Accessible forms of renewable energy

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Introduction / Rationale

Solar energy is one of the most accessible forms of renewable energy that is available to domestic properties in UK, yet it is only used by a very small number of households (Solaris, 2008). Before any large scale domestic adoption of the technology can expected, it must be proven viable.

Solar photovoltaics (PV) cells have attracted increasing attention in recent years as a technology capable of delivering sustainable electricity supplies and reducing the burden of fossil fuels of the environment (Brown and Hendry, 2009)

Originally developed for space applications; photovoltaic systems "Convert sunlight directly into electricity using the Photovoltaic effect; through which light causes matter to emit electrons" (Atelier, 2007). The technology of the (PV) cell is dependent on the structure of the cell; which when correctly layered induces an electric field, upon subjection to an "energy source that is by far the most abundant of those available on the planet" (Boyle, 1996).

Government support

PV has an important role to play in the drive to reduce our carbon emissions by 20% by 2020, as it is "the only renewable energy technology that is suitable for electricity generation in the urban environment". (Strong, 1996) With fossil fuels now being depleted at a rate faster than ever before (CSIRO, 2009) and the affects of the associated climatic change becoming more apparent, the UK government has made it a top priority to change to mitigate CO2 emissions.

The UK strategy on the implementation of PV aims to stimulate regional and local areas through incentives and other recommendations. However, in 2007 the UK installed only 0.3% of the solar PV installed in Germany (Solarcentury, 2008). So, is the Government doing enough to implement PV energy? And, despite its obvious benefits, why is the use of PV energy so restricted?

There is a need for the Government to continually assess its energy policies and related areas, to keep up to date with the current situation and to establish a sustainable environment.

Much research has been done in this area; however the ever-changing social, economical, political, technical and legal climate, together with the effects of pollution, requires a continuing review of the situation. The importance of this is clear as the problems remain unsolved despite the available resources.

Support for the research, development and demonstration of new energy technologies is available through the EU Framework Programme (FP) for research, and with PV being given the recent status of 'world's fastest-growing energy" technology, there is a need to assess the viability of such technology for use with domestic housing. (PRLog, 2009)

Research Aim, Objective(s), Hypotheses

There is an importance of establishing research aim and objectives prior to conducting any research study as this will ensure the project remains focussed.

Aim:

The research aim of this particular project is to carry out an investigation into the viability of solar photovoltaics for domestic buildings in the UK. .

Objectives:

The aim is to be achieved through the following objectives:

  1. To conduct a critical review of literature in relation to the history of PV technology
  2. To conduct a critical review of literature in relation to PV technology and the photo-electric effect.
  3. To investigate the UK strategy for implementing PV, and if more can be done to stimulate its usage.
  4. To collect data in relation to the UK's current residential housing schemes which integrate PV technology, in attempt to analyse viability of PV technology.
  5. To investigate if there are any obstacles preventing PV from being fully utilised.
  6. To investigate what the future holds in relation to PV
  7. To draw conclusion on the viability of photovoltaics

Hypotheses

It is uncommon sight for PV panels to be seen of the roofs of domestic buildings in the UK, there may be a many reasons for this, but most should relate back to the viability of PV. It may be the case that PV technology is not financially viable at current, but the near future may present a break through in the development of the technology, and thus may also eliminate any current issues with the technology and also decrease the cost in production in-turn making PV more technically feasible and viable.

Literature Review

This chapter of the dissertation seeks to review the literature currently available on the subject of renewable energy, with regard to photovoltaics (PV).

There is a substantial number of text books on the subject of 'renewable energy,' however relatively few on the subject of PV. Much can however be found on the internet and in government reports. This reflects the short history of PV energy and the recent developments in technology, and government and European Union (EU) thinking. Upon a comprehensive search of PV books that are available; it was apparent that most of the books published were dated in the 1970's which indicates the developments made during the period and an increase in the application of PV technologies.

Definition

The term photovoltaics derives from the Greek word "phos" meaning light and the word "volt" from the name of the physicist Alessandro Volta (Wilson and Burgh, 2008). The term describes the generation of electric current from solar energy following the occurrence of the 'photovoltaic effect'.

The Photovoltaic effect

The 'PV effect' is a large subject and hence the reason to why most books based on the solar energy field, have a separate section for the subject, and so much of the information is in full text. However, attempts to summarise the PV effect have been made by many authors including Mott Green and Wall (2002), Luque and Hegedus (2003) and Al-Azzawi (2006), however it is the description from Siddayao and Griffin that best describes the PV effect with a description of how a voltage is created and the direction of the electrons, (1996, p40): as a phenomenon whereby "photons of light strike the cell dislodging electrons from atoms, the charged electrons travel through the cell towards an oppositely charged contact drawn by a voltage created between two semiconductor materials. When the circuit is closed, an electric current is created."

The History of Photovoltaics

When investigating the viability of PV, it is important to examine the history of the technology in order to understand its viability throughout its development, previous issues, the developments made and the speed of the progress.

