Thursday, April 20, 2017

Designing ground-mounted solar panel arrays: Part I

Fig. 1: Inter-row shadowing (daily total)
Designing a ground-mounted solar panel array is one of the challenges in our Solarize Your World curriculum, in addition to other challenges such as rooftop solar power systems, solar canopies, building-integrated photovoltaics, and concentrated solar power plants. With the support of our intuitive Energy3D software, designing a solar panel array appears to be a small and simple job as students can easily add, drag, and drop solar panels to cover up a site with many solar panels. But things are not always as simple as they seem.
Fig. 2: Solar radiation on an array in four reasons.

The design of a photovoltaic solar farm is, in fact, a typical engineering problem that requires the designer to find a solution that generates as much electricity as possible with a limited number of solar panels on a given piece of land, among many other constraints and criteria. Such an engineering project mandates iterative design and optimization in a solution space that has scores of variables. And the more the variables we have to deal with, the more complicated the design challenge becomes.

Fig. 3: Annual outputs vs. row spacing and tilt angle
This sequence of articles will walk you through the essential steps for designing photovoltaic solar farms under a variety of conditions. To get you started, let's assume that 1) we have a rectangular area for the solar farm; 2) the edges of the area are perfectly aligned with the north-south and east-west axes; and 3) the area is perfectly flat. This kind of site is probably uncommon in reality (unless the site is in a desert). But let's begin with a very simple scenario like this.


Fig. 4: Surface plot of solar output (ideal)
One of the first things that we have to decide is the number of solar panels. This is usually dictated by the budget. Suppose we have a fixed quantity of solar panels that we can install at a site large enough to space them (i.e., let's assume that we are not constrained by the area of the site for the time being). As people usually put solar panels on racks (a rack of solar panels is often referred to as a row -- but don't confuse it with the rows of solar panels you put on each rack), the next things we have to decide are 1) how many solar panels we want to place on each rack, 2) whether these solar panels are placed in "portrait" or "landscape" orientation on the rack, and 3) how long each rack is. From these information, we know the number of rows for the array. For example, the array in Figure 1 has four rows, each of which has 88 solar panels stacked up in a 4x22 landscape configuration. Since the shorter side of each panel is about one meter long, each rack is about four meters wide.

Fig. 5: Surface plot of solar output (using bypass diodes)
How far should the distance between two adjacent rows be? If the solar panels are tilted towards the sun, the rows cannot be too close to one another as the inter-row shadowing (Figure 1) will reduce the total output (sometimes severely, depending on the wiring of the solar cells on the solar panels -- we will investigate this in the next article), but they cannot be too far away from one another, either, as a longer distance between rows will decrease the efficiency of land use. Determining the optimal inter-row spacing for the solar array under design depends on a number of confounding factors such as the tilt angles, location, solar cell wiring, time of year, use of trackers, type of inverters, and shape of the site that greatly complicate the problem (Figure 2). This is a case in which a thorough understanding of the domain knowledge per se does not suffice to solve the problem. As there is no exact solution, we have to come up with a procedure and a strategy to search for an optimal one in the solution space. And, sometimes, this solution space can be so vast that manual search becomes infeasible.

Fig. 6: Line graph of solar output (using bypass diodes)
To simplify the search for now, let's assume that we only have to decide on the optimal values for the tilt angle and the inter-row spacing. This assumption reduces the solution space to only two dimensions. The most straightforward way to nail them down is to gradually vary the tilt angle and the inter-row spacing and then compute the total annual output of the solar panels at each step (Figure 3), a tedious job that took me a couple of hours to do. Once we have the results, we can use Excel to create a surface plot that shows different zones of outputs as a function of the inter-row spacing and tilt angle (Figures 4 and 5 -- we will discuss their differences in the next article; for now, you just need to know that Figure 5 is a more accurate result). The yellow zones in the surface plots are the reduced solution space where we should zero in to find our solution, taking trade-offs with other criteria such as the efficiency of land use into account. To have a clearer view, Figure 6 shows a 2D line graph of the solar outputs as a function of the tilt angle for six values of inter-row spacing.

The conclusions are that a tilt angle that is approximately equal to the latitude of the site (about 42 degrees in the case of Boston, MA) is the best when the rows are relatively far apart (say, 10 meters away center-to-center or 6 meters way edge to edge when the tilt angle is zero) and when the rows become closer, a smaller tilt angle should be more favorable. For instance, with the center-to-center inter-row spacing reduced to 8 and 7 meters, 35 and 26 degrees are the optimal choices for the tilt angle, respectively. With the optimal tilt angles, we will lose about 2% and 4% of electricity output when we reduce the inter-row spacing from 10 meters to 8 meters and 7 meters, respectively. If we don't change the tilt angles, the losses will increase to 3% and 9%, respectively. These findings apply to fixed solar panel arrays that do not track or "backtrack" the sun.

