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Solar cells are devices that convert solar energy into electricity, either directly via the photovoltaic effect or indirectly by first converting the solar energy to heat or chemical energy.

The most common form of solar cells make use of the photovoltaic effect and are generally called PV cells.

The Need for Solar Cells

The development of solar cell use has been stimulated by the need for:

• low maintenance, long lasting sources of electricity suitable for places remote from both the main electricity grid and from people; e.g. satellites, remote site water pumping, outback telecommunications stations and lighthouses;

• cost-effective power supplies for people remote from the main electricity grid; e.g. Aboriginal settlements, outback sheep and cattle stations, and some home sites in grid connected areas;

• non-polluting and quiet sources of electricity; e.g. tourist sites, caravans;

• a convenient and flexible source of small amounts of power; e.g. calculators, watches, light meters and cameras; and

• renewable and sustainable power, as a means of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and global warming.

Together, these needs have provided a growing market for photovoltaics and this has stimulated innovation. As the market has grown, the cost of solar cells and PV systems has decreased, and new applications have been discovered.

How are Solar Cells made?

Silicon solar cells can be made using single crystal wafers, polycrystalline wafers or thin films.

Single crystal wafers are slices (approximately 1/3 to 1/2 of a millimetre thick) from a large single crystal ingot which has been grown at around 1400°C. This is a very expensive process. The silicon must be of a very high purity and have a near perfect crystal structure (see Figure 1 (a)).

Polycrystalline wafers are made by pouring molten silicon into a mould and allowing it to set. It is then sliced into wafers (see Figure 1 (b)) which can be much larger than the single crystal wafers. The polycrystalline cells are much cheaper to produce this way. However, they are not as efficient as single crystalline cells.

Almost half the silicon is lost as sawdust in the two processes mentioned above.

Amorphous silicon solar cells (see Figure 1 (c)) are made by depositing a thin film of silicon from a reactive gas such as silane (SiH 4 ) onto a low cost glass or plastic base (substrate). This is a low cost process but the cells have a much lower efficiency than crystalline cells.

cells have a much lower efficiency than crystalline cells. a) Single crystal solar cells in a

a) Single crystal solar cells in a panel. Each cell is made from two crystal wafers that are chemically slightly different.

b) Polycrystalline solar panel

Figure 1. Different types of silicon solar cells

The PV Industry

c) Amorphous silicon (a-Si) solar panel

The PV industry is growing rapidly as the technology becomes cheaper and concerns increase about global warming. The total international production in 1997 was 130 MW, worth more than $500 million. This is expected to double every three years as demand increases (see Figure 2). The major manufacturers of solar panels are Solarex and USSC (in the USA), Sanyo, Canon and Kyocera (in Japan) and BP Solar and Siemens Solar (in Europe). There are many other smaller manufacturers.


Figure 2. Gra p h showin g market g rowth over time ( IEA Photovoltaic

Figure 2. Graph showing market growth over time (IEA Photovoltaic Power Systems Program).

Australia has only one commercial PV plant, BP Solar in Sydney, capable of producing 40 MW of solar cells each year for local and export markets. In addition, Pacific Solar in Sydney and Sustainable Technologies International, near Canberra, operate pilot cell lines while Origin Energy is building a cell and module line which will open in Adelaide in 2005. Pacific Solar markets Plug&Power, a fully-integrated rooftop PV system for grid- connected applications, throughout Australia. Designed as an appliance, Plug&Power comprises PV modules with module inverters, integrated rooftop mounts, plug and socket cabling plus a display/monitoring unit (Sunlogger) and computer access software.


The need for power in satellites and space vehicles provided the first impetus for the development of photovoltaics. The unit cost of electricity from PV is high but the reliability is good. Niche markets are found where the power demand is low and grid connection is expensive. Such applications include low power consumer products such as watches, toys and calculators to and telecommunications in remote areas.


Good communications are essential for improving the quality of life in remote areas. The cost of electric power to drive these systems and the high cost of maintaining conventional systems has limited their use. PVs have provided a cost-effective solution to this problem through the development of remote area telecommunications repeater stations. These typically consist of a receiver, transmitter and a PV-based power supply system. Thousands of these systems have been installed around the world and they have an excellent reputation for reliability and relatively low costs for operation and maintenance.

Similar principles apply to solar powered radios and television sets, emergency telephones and monitoring systems. Remote monitoring systems may be used for collecting weather data or other environmental information and for transmitting it automatically via radio to the home base.


PV systems can be used to provide power to isolated homes and communities. Storage batteries must be used for the power to be available when the sun is not shining. PV generates low voltage direct current. An inverter will change this to alternating current at the proper voltage to power regular electrical appliances.

In Australia a large proportion of isolated outback stations are using solar powered Remote Area Power Supply (RAPS) systems. In many States a subsidy is available for the installation of a RAPS system in a remote area.

These systems are also widely used in rural electrification projects in developing countries.


Electricity from PV cells is expensive because of the high initial cost of the cells. In Australia and the USA the emergence of green power schemes, which permit customers to choose renewable energy options, has considerably aided the growth of the industry. Grid-connected solar farms have been established by many Australian electricity utilities as accredited green power generators. These include Western Power’s PV Array at Kalbarri, WA (see Figure 3); Energy Australia’s Solar Farm at Singleton, NSW (Hunter Valley); CitiPower’s Energy Park at East Brunswick, Victoria; Energy Australia's Homebush Park & National Innovation Centre, NSW; Country Energy's Solar Farm in Queanbeyan, NSW; and Origin Energy’s Queen Victoria Market in Melbourne.

