Sandia National Laboratories is using its expertise and long history in photovoltaic (PV) research and development to accelerate the adoption of reliability tools within the growing industry of PV power generation.
Sandia's PV team and the U.S. Department of Energy recently hosted a workshop specifically for PV systems integrators in San Jose, CA, to identify and address reliability challenges currently facing the industry. The program focused on mitigating risk, reducing the levelized cost of energy, and improving the appeal of PV systems by calculating the relationships between initial cost and performance, long-term reliability and lifetime costs.
"Sandia's program focuses on systems-level work, and we are reaching into Sandia's historical knowledge of applying reliability methods to complex systems," says Sandia PV researcher Jennifer Granata. "Providing reliability tools and leadership in this area is really needed within the industry, and it was a natural fit for us to lead this workshop."
As the nation increasingly turns to solar PV power, utility companies, commercial and residential customers are turning to PV integrators. Integrators are responsible for reliably and safely designing and installing systems that deliver power from the solar PV panels to the grid and, ultimately, the customer. PV has been used for decades nationwide, but integrating such an unprecedented amount of PV-generated power is relatively uncharted territory.
The Sandia/DOE two-day workshop included representatives from 15 different integrator companies. "I was pleased with how much the national laboratories are doing, how interested they are in integrator input, their willingness to employ resources and their desire to ensure their work has relevance to real-world construction issues," says Peter Molloy, senior estimator with Stellar Energy, a California-based solar energy integrator.
Ensuring that Sandia's tools and research are relevant to PV installation issues has been one of the researchers' goals for years. "Open discussion with stakeholders was very useful," Sandia PV researcher Michael Quintana says. "We have been building and adapting tools that we would like the industry to adopt, and this workshop provided us with valuable feedback about what is helpful and how we can continue to advance the state of the art in PV systems reliability." Granata and Quintana are compiling the feedback and will distill it into specific program areas to help meet some of the industry's current needs.
Determining expected energy production and related costs over the life of a system is one such need that Sandia is addressing. Over the past two years, Sandia's PV team has developed a suite of reliability tools specific to PV systems, including models, failure assessment tools and databases of field performance and reliability.
During the workshop, integrators showed particular interest in the model currently under development, which will provide integrators with a design tool to determine what to expect in terms of energy production and related costs over the life of a system installed in a given location, considering weather, performance and reliability of each component type. That information will provide integrators with a range and an idea of how many kilowatt-hours will be generated over the system lifetime, which companies seeking funding from bankers and investors can use.
"The reliability tool suite will help investors understand what the return on their investment will be," Granata says. "In turn, we expect to see increased funding for photovoltaic power sources."
The team expects to host another workshop within the next year; the last time Sandia was involved in bringing integrators together in a forum was in the late 1990s. "This was long overdue," Quintana says. "The U.S. research and development strategy has long focused on developing new PV module technologies and improving efficiencies. However, the technology does not get deployed until the system does, so it's imperative that the system functions well as a whole. We're pleased to provide our systems R&D expertise to help advance this industry."
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