Photovoltaic (or PV) systems convert light energy into electricity. The term photo is a stem from the Greek phos which means “light.” “Volt” is named for Alessandro Volta (1745-1827), a pioneer in the study of electricity. Photo-voltaics, then, could literally mean “light-electricity.” The photovoltaic effect was first discovered by Becquerel in 1839.
Photovoltaic systems, which incorporate technology most commonly known as solar cells, are already used in mainstream applications. The simplest solar systems power calculators and watches. More complicated solar systems provide electricity for pumping water and powering communications equipment.
Photovoltaics were first used commercially in 1958 to power the Vanguard communications satellite. PV requires no moving parts and uses the sun as a source of energy. As a direct result of declining PV prices, practical applications for solar cells have steadily expanded from space missions to remote power and personal electronic devices. Since the mid 1990’s, PV has become a practical source of solar electric generation in the $800 billion electric power industry.
Although a number of new technologies, including fuel cells and micro-turbines, can generate electric power in a distributed or point-of-use fashion, solar electric power offers multiple benefits.
Reliable and low maintenance
With no moving parts, solar generation systems reliably power some of the world’s most mission critical applications, from space satellites to microwave stations in remote and harsh environments.
Modular and scalable
Solar electric generation is highly scalable and can be deployed in many configurations, from hand-held devices to grid-connected systems in urban centers anywhere in the world.
Solar power produces no emissions and no noise. As a result, they can be easily sited in densely populated urban areas.
Solar electric technology is a 100% renewable energy source. Solar electric power systems provide the advantages of other distributed generation systems without fuel or regular maintenance requirements.
No fuel or infrastructure cost
Solar electric power is not dependent on the existence, development or maintenance of a fuel delivery infrastructure, nor is it dependent on the cost of fossil fuels. Thus, it offers electricity users an important hedge against future fossil fuel price volatility.
Additionally, the power output from a solar electric generation system is well matched to periods of peak load demand, typically occurring during hot summer days. This characteristic will become increasingly significant as time-of-day pricing or other variable real time pricing mechanisms are implemented during periods of high demand.