.
They do, however, have some limitations. For instance, the amount of sunlight that arrives at the Earth’s surface varies by location and time of day as well as by season and other weather conditions. Also, a large surface area is needed to collect the significant amount of energy for a population’s power usage.
PV devices change sunlight directly into electricity through small PV cells, which is further rectified and converted into AC power for consumption. The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) explains that solar cells are the individual units or wafers that convert sunlight directly into electricity, and a collection of interconnected cells in a sealed package is referred to as a module or panel. Solar panels are installed in arrays, or rows of panels, that, along with other hardware such as an inverter, make up an installation.
On average, U.S. utility-scale solar-photovoltaic power systems operate at about one-fourth of their overall capacity to generate electricity. Such a measure is referred to as a solar-power-generating system’s capacity factor. It is based on the plant’s electricity generation relative to its summer capacity value for plants operates a full year more than it is measured in units of AC power.
A significant advantage for an EC—or for any consumer of electricity—is the declining costs of solar power. The construction cost for PV projects has steadily decreased since 2013 when the EIA began collecting data. The average construction costs had reached a peak of $2,436 per kilowatt in 2016. This was down from $3,705 per kilowatt in 2013.
PV systems also vary by the type of panel, such as those that have tracking technology. Crystalline silicon solar photovoltaic systems with tracking were the most commonly added solar technology and also the least expensive. Crystalline silicon has also become the most widely used photovoltaic technology as it has matured, and the construction costs of installation have declined. The aforementioned costs have declined by $400-500 per kilowatt per year, mostly due to the economies of scale and the attractive availability of resources and suppliers to provide the equipment at a more favorable cost.
A tremendous opportunity exists for ECs to jump on the solar power train. There will be more installations taking place at commercial and residential facilities, and every solar installation requires skilled electrical contractors to be involved to some extent. Contractors that are vigilant and skilled at handling the technology will benefit from the anticipated and expected wave of installations coming in the months and years ahead.
In addition, better materials will be developed so that solar power can be integrated into building facades and rooftops. Through architectural materials that incorporate photovoltaics, ECs will be able to be involved in the actual physical construction as the materials will now have an electrical component to them. A professional is required to install the physical materials and help with the electrical installation of the new photovoltaic cells.
An EC seeking to reap the benefits of this trend in sustainable energy should learn as much as possible about the technology, the economics, and the trend in lowering prices for solar equipment, and the incentives offered by federal, state and local governments for its installation. According to the EIA, the effect of U.S. tariffs, approved in early 2018, on imported silicon solar cells may have been offset by the continued decline in the cost of PV modules.
ECs should be aware of new technology, its quality and how to assess product quality so they can provide value to an anticipated run-up in solar power installations. For everyone involved in solar power installations, the future looks bright.