CPV technology uses optics such as lenses or curved mirrors to concentrate a large amount of sunlight onto a small area of solar photovoltaic (PV) cells to generate electricity. Compared to non-concentrated photovoltaics, CPV systems can save money on the cost of the solar cells, since a smaller area of photovoltaic material is required. Because a smaller PV area is required, CPVs can use the more expensive high-efficiency tandem solar cells. To get the sunlight focused on the small PV area, CPV systems require spending extra money on concentrating optics (lenses or mirrors), solar trackers, and cooling systems. Because of these extra costs, CPV is far less common today than non-concentrated photovoltaics. However, ongoing research and development is trying to improve CPV technology and lower costs.
CPV also competes with concentrated solar thermal. CPV turns the sunlight directly into electricity, while solar thermal turns the sunlight into heat, and then turns the heat into electricity. Solar thermal is far more common than CPV, although the two technologies are sometimes combined.
A major component of CPV is their lenses. A Fresnel lens is a type of compact lens originally developed by French physicist Augustin-Jean Fresnel for lighthouses. The design allows the construction of lenses of large aperture and short focal length without the mass and volume of material that would be required by a lens of conventional design. A Fresnel lens can be made much thinner (1) than a comparable conventional lens (2), in some cases taking the form of a flat sheet. A Fresnel lens can capture more oblique light from a light source, thus allowing the light from a lighthouse equipped with one to be visible over greater distances.
CPV systems operate most efficiently in concentrated sunlight, as long as the solar cell is kept cool through use of heat sinks. Diffuse light, which occurs in cloudy and overcast conditions, cannot be concentrated. To reach their maximum efficiency, CPV systems must be located in areas that receive plentiful direct sunlight.
The design of photovoltaic concentrators introduces a very specific optical design problem, with features that makes it different from any other optical design. It has to be efficient, suitable for mass production, capable of high concentration, insensitive to manufacturing and mounting inaccuracies, and capable of providing uniform illumination of the cell. All these reasons make nonimaging optics the most suitable for CPV.
All CPV systems have a concentrating optic and a solar cell. Except for very low concentrations, active solar tracking is also necessary.
Semiconductor properties allow solar cells to operate more efficiently in concentrated light, as long as the cell Junction temperature is kept cool by suitable heat sinks. Efficiency of multijunction photovoltaic cells developed in research is upward of 40% today, with the potential to approach 50% in the coming years.
Also crucial to the efficiency (and cost) of a CPV system is the concentrating optic since it collects and concentrates sunlight onto the solar cell. For a given concentration, nonimaging optics combine the widest possible acceptance angles with high efficiency and, therefore, are the most appropriate for use in solar concentration. For very low concentrations, the wide acceptance angles of nonimaging optics avoid the need for active solar tracking. For medium and high concentrations, a wide acceptance angle can be seen as a measure of how tolerant the optic is to imperfections in the whole system. It is vital to start with a wide acceptance angle since it must be able to accommodate tracking errors, movements of the system due to wind, imperfectly manufactured optics, imperfectly assembled components, finite stiffness of the supporting structure or its deformation due to aging, among other factors. All of these reduce the initial acceptance angle and, after they are all factored in, the system must still be able to capture the finite angular aperture of sunlight.
Compared to conventional flat panel solar cells, CPV is advantageous because the solar collector is less expensive than an equivalent area of solar cells. CPV hardware (solar collector and tracker) is nearing $1 USD/Watt, whereas silicon flat panels that are commonly sold are now below 1USD/Watt (not including any associated power systems or installation charges).
CPV systems are categorized according to the amount of their solar concentration, measured in “suns” (the square of the magnification).
Low concentration PV are systems with a solar concentration of 2-100 suns. For economic reasons, conventional or modified silicon solar cells are typically used, and, at these concentrations, the heat flux is low enough that the cells do not need to be actively cooled. The laws of optics dictate that a solar collector with a low concentration ratio can have a high acceptance angle and thus in some instances does not require active solar tracking.
From concentrations of 100 to 300 suns, the CPV systems require two-axes solar tracking and cooling (whether passive or active), which makes them more complex.
High concentration photovoltaics (HCPV) systems employ concentrating optics consisting of dish reflectors or fresnel lenses that concentrate sunlight to intensities of 1000 suns or more. The solar cells require high-capacity heat sinks to prevent thermal destruction and to manage temperature related performance losses. Multijunction solar cells are currently favored over single junction cells, as they are more efficient and have a lower temperature coefficient (less loss in efficiency with an increase in temperature). The efficiency of both cell types rises with increased concentration; multijunction efficiency rises faster . Multijunction solar cells, originally designed for non-concentrating space-based satellites, have been re-designed due to the high-current density encountered with CPV (typically 8 A/cm2 at 500 suns). Though the cost of multijunction solar cells is roughly 100 times that of silicon cells of the same area, the small cell area employed makes the relative costs of cells in each system comparable and the system economics favor the multijunction cells. Multijunction cell efficiency has now reached 41% in production cells.
The 41% value given above is for a specific set of conditions known as “standard test conditions”. These include a specific spectrum, an incident optical power of 850 W/m², and a cell temperature of 25°C. In a concentrating system, the cell will typically operate under conditions of variable spectrum, lower optical power, and higher temperature. The optics needed to concentrate the light have limited efficiency themselves, in the range of 75-90%. Taking these factors into account, a solar module incorporating a 40% multijunction cell might deliver a DC efficiency around 30%. Under similar conditions, a silicon-cell module would deliver an efficiency of less than 18%.
When high concentration is needed (500-1000x), as occurs in the case of high efficiency multijunction solar cells, it is likely that it will be crucial for commercial success at the system level to achieve such concentration with a sufficient acceptance angle. This allows tolerance in mass production of all components, relaxes the module assembling and system installation, and decreasing the cost of structural elements. Since the main goal of CPV is to make solar energy inexpensive, there can be used only a few surfaces. Decreasing the number of elements and achieving high acceptance angle, can be relaxed optical and mechanical requirements, such as accuracy of the optical surfaces profiles, the module assembling, the installation, the supporting structure, etc.
A new emerging type of concentrators which are still at the research stage are Luminescent solar concentrators, they are composed of luminescent plates either totally impregnated by luminescent species or fluorescent thin films on transparent plates. They absorb solar light which is converted to fluorescence guided to plate edges where it emerges in a concentrated form. The concentration factor is directly proportional to the plate surface and inversely proportional to the plate edges. Such arrangement allows to use small amounts of solar cells as a result of concentration of fluorescent light. The fluorescent concentrator is able to concentrate both direct and diffuse light which is especially important on cloudy days. They also don’t need expensive Solar trackers.