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Back to Basics: how to perform a simple, comprehensive and reliable

technical performance analysis of PV plants projects

Bernard Chabot,

Renewable Energy Expert and Trainer, BCCONSULT, bechabot@wanadoo.fr

Grid connected solar photovoltaic (PV) technology is now a well-known solution to deliver large amount of decentralized

or utility scale electricity. But communication on the relevant projects description and technical performance is often too

limited, even in the professional literature and in the related public resources. So, there is still the need to go back to

basics to explain what should be the sound information to deliver to the PV community, to policy and decision makers

and even to the general public. This document is proposed to participate to this goal, with a simple methodology

approach, some general illustration and specific case studies. It is based on existing best practice and standards and it

will be a base to go further for an economic performance analysis of PV plants projects.

Figure 1 shows the simplified design and the main parameters of a grid-connected PV system without storage capabilities

and without auxiliary electricity production. Such systems can be of various scales, from a few kilowatts for domestic PV

roofs to hundreds of megawatts for utility scale PV plants, and they will be simply called in this document PV Plants. The

main function of those PV plants is to deliver to the grid Ey kWh/year of alternative current transformed by an inverter (or

a set of inverters) from the direct current delivered by a PV array made of Nm identical modules, each receiving the same

average annual global solar irradiation (sum of direct, diffuse and reflected ones) Hy (in kWh/m2.year) in their plane.

Figure 1: Main PV modules and power plants design, parameters and relationships.

Annual in plane total solar irradiation

Hy (kWh/m2.year in the plane of modules)

(Total = direct + diffuse + reflected)

PV array Inverter Grid

Nm modules dc

Pref (kW)

= Nm * Pmstc ac Ey (kWh/year)

Ey = PR * Hy * Pref / Go

Ey = (Rg/Rstc)*Hy*Nm*Pmstc/Go

System annual conversion efficiency:

Rg = Ey / (Nm*Sm*Hy) ==> Sm = Ey/(Rg*Nm*Hy)

Module conversion efficiency at STC:

1 module Total area: Rstc = Pmstc/(Go*Sm) ==> Sm = Pmstc/(Rstc*Go)

Sm (m2)

L = l*L

Standard test Conditions (STC):

Rated power Go = 1 kW/m2

at STC: Tj = 25 C

Pmstc (kW) Air Mass: 1.5

l Bernard Chabot - BCCONSULT - 2/2014

2

The model of the modules will be defined by its overall dimensions (length L and width l, including the frame) defining its

total area Sm (in m2) and by its maximum power Pmstc (in kW) at Standard Test Conditions (STC: solar irradiance

Go = 1 kW/m2, temperature of the p-n junction in the cells Tj = 25 C and spectral distribution of light corresponding to an

Air Mass AM1.5).

As indicated in figure 1, under a test at STC, by definition the model of identical modules will deliver its reference maximum

power or peak power Pmstc, and as he receives on his overall surface the irradiance level Go, we can define the module

conversion efficiency at STC as:

Rmstc = Pmstc / (Go*Sm) {1}

Of course, if we consider all the complete set of Nm modules in the power plant, its related conversion efficiency at STC will

be exactly the same value Rmstc.

Under actual site conditions, as also indicated in figure 1, we can define the mean annual PV plant conversion efficiency Rg

as the ratio between the annual energy delivered by the inverter in alternative current Ey (in kWhac/year) and the total

solar irradiation on the total area of the modules (including their frames, but not in the area between the modules):

Rg = Ey / (Nm*Sm*Hy) {2}

There is the same module area Sm in {1} = and {2}, so we can express the annual energy delivered to the grid Ey as:

Ey (kWh/year) = (Rg/Rstc) * Hy * Nm*Pmstc /Go = PR * Hy * Pref {3}, where:

Go = 1 kW/m2

Pref = Nm * Pmstc is the reference rated power of the PV plant, the sum of all modules maximum power at STC.

Hy is in kWh/m2.year and is the mean annual total solar irradiation in the plane of the modules on the site of the

power plant.

PR = Rg / Rmstc {4} is the annual Performance Ratio of the PV plant.

As the performance ratio PR is the ratio between two efficiencies without dimensions (but often expressed in %), it is

without dimension. As such, and in order not to confound it with a simple efficiency parameter, it should never be

expressed in %, but only in plain numerical value.

As the same module model is used at STC and on the site, this explains that whatever is the model module efficiency value

at STC, the performance ratio range of values is very narrow, from around 0.7 to 0.85 for present state of the art PV power

plants without electricity storage.

