Environmental and Economic Performance of Commercial-scale Solar Photovoltaic Systems: A Field Study of Complex Energy Systems at the Desert Research Institute (DRI)

Thursday, 18 December 2014
Xiaowei Liu, Desert Research Institute Reno, Reno, NV, United States
Solar photovoltaic (PV) systems are being aggressively deployed at residential, commercial, and utility scales to complement power generation from conventional sources. This is motivated both by the desire to reduce carbon footprints and by policy-driven financial incentives. Although several life cycle analyses (LCA) have investigated environmental impacts and energy payback times of solar PV systems, most results are based on hypothetical systems rather than actual, deployed systems that can provide measured performance data. Over the past five years, Desert Research Institute (DRI) in Nevada has installed eight solar PV systems of scales from 3 to 1000 kW, the sum of which supply approximately 40% of the total power use at DRI’s Reno and Las Vegas campuses.

The goal of this work is to explore greenhouse gas (GHG) impacts and examine the economic performance of DRI’s PV systems by developing and applying a comprehensive LCA and techno-economic (TEA) model. This model is built using data appropriate for each type of panel used in the DRI systems. Power output is modeled using the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) model PVWatts. The performance of PVWatts is verified by the actual measurements from DRI’s PV systems. Several environmental and economic metrics are quantified for the DRI systems, including life cycle GHG emissions and energy return. GHG results are compared with Nevada grid-based electricity.

Initial results indicate that DRI’s solar-derived electricity offers clear GHG benefits compared to conventional grid electricity. DRI’s eight systems have GHG intensity values of 29-56 gCO2e/kWh, as compared to the GHG intensity of 212 gCO2e/kWh of national average grid power. The major source of impacts (82-92% of the total) is the upstream life cycle burden of manufacturing PV panels, which are made of either mono-crystalline or multi-crystalline silicon. Given the same type of PV panel, GHG intensity decreases as the scale of the system increases. Energy payback times of DRI’s solar PV systems range from 0.5 to 1.5 years. The cost payback time for the DRI PV systems and the cost per ton of CO2 avoided by replacing Nevada-specific electrical power will be determined. The sensitivity of these environmental and economic impacts with respect to specific model parameters is being investigated.