Electronic Design
A Solar Farm Grows In Brookhaven (National Laboratory)

A Solar Farm Grows In Brookhaven (National Laboratory)

Living in Long Island, N.Y., I never thought I’d see a solar farm anywhere in my area. It’s just not sunny enough. To my mind it’s more of a wind farm place, with turbines just itching to be planted somewhere off the coast in the Atlantic Ocean.

But according to reports, the largest solar photovoltaic (PV) power plant in the eastern United States is taking shape in the eastern portion of Brookhaven National Laboratory’s facility on Long Island. Site preparation work began last November, and the solar farm is already more than halfway complete.

The farm is a 200-acre, 32-MW solar project collaboration among BP Solar, the Long Island Power Authority (LIPA), and the Department of Energy. It’s on track to start providing power to Long Islanders later this fall, generating enough renewable energy to power approximately 4500 homes. The project will also help New York meet its clean energy and carbon reduction goals.

Workers have mounted nearly 90,000 of the 164,000 solar panels that will make up the array, and they have installed 11,500 of the 13,000 piles and 4600 of the 6800 racks that will hold the panels in place and tilt them toward the sun.

According to reports, more than 200 workers are adding thousands of panels each day and installing the power inverters and cabling that will carry electricity from the panels to the electric grid. Fortunately, the grid is not all that far off. BNL was chosen because of the proximity of its land to a LIPA substation.

The point here, though, is not just to build a solar power facility, but to get BNL scientists involved in developing their own research agenda for the large array and a planned smaller one. The large array will incorporate advanced monitoring equipment so researchers can monitor, in real time, how much power the array is generating in relation to the amount of cloud cover present. This will help them to better understand the impact of microscale elements like individual clouds on the array’s output.

Beyond that, researchers are developing the ability to predict, up to 30 minutes in advance, the output of the large array based on observation, tracking, and evaluation of cloud conditions. This technique, known as “nowcasting,” uses optical imaging of the clouds and sophisticated software to identify shapes, track movements, and evaluate the optical density of the clouds—that is, how much light is filtered by clouds overhead. This type of near-term forecasting will help utilities anticipate changes such as dips in solar-generated power at times of cloud cover and make adjustments before they occur to maintain constant power on the grid.

“There’s not a lot of data available on how arrays of this size will function in the changeable weather of the northeastern United States. We have a unique opportunity here to determine how these types of factors might impact our ability to smoothly integrate renewables into the grid,” explains Pat Looney, chair of Brookhaven’s Sustainable Energy Department.

Research at the smaller array, while still under discussion, will likely include testing of new inverter and power-supply technologies, as well as advanced energy storage devices that will enable power generated during peak output times to be stored for use during times of greatest demand—when the sun may not be shining.

Solar Power Costs Take a Dive

A report from IHS iSuppli states that the PV industry appears set to achieve a major milestone, with the selling prices of crystalline silicon (c-Si) modules projected to drop to $1 per watt by the first quarter of 2012. The research firm considers this a significant benchmark that could forestall a dip for solar installations next year and stimulate demand instead. Prices are about $1.30 per watt for these modules now, down from about $1.49 per watt a few weeks ago. What’s fueling the price drop?

“The recent price decline was quickened by top-tier module brands dropping prices to aggressively position themselves, in the face of fears that the industry could be headed toward a down market next year,” says Henning Wicht, senior director and principal analyst, photovoltaics, at IHS.

The drops in pricing were spurred by the recent price slide in cells and wafers, with wafers being quoted in the $2.30 per-piece range, down from $3.50 in March. For details, see www.isuppli.com/Photovoltaics/Pages/Products.aspx.

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