The Discovery

Most people are surprised to learn that photovoltaic technology actually dates back almost 170 years. The science behind of the technology was first discovered by French physicist Edmond Becquerel in 1839, he referred to this as "the photovoltaic effect." (Sunlightelectric, 2009) Becquerel discovered that certain materials would produce small amounts of electric current when exposed to light.

Though literature with regards to the events that took place during the half-century period after the discovery of PV is limited, it is indicated in many of the more recent books; including that from Goetzberger and Hoffmann (2005) and), that the photovoltaic effect remained in interests of science for the next three quarters of a century. The effect was first studied in solids, such as the chemical element selenium (Se) in the 1870s by German physicist Heinrich Hertz, and shortly after selenium photovoltaic cells were converting light to electricity at one percent to two percent efficiency. Accordingly, selenium PV cells were swiftly adopted into light-measuring devices and photography; which at the time was an emerging field.

Major developments in the technology

Though progress in the efficiency and the integration of cells into new devices continued, the book "Clean electricity of photovoltaics" Archer and Hill (2001) describes how it was not in-till 1954 that the major break-through came; when the 'Czochralski process' was used by Bell Laboratories to produce highly pure crystalline silicon PV cells, with a efficiency of six percent; being three times the efficiency level of that from selenium. According to Schlager and Lauer (2000) this was the "world's first practical photovoltaic cell".

Only 9 years after the development and release of the crystalline silicon photovoltaic cell, the world's first usable silicon based photovoltaic module was developed by the Sharp Corporation (Sharp Corporation, 2009), this was a generally fast turnaround from the 1954 break-through, implying that Sharp Corporation saw the technology viable and thus gave it the top priority; hence the quick developments.

PV technology took great leaps forward in the 1970's as indicated by Szokolay (1977) which also supports the year the book itself was published and is also in support to the number of books found published during the 1970's.

The largest of these leaps occurred when the first the French implemented a CdS PV system enabling educational TV programme broadcast in the province of Niger in 1972 (PVresource, 2009). It was then only a year later (1973), at the Delaware University a photovoltaic-thermal hybrid system was created; this was one of the first photovoltaic systems for domestic applications.

By 1990 Toke (1990) was writing about solar, wind, wave, geothermal energies and many other forms of conserving sustainable energy, but he effectively left PV alone as it was going through a quiet period of little progression, this shows a stall in the viability of PV technology in the 1980's soon after the developments made in the 1970's.

The Current Status of PV in the UK

One of the distinct similarities between most of the literature; is that they recognise that photovoltaics (PV) technology is not yet near to being viable for large scale domestic use, with regard to cost effectiveness. Many writers do not actually say so in as many words, but it is the case.

Perlin (2002) made it clear that PV technology has been with us for more than a century but is still not commercially successful. Both he, Ross (1999) and Potts (1999); an American environmentalist, hit the mark when they pointed out the benefits of solar installations where the cost of running electric cables to remote locations was higher than the outlay for installing PV and from then on the electricity was virtually free.

For many years, PV applications in the UK were used to supply power to remote locations where there would be connection to grid as it won't have been possible or the cost of installing the grid was too costly. This has changed over the years as the grid connected systems are becoming more common in urban area where now the supply is easily available. Taylor and Bruhns (2002) states that 'Until recently the opportunities for PV in the UK seemed more remote that in much sunnier countries.'

Mott Green & Wall (2002) believe that the use of solar energy has been increasing and most of the interest has come from designers and developer for new build and external envelope refurbishment in the UK, mainly in towns and cities where other renewable energy options such as wind power and geothermal are less common.

In contrast to views to Perlin (2002); Alsema and Nieuwlaar (2000) demonstrates, that due to rapid improvements in performance that have been experienced in the last two to three decades have changed this situation completely, and assuming medium levels of solar irradiation, they find energy payback times in the order of 2.5-3 years for distributed, (building-integrated) rooftop systems. This payback time rises to around 4 years for centralised, multi-megawatt, ground-mounted systems. However, given that the technical lifetime is in excess of 20 years, these kinds of payback times suggest that PVs have now crossed the threshold from "being a net energy sink to a technically viable energy" supply technology. (Jackson and Oliver, 2000)

Public attention

Several of the writers already mentioned (Potts, 1999), (Szokolay, 1977) & (Toke, 1990); extol the virtues of solar technology based systems, but in many of the more recent publications it barely gets a mention and possibly it is for this reason that the Renewable Energy Directory has been set-up; to advertise the existence of a large number of PV system suppliers and installers. The advertising of renewable energy is very low key and is left to the likes of the BBC (2009) to keep the public informed, while newspapers publish articles that are thinly veiled advertisements commending the benefits.

Much of the literary research has been done through the Internet, as it was discovered that there are more books available dating from the 1970's than there are being published at the moment.

