Solar Power Stops Working Well When It’s Hot Outside

Andrew Follett | Energy and Science Reporter

Don’t expect recent heat waves hitting the southwest to make solar panels produce more energy, according to an industry representative.

High temperatures decrease a photovoltaic solar cell’s output by between 10 and 25 percent, Stuart Fox, a vice president at the green energy company CivicSolar, told The San Francisco Chronicle Wednesday. Research indicates that a solar panel’s power output drops by 1.1 percent for every 1.8 degree rise in temperature above 107 degrees Fahrenheit, and solar panels can get much hotter than that.

“If you take a glass solar shingle and lay it on the roof, there’s no air going behind it, so it might get a lot hotter — it might get to 140 or 160 degrees Fahrenheit,” Fox told The Chronicle.

Photovoltaic solar cells work when energy from the sun excites electrons on the panels, which generates energy the cells can capture. However, at high temperatures it takes less energy to excite the electrons, meaning that the cell produces less power. High temperatures frequently coincide with peak demand for electricity, meaning that solar power is at its least effective when it is most needed.

This effect is a big problem for rooftop solar panels, which lack the capacity for large scale cooling of industrial solar systems but receive the majority of taxpayer support.

Most state solar subsidies go to residential rooftop installations through a subsidy called net metering, a 30 percent federal tax credit. Previously, solar subsidies were so lucrative that solar-leasing companies installed rooftop systems, which run at minimum $10,000, at no upfront cost to the consumer. Companies do this because state and federal subsidies are so massive that such behavior is actually profitable.

Researchers found that expanding or maintaining net metering subsidies for rooftop solar will drive up power prices. Without government support, solar energy is non-viable, according to a 2015 study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Even proponents of solar power and net metering recognize their reliance on subsidies. Without high net metering payments, rooftop solar “makes no financial sense for a consumer,” Lyndon Rive, CEO of SolarCity, told The New York Times in February 2016.

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