The analyses we have done so far just barely scratched the surface of the problem. We have many other design topics to cover and design factors to consider. But the volume of work thus far should speak aloud for itself that this is not a simple problem. At the same time Energy3D greatly simplifies an engineering task and empowers anyone to tackle it, it could also create an illusion as if engineering were simple. Yes, a What-You-See-Is-What-You-Get (WYSIWYG) 3D design and construction program like Energy3D may be entertaining in ways similar to playing with Minecraft, but no, engineering is not gaming -- it differs from gaming in many fundamental ways.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

A demo of the Infrared Street View

An infrared street view
The award-winning Infrared Street View program is an ambitious project that aims to create something similar to Google's Street View, but in infrared light. The ultimate goal is to develop the world's first thermographic information system (TIS) that allows the positioning of thermal elements and the tracking of thermal processes on a massive scale. The applications include building energy efficiency, real estate inspection, and public security monitoring, to name a few.
An infrared image sphere


The Infrared Street View project is based on infrared cameras that work with now ubiquitous smartphones. It takes advantages of the orientation and location sensors of smartphones to store information necessary to knit an array of infrared thermal images taken at different angles and positions into a 3D image that, when rendered on a dome, creates an illusion of immersive 3D effects for the viewer.

The project was launched in 2016 and later joined by three brilliant computer science undergraduate students, Seth Kahn, Feiyu Lu, and Gabriel Terrell, from Tufts University, who developed a primitive system consisting of 1) an iOS frontend app to collect infrared image spheres, 2) a backend cloud app to process the images, and 3) a Web interface for users to view the stitched infrared images anchored at selected locations on a Google Maps application.

The following YouTube video demonstrates an early concept played out on an iPhone:



Friday, March 31, 2017

High school students to solarize the city of Lowell -- virtually


In April, high school students in Lowell, Massachusetts will start exploring various solarization possibilities in the city of Lowell -- famously known as the Cradle of American Industrial Revolution. Many municipal properties and apartment buildings in Lowell have large roofs that are ideal for rooftop solar installations. Public parking facilities also provide space for installing solar canopies, which serve the dual purpose of generating clean energy and providing shade for parked cars. Students will discover the solar potential of their city and calculate the amount of electricity that can generated based on it.

This project is made possible by our Energy3D software, which supports engineering-grade solar design, simulation, and analysis. The Lowell High School, local business owners, and town officials have been very supportive about this initiative. They provided a number of public and private sites for students to pick and choose. Some of them have even agreed to serve as the "clients" for students to provide specifications, inputs, and feedback to students while they are carrying out this engineering project.

Among the available sites, five public parking garages managed by the municipal authority, which have not installed solar canopies, will be investigated by students through feasibility studies that include 3D modeling, solar energy simulation, and financial planning. Through the project work, students will author reports addressed to the property owners, in which they will recommend appropriate solar solutions and financial options.

Solving real-world problems like these creates a meaningful and compelling context and pathway for students to learn science and engineering knowledge and skills. Hopefully, their work will also help inform the general public about the solar potential of their city and the possibility of transitioning it to 100% renewable energy in the foreseeable future, which is a goal recently set by Massachusetts lawmakers.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Designing building-integrated photovoltaics with Energy3D

Fig. 1: An example of solar facade.
Building-integrated photovoltaics (BIPV) represents an innovative way to think and design buildings as both human dwellings and power plants. In BIPV, solar panels or photovoltaic thin films are used to replace conventional constructional materials in parts of the building envelope such as roofs, walls, and even windows. Designing new buildings nowadays increasingly includes BIPV elements to offset operational costs. Existing buildings can also be retrofitted with BIPV (e.g., replacing glass curtain walls with solar panels). BIPV is expected to grow more important in architectural design and building engineering.

Fig. 2: An example of solar curtain walls
We are developing modeling capabilities in Energy3D to support the design, simulation, and analysis of BIPV. Figures 1 and 2 in this article show a few cases that demonstrate these capabilities in their primitive forms. Considering BIPV is relatively new and a lot of research is still under way to develop and test new ideas and technologies, we expect the development of these capabilities in Energy3D will be a long-term effort that will be integrated with latest research and development in the industry.
Fig.3: Power balancing throughout the day.

As the first step towards that long-term vision, the current version of Energy3D has already allowed you to add solar panel racks to any planar surface, being it horizontal, vertical, or slanted. Running a simulation for any day, you will be able to predict the daily output of all the solar panels. You can also compare the outputs of selected arrays. For example, if you want to track down on which side solar panels produce the most at a given time during the day, you can compare them in a graph. Figure 3 shows a comparison of the solar arrays in the model shown in Figure 1. As you can see, the east-facing array produces peak energy in the morning whereas the west-facing array produces peak energy in the afternoon. In this case, the BIPV solution ensures that the photovoltaic system generates some electricity at different times of the day.