Grid-Tied PV System Performance Factors

Intermediate

Inside this Article

Cleaning solar modules
Grid-Tied PV System Performance Factors
A remote meter
A remote meter can help you keep track of how well your array is performing.
Utility meter
Taking readings from the PV system production meter can help you identify system problems, but only if you have previous records to compare to.
A temperature gun
A temperature gun checks infrared radiation to give quick readings of cell temperature.
Measuring cell temperature
Placed against the back of a module, a sensor (attached to a meter) can be used to measure cell temperature. Be sure to take readings on several spots and average the results.
Pyranometer sensor
To accurately determine the irradiance striking your PV array, be sure the pyranometer sensor is on the same plane as the modules.
PV module label
While this label does not show the PV module’s power tolerance, it does give the minimum figure, which computes to be 91% of the rated power (154.7 ÷ 170.0).
Dirty PV module
Dirty PV modules can significantly reduce output. Clean ’em!
Dusty PV module
Dirty PV modules can significantly reduce output. Clean ’em!
Partial shading of a PV module
Shading can negatively affect your PV system’s output. For testing purposes, be sure your array is in full sun.
Misshapen junction box
Warped, misshapen boxes or insulation indicate electromechanical problems with one or more PV modules.
Burn marks
Burn marks indicate electromechanical problems with one or more PV modules.
Monitoring display
Finding individual underperforming PV modules is possible with module-level tracking technologies, such as microinverters or DC optimizers.
Measuring the array’s operating voltage
Measuring the array’s operating voltage at the positive and negative terminals, with the array connected to the inverter.
A clamp-on meter
A clamp-on meter is used to measure the current while the array is connected to the inverter.
Cleaning solar modules
A remote meter
Utility meter
A temperature gun
Measuring cell temperature
Pyranometer sensor
PV module label
Dirty PV module
Dusty PV module
Partial shading of a PV module
Misshapen junction box
Burn marks
Monitoring display
Measuring the array’s operating voltage
A clamp-on meter

The number of PV systems is increasing all over the United States. By the end of 2012, PV capacity was more than 7,700 megawatts (MW), with more than 3,300 MW of PV installed during 2012 alone. But are all of these systems performing at the highest possible level, even after five, 10, or more years of operation? Here are some of the common signs and symptoms of underperforming PV arrays—and their remedies.

Assessing Your System

Figuring out if your PV system is working properly can often be difficult, especially for owners of smaller residential PV systems who have never been given proper instruction on system monitoring. Many folks keep tabs on their grid-tied PV systems just by examining their monthly electric bills. They know roughly what the bills have been since their PV system was installed, and assume everything is fine if their payments stay about the same.

In areas with production-based incentives, a separate meter records PV system generation. This can make monthly comparisons of PV performance more straightforward from year to year. Any significant drops in production for a particular month from one year to the next should raise a red flag—while it could mean only that there was less sun than the previous year, it is a good idea to check the system for problems.

Net-metered PV systems can be difficult to pin down since the utility’s meter only shows excess PV energy produced after all of the home’s electrical usage. If the loads change from year to year, then the net production (if there is any) will change as well, even if the PV system is performing as in the past. Most grid-tied inverters display instantaneous power and energy production totals, but someone needs to check them regularly, record the readings, and compare them from year to year to really know if the system is performing to specifications. And what happens if the system was not installed properly in the first place and has never worked properly? We need a way to know if a system is doing what it is supposed to do.

System Spot-Check: Power Output

Let’s use a 3 kW net-metered PV system as an example. The system owners notice that their monthly electric bills are a lot higher than the previous year. Nothing looks amiss—the modules are still on the roof, and the inverter has a little green LED lit up when the sun shines. The inverter’s screen shows the array is producing 925 watts at about 3 p.m. Should this 3 kW array be producing more?

With a little math and a couple of measurements, we can get a pretty good idea of what an array should be producing any time there is full sun. Here are the parameters you can use to calculate PV system power output:

STC ratings. PV modules are factory-tested to determine their power output. When we talk about the size of a PV system or module, we are using the “STC ratings”—the numbers detailed on the back of the module and on its data sheet. STC, or “standard test conditions,” is a solar irradiance of 1,000 W per square meter and a module cell temperature of 25°C (77°F). Although both of these values impact a PV module’s output, its rating at STC rarely reflects real-world conditions. The result is that a PV module rated at 250 W STC will only produce 250 W under those specific conditions. In full sun and up on a rooftop, the actual conditions are usually much different. For instance, during the winter in an area with no snow and a slight haze, the irradiance will be lower (perhaps 700 W per square meter) and module cell temperature might be close to 25°C ( 77°F). In the summer, irradiance might be closer to 1,000 W per square meter, but module cell temperatures may be 60°C (140°F).

When calculating the power output, we’ll start with the STC rating of the PV array—in this case, 3,000 watts. Then we will include several derate factors, which will lead us to the array’s expected power output.

Pages

Comments (3)

Justine Sanchez's picture

Hi Gary,
Thanks for posting! Yes a production meter is an extremely valuable asset to any grid-tied PV system. Separate production meters (and faceplate inverter output meters) can give us a good idea if the PV system is meeting energy (kWh) production expectations overtime. But if your kWhs aren't stacking up to what is expected, this article provides the next step in troubleshooting, and describes a method of spot checking the wattage of the system, so that we can determine if there is actually a problem with the system itself, rather than something other such as a cloudier than usual spring or perhaps partial morning or afternoon array shading due to tree growth over time, etc..And yes the method described here does require some specialty tools (ex/irradiance meter and temp gun) which will be common to the installer, but not necessarily to the average homeowner.
Cheers,
Justine Sanchez
Home Power Magazine

gary beckwith's picture

this is an interesting article with some good information for the techies and tinkerers. but for practical purposes, the easiest way to check on your system is to install a separate meter for production if there isn't one already. personally I think it's a good idea to put a production meter on your system even if it isn't required, just for this purpose. then go to the PVWatts website and put in your location, tilt angle, temperature etc, and see what you should be getting every month and per year. the PVWatts calculator already factors in all the derate issues mentioned in this article. So if you're consistently below what PVWatts says, then you should call your installer and have them troubleshoot your system.

Robert Sczech_2's picture

A 3KW system will generate roughly 3 MWH of electricity per year - a market value of roughly $300. If one is really to perform all the maintenance tasks and checks on the system as described in the article and if one values ones own life time at only $10 per hour, then the value of ones human lifetime invested into these activities could easily eat up a significant part of the electricity created.

A personal experience: The state of NJ has mandated the installation of so called revenue grade meters for all solar installation in order to accurately measure the amount of electricity generated. In my case, the process of installing that meter started last July and is still not complete. During the past year many emails and phone calls needed to be made to get the contractor, the permits and the final inspections. The inspection process alone takes many months because of the paperwork requirements and repeated reinspections. If all the human labor in getting these meters installed is all added up, then the gain from renewable does not appear to be that significant. Lots of that gain is lost in the inefficiencies of the full installation process.

Show or Hide All Comments

Advertisement

X
You may login with either your assigned username or your e-mail address.
The password field is case sensitive.
Loading