It is easy to demonstrate that the PR value is independent from the definition of the reference module area, e.g. either the

total module area can be used as chosen here, or front glass area or active cells area, provided of course that the same

area definition is used to calculate the annual total solar irradiation Esun (in kWh/year) in the plane of the PV array. In our

case, the total module area in the PV array will be St (m2) = Nm*Sm, and so: Esun (kWh/year) = St*Hy {5}.

As all modules manufacturers give the overall dimensions L and l (m) of their rectangular modules but not often the front

glass area or the active cells area, we will use the easily available and easy to verify total area Sm of the modules for the

calculation of the annual performance indicators of PV power plants.

There are four annual PV power plant performance indicators shown in yellow in figure 2:

The Performance Ratio PR defined as before as the ratio between the module efficiency at STC Rmstc and the

mean global annual PV plant efficiency under actual on site conditions Rg.

The annual energy yield Nh = Ey / Pref, in kWh/kW.year, or in equivalent annual hours at rated power Pref, also

expressed as full-load equivalent hours per year. From this definition and from {3} above, it is simple to see that

for a PV plant: Nh = (PR*Hy) / Go {6}, where Go = 1 kW/m2.

3

The average annual Capacity Factor CF = Ey / (Pref*8760) = Nh / 8760, without dimension but often expressed

in %. 8760 is the number of hours in a standard year of 365 days.

The annual mean global PV plant conversion efficiency Rg = Ey / Esun = Ey / (Nm*Sm*Hy)

Figure 2: Parameters used for the definition and the calculation of the four PV plants performance indicators

Those four performance indicators are not independent, and if you know one of them, you can get the tree other for

free, so it would be strange to limit a PV plant performance analysis to the use of only one of them. In fact each of the four

indicators gives specific information:

Nh is used commonly for all types of power plants. For conventional power plants and dispatchable renewables

(biomass, biogas, geothermal power, hydropower with reservoirs), its shows if they are used as base load or

intermediate load or peak load. For non dispatchable renewables (run of river hydropower, wind power, solar

power without storage) Nh values give a global information on the quality of the site (mainly the solar irradiation

parameter Hy for PV projects), the quality of the design and the quality of the operation of the power plants.

Capacity factor CF being linked directly to Nh values give the same kind of information, expressed in different units.

Mean global annual PV power plant conversion efficiency Rg gives the same strategic information that all kinds of

energy conversion efficiencies: how much of the energy input (either from a fossil fuel or from uranium or from

different renewable resources) is transformed in useful energy. Of course, in the case of solar (and wind, hydro and

geothermal power), the resource is free and so this parameter is less sensible than in the case of conventional or

bioenergy-based primary energy resources that must be purchased. But the PV plant conversion efficiency gives

strategic information in many cases:

o If the area to install the PV array is limited: high modules and PV plant efficiencies will allow delivering a

maximum of kW and kWh/year from this limited area either on roofs or on ground.

Grid

4 indicators Other

Ey

kWhac/year

Nh: 1 600 PR: 0,800 Rg: 13,0%

= Rg / Rmstc

Pref: 1 000 kWdc Capacity factor CF: 18,3%

= Nm*Pm

0,300 kW/module N modules: 3 334

Pm Rmstc: 16,3%

at STC: Tj = 25C, Go = 1 kW, AM 1.5 St (m2): 6 137

Lenght: L (m): 1,956 Sm (m2): 1,841

Width: l (m): 0,941

Bernard Chabot - BCCONSULT - 2/2014 Bernard Chabot - BCCONSULT - 2/2014

M

o

d

u

l

e

s

2 000

12 273 094 Hy

Esun (kWh/year) kWh/m2.year

i n pl ane of modul es Total irradiation in

including frame = Hy * St the plane of modules

Gl obal effi ci ency

= Ey/Pref = Ey/Esun

P

V

P

l

a

n

t

= Nh/8760

PV POWER PLANT PERFORMANCE ANALYSIS

6 input data 1 600 000

Ful l l oad equi val ent/year Performance Rati o

Multicrystalline Si cells

4

o If cabling, mounting and installation costs are a sensible relative part of the total installed cost of the PV

plant, as those costs are related to the array area and so to the modules and PV plant efficiencies. And this

is more and more the case, as the relative part of the modules and inverters costs in the total PV plant

investment cost is decreasing.

o If the operation costs related to the array area are relatively important, such in the specific cases of PV

plants on sites requiring relatively frequent modules cleaning due to local air pollution or to sand storms

and dust.

