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A Geospatial Comparison of Distributed Solar Heat and Power in Europe and the US

Journal article
Authors Zack Norwood
Emil Nyholm
Todd Otanicar
Filip Johnsson
Published in PLoS ONE
Volume 9
Issue 12
ISSN 1932-6203
Publication year 2014
Published at
Language en
Subject categories Energy Engineering, Energy Systems


The global trends for the rapid growth of distributed solar heat and power in the last decade will likely continue as the levelized cost of production for these technologies continues to decline. To be able to compare the economic potential of solar technologies one must first quantify the types and amount of solar resource that each technology can utilize; second, estimate the technological performance potential based on that resource; and third, compare the costs of each technology across regions. In this analysis, we have performed the first two steps in this process. We use physical and empirically validated models of a total of 8 representative solar system types: non-tracking photovoltaics, 2d-tracking photovoltaics, high concentration photovoltaics, flat-plate thermal, evacuated tube thermal, concentrating trough thermal, concentrating solar combined heat and power, and hybrid concentrating photovoltaic/thermal. These models are integrated into a simulation that uses typical meteorological year weather data to create a yearly time series of heat and electricity production for each system over 12,846 locations in Europe and 1,020 locations in the United States. Through this simulation, systems composed of various permutations of collector-types and technologies can be compared geospatially and temporally in terms of their typical production in each location. For example, we see that silicon solar cells show a significant advantage in yearly electricity production over thin-film cells in the colder climatic regions, but that advantage is lessened in regions that have high average irradiance. In general, the results lead to the conclusion that comparing solar technologies across technology classes simply on cost per peak watt, as is usually done, misses these often significant regional differences in annual performance. These results have implications for both solar power development and energy systems modeling of future pathways of the electricity system.

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