Solar Power Works In Many Places You Might Not Expect

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This article is part of our “CleanTechnica Answer Box” collection. In this collection of articles, we respond to dozens of common anti-cleantech myths.

Solar power is often seen as a form of electricity that only works in sunny, hot areas, but this view is not accurate at all. While it’s easy to understand why some of us hold such a belief, some solar critics rely on this bit of misinformation to try to dismiss solar power as something marginal.

Facts, however, are persistent things. For example, Germany is a solar power leader globally, and yet it is located north of Massachusetts in the US.

It might be news to some people, but solar power does function in colder climates with less sunny weather, so it can be used effectively in many more places than is generally assumed. “Massachusetts ranks sixth nationally in amount of solar energy produced – up from eighth last year, leaping past Texas – enough to power 244,000 homes, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association. It is second only to California in the number of solar-related jobs at nearly 15,000, according to The Solar Foundation. That is all despite Massachusetts’s northern location and sixth-smallest land area.”

New Jersey is another solar power leader among US states, and it has a four-season climate with freezing winters. In fact, solar power is thriving in many areas you might not expect it, like New York state. “Governor Andrew M. Cuomo announced today that solar power in New York increased more than 1,000 percent from December 2011 to December 2017, leveraging more than $2.8 billion in private investment into New York’s growing clean energy economy.”

It may please you to know and point out that favorable politics and public policy are driving a lot of this solar power growth. These three US states typically are Democrat-oriented and this party is generally friendlier to renewable energy. The point is that their physical locations and climates are not barriers to solar power development. Their policies are much bigger factors.

China is also a solar power leader globally, but it doesn’t have a sun-filled, hot climate year round. In Beijing and Shanghai, average temperatures in January are about 25°F and 34°F.

So, where would you least expect solar power to work? How about the Arctic? One very small community not very far from there in the northwest part of Canada’s Yukon has tested solar power“Now Old Crow has a number of small-scale solar panel installations, including an 11.8 kilowatt array at the Arctic Research Centre — but its sights are set higher. Plans for a 330 kilowatt solar plant are well underway. A 2016 feasibility study estimated that this large-scale installation could offset 17 per cent of the community’s total diesel use, or up to 98,000 litres of fuel each year.”

Not having control of energy production puts the community at the mercy of fluctuating diesel prices, and what if there is even a temporary halt in imports and shortage? Would all refrigerated medicines and foods be lost during that period?

This community has about 245–300 members and is only accessible by plane because there aren’t any roads to there.

In Antarctica, there is a research station which was designed to be zero emissions. It utilizes solar and wind power.

Minnesota is known for its frigid winters, but this northern state has been experiencing a solar power surge as well. “Minnesota added enough solar panels in 2017 to power about 53,000 homes, and strong growth is expected to continue in the new year. The state’s overall capacity is now at more than 700 megawatts, according to the Minnesota Department of Commerce, which tracks solar installations.” The 1 GW mark may be reached there by 2019.

What about Alaska, the US state with the least amount of solar power? Well, some potential exists there too. “A recent study from the US Department of Energy looked at the potential of solar in 11 remote Alaskan villages and found that in many areas, it’s cost-competitive with diesel.” The study was dated 2016, but solar power prices have decreased since then, so it might be cheaper than diesel there now.

The above insight isn’t the most astounding one in regard to Alaska. Just take a look at this: “As shown in Figure 1, the solar resource (i.e., the amount of solar insolation received in kilowatt-hours (kWh)/square meters (m2 )/day) in some regions of Alaska is at least comparable to that of Germany, which leads the world in PV installations with more than 38,500 megawatts (MW) of solar installed as of October 2015 (Wirth 2015).”

Alaska vs Germany solar insolation via US DOE

So, does that mean Alaska could also have 38,000 MW of solar power? First of all, it would not be necessary to have that much solar there because the population is only about 740,000 and German has approximately 82,000,000. Secondly, each year parts of Alaska experience days with no little or no sunlight. Barrow or Utqiaġvik, in the northern part of the state has about two months of darkness each year. In Sitka, which is in the south, a January day might last about 7-8 hours on average. Obviously, some parts of the state would be better than others depending on seasonal fluctuations in sunlight levels and insolation.

If you asked the ‘average’ American where she/he thought a good place was to put solar power, the answer might be Florida, in part because it is called the Sunshine State, and it would be a reasonable answer. Florida does have plenty of sunshine, but it also gets very hot there during summer months, and solar panels aren’t as efficient when they get hot. “A panel converts light into electricity, not heat into electricity. So a very hot day doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a great solar day. A very bright but cool winter day could be a much better day for solar production than a very hot summer day,” explained solar expert Soren Lange. San Francisco is known for cool weather and fog, but it still is a good place for solar power.

If you tried to think up the top solar power cities in the US, would you guess Indianapolis? According to a 2017 report, it was in the top 5! Indianapolis hardly has a tropical climate, which is what some people might associate with better conditions for solar panels, but as mentioned before, a location with moderate temperatures and ample sunlight would be better. The highest average summer temperature in Indianapolis is about 85°F, and the low is 36°F.

US solar insolation via NREL

Compare this with Phoenix, where the average summer high is about 104–106°F.

If you asked the “average” European what area within Europe would be good for solar, that person might say Spain.

A northern country like Norway does have some solar power potential. “Although Norway is far north, it is quite possible to produce solar energy here. Ås, a small town south of Oslo, receives 1000 kilowatt-hours (kWh) per square meter annually. This is comparable to many parts of Germany, where solar power has boomed over the last 10 years. By comparison, Spain receives on average 1900 kWh per square meter a year, while Australia receives 2900 kWh per square meter.”

Norway’s largest grocery wholesaler and supplier, ASKO, uses solar power for self-consumption. “With this pilot photovoltaic project, ASKO positions itself within Norway as a pioneer in the field of solar energy plants. The company uses the power particularly efficiently, with a self-consumption rate of 100%. The company also benefits from the ability to plan their electricity costs long-term. The installed capacity of the plant is 370.5 kilowatts peak (kWp) with an expected production of 300 MWh per year. In 2017 they will expand the facility to an estimated annual production of 3.4 GWh.”

The great majority of Norway’s electricity comes from hydropower, so there isn’t the same need to replace fossil-fuels or nuclear power like in Germany, but some strategic use of solar power could be beneficial. Finland also has some solar power potential. “As stated by Janne Hirvonen from Aalto University School of Engineering, Department of Energy Technology, Finland has about the same amount of annual insolation as northern Germany; it is just concentrated in the summer.”

Also worth remember is that solar power doesn’t just work wherever the sun shines, but it is cost-competitive — the cheapest source of electricity — in locations around the world. Even in the rainy UK, solar has been cheaper than nuclear for several years.

So, solar power can work in places without hot or very warm weather and in places that have cold, gloomy winters. Sunny places with moderate weather can be better than sunny ones with very hot summers, but all over the world, the sun shines, so solar power works and might even be the cheapest option for electricity.

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Jake Richardson

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