The PV plant Performance ratio PR is very specific to the PV technology, and for that it deserve to be always

calculated and communicated: its shows how much the initial module efficiency at STC Rmstc is degraded by

successive losses towards the final global PV plant efficiency value Rg: at the modules level due to their actual

operating temperature higher than 25C, to the modules mismatches and to the modules soiling; at the cabling

level due to cables and diodes losses; at the inverter and grid interface levels due to their dc/ac and voltage

conversion efficiencies; and last but not least, at the operation and maintenance level if all potential losses of

production are not reduced by adequate policies and measures for continuous performance monitoring and the

relevant corrective, predictive, and preventive O&M decisions and expenses.

As all performance parameters can be defined from one of them and from the other parameters of the PV plant, the choice

of a first reference performance indicator is open and not mandatory. But as shown in figure 3, the choice of Nh (which is

defined only by the two universal basic data of any power plant: delivered energy Ey in kWh/year and rated power Pref

in KW) as the central performance indicator gives an easy access to the three others and this could be considered as a

rational and practical choice.

Figure 3: relationships between Nh and the three other PV plants performance parameters

To summarize this approach of PV plants parameters and performance indicators, table 1 describes the three STC

parameters (not related to a specific PV plant project), the three modules data L, l and Pmstc and the three PV plant data

Nm, Ey and Hy which are required for a comprehensive PV plant project analysis based on the four performance indicators

Nh, CF, PR and Rg which can be calculated from those 6 basic data (which can be reduced to five if the modules length L

and width l are replaced directly by the total module area Sm). Four additional parameters can be calculated to completely

describe the PV module and the PV plant: Sm, Rmstc, St and Pref.

Rg = PR * Rmstc

Nh = Ey / Pref

Annual Average Capacity Factor

CF

CF = Nh / 8760

Annual equivalent full load hours

Nh

PR

PR = Nh*Go/Hy

Rg

Rg = (Nh*Go/Hy)*Rmstc

kWh/(kW.year) = hours/year

Performance Ratio Global conversion efficiency

5

Table 1: The 3 STC and the 14 projects parameters of which 6 basic data (in green) and 4 performance indicators (in yellow)

Of course, complementary parameters and information can be provided. Table 2 gives a non-limitative example of such

additional parameters and information relative to the PV plant in figure 2. But those additional parameters should not

replace the basic information given by the 6 parameters in green on the left of table 2 (N1, 2, 5, 6, 9, 12). In particular, any

data on the number of households or inhabitants corresponding to the annual energy delivered by the PV plant should

never be given in place of the very simple number of kWh (or GWh) per year of the Ey parameter.

Table 2: example of basic and additional data and information to describe a PV plant project and its performance

From the relationships above and in figure 3 and table 1, figure 4 shows the Nh values resulting from a range of in-plane of

modules annual total solar irradiation Hy (the values beyond 2200 kWh/m2 can result from the use of one axis or two axis

trackers in many sunbelt countries or regions) and for performance ratios PR ranging from 0.65 (in very hot climate

conditions and non-optimum PV plant design and operation) and up to 0.85 (in moderate or cold climate and with optimal

PV plant design, monitoring and operation and maintenance). For example at Hy = 2000 kWh/m2.year and a performance

ratio of 0.75, Nh value is 1500 kWh/kW.year or 1500 equivalent full load hours per year.

Context N Parameter Unit Name / definition Relationships / value / Info

I Go kW Irradiance at STC (Standard Test Conditions) Go = 1 kW/m2

General II Tjstc C Temperature of cells junctions at STC Tjstc = 25C

III AM1.5 STC Air-mass 1.5 spectral repartition Defined by a standard

1 l m Width of the module including frame

2 L m Lenght of the module including frame

Module 3 Sm m2 Total area of a module (including its frame) Smt = L*l

4 Pmstc kW Module rated power at standard test conditions (STC)

5 Rmstc Module conversion efficiency at STC Rmstc = Pmstc / (Go*Sm)

6 Nm Total number of modules

Site 7 St m2 Total modules area (including frames) St = Nm*Smt

and 8 Pref kW Reference rated power of the PV plant Pref = Nm*Pmstc

power 9 Ey kWhac/year Annual equivalent constant electricity delivered to the grid

plant 10 Nh kWhac/kW.year PV power plant equivalent annual full-load hours Nh = Ey/Pref = PR*Hy/Go

