In the quest to generate clean, inexpensive solar energy, installations of photovoltaic (PV) systems are on the rise. Most hardware is designed for open settings typically found in rural areas, where each panel in the installation gets the same light exposure. However, solar panels are increasingly used in urban locations which are partially shaded by trees or neighbouring buildings at certain times of the day, resulting in reduced efficiency.
University of Toronto graduate student Audrey Kertesz is exploring ways to optimize the performance of urban-based solar panel arrays by designing better control systems. This innovative work is being supported by a 2010 NSERC André Hamer Postgraduate Prize.
Solar installations rely on devices known as switched-mode converters to transform the voltage and current being produced so the system harvests as much energy as possible. These are controlled by a “maximum power point tracker.” PV systems with uniform light levels require only one control for an entire array of light, but settings with variable light levels call for a different design approach.
Kertesz’s research is tackling the problem by setting up a distributed control system whereby individual panels may have one, or even several, dedicated controls. Local controllers optimize the performance of their panel while simultaneously ensuring that its voltage and current output is compatible with the rest of the installation. The end result: a system that operates at peak efficiency and an increased supply of renewable energy.