A good proportion of the documents available on the Internet are posted on government web sites, which are, generally speaking, reports carried out by government-sponsored bodies. Many are available through Communities and Local Government and the Department for Business Innovations and Skills websites, but whilst they give useful information they are either too technical in parts or too generalised.

Indirect Policy Issues

Papers like the DTI White Paper (2003) and the more recent Energy Efficiency Action Plan (2007), concentrate on the need for a reduction in CO2 emissions, as well as the fact that fossil fuels will soon run out. However according to the BBC (2009) many critics of the publication articulate that the in the White Paper the government 'fail' to make firm commitment to producing electricity from green sources. Similarities can also be seen in the latest DTI White Paper (2007) titled 'Meeting the energy challenge' which sets out the government's international and domestic energy strategy in effort to ensuring secure, clean and affordable energy whilst reducing carbon dioxide emissions, however again does not highlight the benefits, and by using words such as 'emerging' to describe technologies such as PV; it fails to bring confidence to the general public in regard to the viability of considering such technology.

Government support

It is often highlighted in literature that PV systems are expensive, (Schneider et al, 2009) however it is argued in a publication from Solar century (2009) which investigates the common misconceptions about PV, that the cost of PV is not a high as it first may seem as many grants are available, prices are coming down each year and states also that the inclusion of PV adds 8.6% value to a domestic property.

In support to the Solar century publications comments, information from LCB (2009) identifies the various different grants available and also states that PV has proved to be the most popular technology accounting for over 50% of the grant funding awarded under Phase 2 of the LCBP programme. Support from the government is again shown when funds unexpectedly ran out in February 2009, and addition further £45 million was announced in budget 2009.

Conclusion

When assessing the viability of photovoltaics it is important to recognise the dynamic nature of technological development, hence the reason to why a history section needs to be included in a research topic in which it may not be deemed relevant at first thought.

"Photovoltaics were originally developed for applications in outer space, where the benefits of a light weight and reliable energy source outweighed cost considerations." (Jackson and Oliver, 2000, pg.1)

Since the considerations on earth and in space differ immensely; especially in terms of the amount and the strength of sun light the PV cells would be subject too, the viability of photovoltaics can be dependent on the location where it will be used.

It is possible to identify a number of common themes amongst the papers collected. Firstly, there is the assumption that the resource potential for PVs is vast, and secondly it is clear to most authors that PVs have strong advantages of PVs over conventional technologies, even though the costs are still high.

The future of photovoltaics

Andersson and Jacobsson (2000) and Awerbuch's (2005) suggestions that PVs represent not just a new energy technology, but a radical architectural innovation' involving new technical, economic, financial, institutional and social characteristics.

Most of the authors also recognise that current high costs for PVs will fall significantly in the coming decade as a result of improved technologies, increased integration into building structures and economies of scale in production. A considerable proportion of the market for PVs is expected to come from the integration of PVs into building structures, driven in part by government policy targets. The expanded production requirements arising from this emerging market will be one of the factors involved in driving costs down further.

Methodology

Research methodology refers to the principle and procedures of logical thought processes which applied to a scientific investigation. (Fellows and Lie, 2003)

For this study, a qualitative research strategy would be most suitable as it will allow for flexible yet comprehensive study. Naoum (2004) suggests that qualitative research is subjective in nature, thus allowing for more data to be collected with fewer restrictions.

Case studies

The first approach in collecting data will be through a case study approach; this approach has been selected as information in the form of reports (case studies); with regards to UK based eco-housing developments, are readily available and often are very well-detailed. Another advantage in adopting this approach is that there is a wide range in case study reports available and with each report being unique in terms of the developments: location, year, type, size and amount of funds invested, it will bring forth the ability to compare the variations and make judgement on the reasons behind the success or failure of the project and also identify patterns. This supports the statements of Yin (2003) who identifies case studies as the preferred startergy when "how" or "why" questions are being posed and when the focus is on a contemporary phenomenon within some real-life context.

Interview

The second approach in collecting data will be through an interview approach; a telephone interview with a West-Midlands based social housing developer would be an interesting approach as it will allow for greater spontaneity in the collection of data, and the greater interaction leading to "open-ended" questions in which the participants are free to respond elaborately and in their own words, and express additional details that may be important but uncommon for a report to include. The two approaches in data collection selected may therefore support in other upon data examination, and comply with Yin (2003) suggestions of searching for contrary evidence in order to avoid relying on single-source information.

Restraints/Limitations

As previously mentioned; there are a relatively few amount of books on the subject of PV that are post 2002 and it was also apparent that most of the books published were dated in the 1970's which acts on the developments in the technology made during the period. Thus, a lot of the research needs will be from alternative sources. However, through continual reading of construction journals (Building, Contract Journal etc) and searches of news archives on the Internet, a substantial amount of data has been collected.

Solar photovoltaics as a research topic is large as there are many aspects within and leading from photovoltaics, it will therefore be important to allocate time and resource depending on the relevancy and importance of the information.

Research Programme

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