Figure 3. Kalbarri PV installation (Image courtesy of Nigel Wilmot, Murdoch University) ROOF-TOP PV Rooftop

Figure 3. Kalbarri PV installation (Image courtesy of Nigel Wilmot, Murdoch University)


Rooftop PVs do not require extra space or support structures and supply power where it is needed. Power is at a maximum on hot, sunny days when air conditioning demand is high. However, power from other sources is needed for night time.

Rooftop PVs are now driving the development of the market in Japan, Europe and the USA. Japan aims to build 70,000 solar homes, installing 400 MW of PV by the year 2000 and 4,600 MW by 2010. Several countries In Europe support the construction of solar homes, with the European Parliament proposing a 1,000 MW scheme. In the USA in 1997 President Clinton announced a Solar Roofs Program, which aimed to install solar energy systems, either PV or solar hot water, on one million roofs in America by 2010.

Australia has a Photo Voltaic Rebate Program to support the installation of rooftop PVs.


There are more than 10,000 solar powered water pumps operating in the world today. They are widely used on farms and outback stations in Australia to supply water to livestock. In developing countries they are used to pump water from wells and rivers to villages for domestic consumption and irrigation of crops.

A typical PV-powered pumping system consists of a PV array that powers an electric motor, which drives a pump. The water is often pumped from the ground or stream into a storage tank that provides water by gravity feed. No energy storage is needed for these types of systems. PV powered pumping systems are widely available from agricultural equipment suppliers and they are a cost-effective alternative to agricultural wind turbines for remote area water supply.

agricultural wind turbines for remote area water supply. Figure 4. Solar powered water pump (Image courtesy

Figure 4. Solar powered water pump (Image courtesy of Katrina Lyon, Murdoch University)


Electric fences are widely used in agriculture to prevent stock or predators from entering or leaving an enclosed field. These fences usually have one or two 'live' wires that are maintained at about 500 V DC. The wires give a painful, but harmless shock to any animal that touches them and this is generally sufficient to prevent stock from pushing the fences over.

Electric fences are also used in wildlife enclosures and secure areas. They require a high voltage but very little current and are often located in remote areas where the cost of electrical energy is high. This DC voltage can be met by a PV system involving solar cells, a power conditioner and a battery.

Figure 5. Electric Fence. (Image courtesy of Katrina Lyon, Murdoch University)

a power conditioner and a battery. Figure 5. Electric Fence. (Image courtesy of Katrina Lyon, Murdoch


Lighting is often required at remote locations where the cost of power is too high to consider using the grid. Such applications include security lighting, navigation aids (e.g. buoys and beacons), illuminated road signs, railway crossing signs and village lighting. Solar cells are suited to such applications.

Remote lighting systems usually consist of a PV panel plus a storage battery, power conditioner and a low voltage, high efficiency DC fluorescent lamp.

Figure 6. Remote lighting system (Image courtesy of Katrina Lyon, Murdoch University)

(Image courtesy of Katrina Lyon, Murdoch University) WATER TREATMENT SYSTEMS In remote areas electrical power is


In remote areas electrical power is often used to disinfect or purify drinking water. PV cells are used to power a strong ultraviolet light that can be used to kill bacteria in drinking water. This can be combined with a solar powered water pumping system.

Desalination of brackish water can be achieved using PV powered reverse osmosis systems. These are used in arid parts of Australia to produce fresh water from some artesian supplies.

PV can also be used to power aeration systems for ponds.


Other significant applications include portable power supplies for camping and fishing and vaccine and blood storage refrigerators for remote areas.

PV Research in Australia

Photovoltaics are an active research area in Australia and there are several groups involved with the work. They include:

• Photovoltaics Special Research Centre, University of NSW

• Centre for Sustainable Energy Systems, Australian National University

Murdoch University - Amorphous Silicon Solar Cell Research.


MW – mega watts

kw – kilowatts

DC – direct current

Further Information

• For more information on “How do Solar Cells Work” and “Arrays and Systems” visit the RE-Files

• Australian Cooperative Research Centre for Renewable Energy (ACRE)

• Murdoch University Energy Research Institute (MUERI)

• Western Power (Kalbarri PV installation)

• CitiPower Energy Park

Country Energy (Was Great Southern Energy)

• Australia and New Zealand Solar Energy Society (ANZES)


• International Solar Energy Society (ISES)



• Green, Martin. A., Solar Cells: “Operating Principles, Technology and System Applications”, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.; Sydney:

Prentice Hall, 1992

• Komp, Richard, J. “Practical Photovoltaics, Electricity From Solar Cells”. Kampmann & Company, Inc. New York, 1984

• Koltun, M.M. “Solar Cells, Their Optics and Metrology”. Allerton Press Inc. 1988.

• Markvart, Tomas (ed.), “Solar Electricity”, John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester, 1995.

• Zweibel, Kenneth., “Harnessing Solar Power: The Photovoltaics Challenge”, Plenum Press, New York, 1990


• Solar Progress - Published by ANZSES,


Australian Alternative Technology Association (ATA), 247 Flinders Lane, Melbourne, Vic. 3000. Australia




• Photovoltaic Insider’s Report


This information was developed by Anna Carr, Serena Fletcher, Katrina Lyon and Mark Rayner with assistance from John Todd (University of Tasmania) and Philip Jennings of Murdoch University (June 1999). It was reworked by Christine Creagh (2004, Murdoch University) and edited by Philip Jennings (Murdoch University) and Mary Dale (Australian Institute of Energy).