Why Solar Power Is an Ideal Electricity Source for the Building Sector

6th Jan 19

Cameron Quin

Written by Cameron Quin

All electricity sources have strengths and limitations, and the best option changes depending on the application. However, when dealing specifically with residential and commercial buildings, solar power has several distinctive advantages, especially now that battery systems are becoming more affordable.

Australia is among the best markets for rooftop solar power in the world. Since local electricity tariffs are very high, even a small photovoltaic array has a significant savings potential. The country also gets abundant sunshine, ensuring each solar panel delivers a large number of kilowatt-hours during its service life. Finally, photovoltaic technology costs are low because Australia is close to the global solar manufacturing centers in China, and import tariffs are low compared with other countries.

These are general advantages that apply for solar power in Australia. When dealing specifically with power generation for the building sector, there are even more reasons to deploy solar photovoltaic arrays. Solar power systems are based on individual modules, which provides flexibility for any project scale, and their maintenance requirements are the simplest among all power generation systems.

Generating Electricity at the Point of Use

The business model of the electric industry experienced little change for more than a century: electricity was generated in centralised power stations and then distributed to end users through power lines and substations. However, generating electricity away from the point of use brings several disadvantages:

  • Power networks provide the fastest and most efficient energy deliver method known to human civilisation, but they are not perfect. A significant amount of energy is dissipated as heat while electricity travels from power stations to the point of use.
  • Major electrical faults and extreme weather can disable portions of the power network, with the potential to leave thousands of homes and businesses without electricity in an instant.
  • Power networks have significant ownership costs, which include capacity upgrades and maintenance. These expenses are reflected in electricity tariffs, driving up the kilowatt-hour price paid by residential and commercial consumers.

These limitations have always existed, but centralised power plants were the only source of electricity for decades. However, as technology continued evolving, consumers gained access to generation systems that could be deployed directly in buildings, providing a local power supply.

Diesel generators have existed for decades, and they can be used to produce electricity locally. However, their operating and maintenance costs are so high that the average kWh price ends up being higher than the normal tariff paid to power retailers. In addition, diesel generators rely on fuel deliveries to the point of use, which is more expensive and polluting than delivering electricity through a power network.

Power stations fired by coal and natural gas are even more difficult to scale down for the needs of individual buildings, and their maintenance is extremely demanding. When dealing with fossil fuels, distributed generation is even more expensive and polluting than centralised power stations.

Renewable sources are better suited for on-site generation, although there are still significant limitations for most of them. Hydroelectricity has existed for decades, but you cannot use it unless you own a property with a river flowing through and suitable terrain features for small-scale hydropower. Biomass is viable if you have access to large amounts of organic material, but otherwise it suffers from similar limitations as diesel-based generation.

Solar Photovoltaic Systems and Wind Turbines

At the end of the day, the most effective generation systems for generation at the point of use are photovoltaic arrays and wind turbines. Their main advantage is using energy inputs that are delivered for free: wind and sunshine.

Wind turbines are suitable in large-scale applications, such as electricity generation for an industrial park. However, wind power experiences significant economies of scale, where one large turbine is much cheaper to own than many smaller ones.

  • For example, if 4 megawatts are required for an industrial site, a single 4-MW wind turbine has much lower ownership costs than 100 small turbines rated at 40 kW each.
  • A single large turbine also produces more electricity, since wind conditions improve at higher altitude, and the rotor of a 4-MW turbine is high above the ground.

At the end of the day, solar photovoltaic technology is the best option for distributed generation in small- and medium-sized buildings. Thanks to their modular design, solar arrays can adapt to any project scale without changing the basic building block – solar modules that normally range from 250W to 330W each. This doesn’t apply for wind power, where the best option is using one large wind turbine.

Another advantage of solar power systems is their simple maintenance, which makes them suitable for homes and commercial buildings. Fossil fuel power plants and hydroelectric facilities require permanent oversight from a technical staff, and wind turbines have many moving parts subject to mechanical wear. Solar arrays only require cleaning at regular intervals, and monitoring the installation to ensure all solar panels are operating correctly. However, monitoring can be carried out remotely, and many inverters now come with built-in monitoring functions.

Solar power systems are also safer than other generation technologies. They pose no risk of physical injury because they have no moving parts, and there is no risk of explosion because no fossil fuels are stored and handled on-site. Keep in mind that solar arrays can cause an electric shock if handled incorrectly, but this should not be an issue if the installation serviced by qualified personnel.

Concluding Remarks

Solar photovoltaic systems currently provide the most adaptable power generation solution for buildings, regardless of size, as long as there is a suitable area that gets decent sunshine. Wind turbines can be cost-effective as a distributed electricity source, but they need a certain project scale to be viable. Solar power systems also offer safe operation, since they have no moving parts and don’t use any fuel inputs.

Residential and commercial solar power can achieve synergy with energy storage systems based on batteries, which also have modular designs. This allows a precise match between the building load, the solar PV system output, and the storage capacity and instantaneous power of battery systems.

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