11 CF PV power plant annual average capacity factor CF = Nh/8760

12 Hy kWh/m2.year Total solar irradiation in the plane of modules Sum of direct, diffuse, reflected

13 PR PV power plant Performance Ratio PR = Rmstc/Rgt = Go*Nh/Hy

14 Rg Annual global PV plant conversion efficiency Rg = PR*Rmstc

N Parameter Unit

1 l m 0,941 Module manufacturer Module model

2 L m 1,956

3 Sm m2 1,841 NOCT (C) 45

4 Pmstc kW 0,300 Su (m2/kW) 6,14

5 Rmstc Dimensionless 0,163 16,3% Ps (kW/m2) 0,163

6 Nm 3 334 Total area used (m2) 16 000

7 St m2 6 137 kWdc/m2 used 0,063

8 Pref kW 1 000 Ha/MW of used area 1,60

9 Ey kWhac/year 1 600 000 Eys (kWh/m2.year) 260,7

10 Nh kWhac/kW.year 1 600 Mean kWh/year.home 6 000

11 CF Dimensionless 0,183 18,3% Nequiv. homes 267

12 Hy kWh/m2.year 2 000 Total Esun (kWh/y) 12 273 094

13 PR Dimensionless 0,800 Avoided kgCO2/kWh 0,400

14 Rg Dimensionless 0,130 13,0% tCO2 avoided/year 640

Case study Additional parameters

Multicrystalline silicon PV cells

6

Figure 4: Nh values from a range of in-plane of PV modules solar irradiation Hy and performance ratio PR values

Figure 5 shows the global power plant conversion efficiency Rg resulting from different modules conversion efficiencies at

STC Rmstc and the same range of performance ratio PR from 0.65 to 0.85.

Figure 5: Global PV plant efficiency resulting from the modules efficiency at STC and different performance ratio values

7

For example, an optimized PV plant (PR = 0.8) with very high monocrystalline silicon efficiency modules (Rmstc = 20 %) will

have a global conversion efficiency Rg = 16 %. In comparison, a PV plant with a performance ratio of only PR = 0.7 and using

10 % efficiency modules at STC will have a global annual conversion efficiency of only Rg = 7 %.

Figure 2 and table 2 above describe an intermediate case: the PV plant of Pref = 1 MWdc uses high efficiency

multicrystalline silicon modules (Rmstc = 16.3 %) and delivers Ey = 1.6 GWh/year, so its Nh value is Nh = Ey/Pref = 1600

kWh/kW.year, and its annual capacity factor is CF = Nh/8760 = 0.183 = 18.3 %. As the total in-plane of modules annual solar

irradiation Hy is 2000 kWh/m2.year, the global annual conversion efficiency is Rg = 13 %, and so the performance ratio is

PR = Rg/Rmstc = 13/16.3 = 0.8.

In the above approach and case studies, emphasis is put on annual PV plant performance, which is sufficient in many cases.

For PV plant developers and owners and for information of PV and energy specialists, beyond this annual performance

analysis, it is of course possible and recommended to make also a monthly performance analysis, in particular in case of

large seasonal changes in solar irradiation and environmental parameters such as ambient air temperature. In this case Nh

values can be expressed in monthly average daily full-load hours per day Nhd = (kWh delivered per month to the grid

Em)/(Pref*Ndays in the month) and the mean monthly capacity factor will be CFm = Nhd/24. Each monthly PV plant

conversion efficiency Rgm will be the ratio between Em and the monthly total solar irradiation in the plane of modules

Esunm = Hm*Nm*Sm where Hm is measured in kWh/m2.month in the plane of modules. And each monthly performance

ratio PRm will be the ratio between relevant Rgm value and the module conversion efficiency at STC: PRm = Rgm/Rmstc.

For technical and scientific studies and communication, it is also recommended to follow the guidelines of the IEC 61724

standard Photovoltaic system performance monitoring Guidelines for measurement, data exchange and analysis.

Beyond this technical performance analysis, it will be also interesting to make an economic performance analysis of PV

plant projects. A forthcoming document will show that only four additional projects parameters will be required to

evaluate the manufacturing cost of delivered kWh and to assess the global projects economic profitability parameters

resulting from a specific value of the selling price of PV electricity.

Such technical and economic performance analysis can participate to sound information of PV plant projects stakeholders

and more generally to the information of policy and decision makers. And with a specific communication approach, they

can also contribute to a basic but correct information of the general public and of citizens: the PV and the other renewables

technologies and applications deserve to win hearts and minds to facilitate their large scale market development and

their strategic contribution to a true sustainable energy future.

------------------------------

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