How green is my solar?

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How long does it take to pay back the energy used in the production of solar + battery systems and how much of an effect do they have on the greenness of the grid? The ATA’s Andrew Reddaway investigates.

By generating clean electricity, solar systems reduce the amount of coal and gas that’s burned in power stations. This reduces pollutants and greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere, which cause disease and man-made climate change. Fossil fuels also require extractive processes such as fracking and open-cut coal mining, which have led to negative effects on the environment such as land degradation, water contamination and mine fires.

It seems clear that installing a solar system will have a positive effect on the environment. But with several different types of system now available, including systems with batteries, how do they compare in terms of the environment?

Grid-connected without batteries

The vast majority of existing solar systems are connected to the grid and have no batteries. Your solar panels’ electricity is first used by on-site appliances, and any excess is exported to the grid to be consumed by your neighbours. Any shortfalls are supplied from the grid. This setup is relatively cheap and efficient, using a simple inverter that relies on the grid for its stability. However, it’s not very self-sufficient, because if a grid blackout occurs the inverter will switch off. (Although not always; some rare grid-connect inverters can use direct solar generation to supply household appliances in a blackout, even without batteries; for example, the Nedap PowerRouter.)

Since the grid has minimal energy storage, whenever your solar system is operating, a centralised power station will reduce its output to compensate. Each kilowatt-hour of solar generation reduces power station generation accordingly. In fact the benefit is even greater, as the power station must supply not only the end-user demand but also the losses incurred in the power lines, which can be over 20% for remote locations. Some people argue that because coal-fired power stations are inflexible, they’ll keep consuming coal at the same rate regardless of solar generation. Actually they are responsive enough; for example, Loy Yang A in Victoria can halve its output in less than an hour. Spread out over a geographically large area, solar systems’ overall impact is relatively gradual even when a cloud front arrives; this is forecast and managed by the grid operator in five-minute intervals.

With enough panels you can generate more electricity than you consume over a whole year, with your night-time imports more than compensated for by your daytime exports.

Read the full article in ReNew 135.

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