Tag Archives: Solar energy

Using Artificial Intelligence to Design a Solar Farm

Everyone loves to maximize the return of investment (ROI). If you can effortlessly find a solution that pays a higher profit -- even only a few dollars more handsomely, why not? The problem is that, in many complicated engineering cases in the real world, such as designing a solar farm, we often don't know exactly what the optimal solutions are. We may know how to get some good solutions based on what textbooks or experts say, but no one in the world can be 100% sure that there aren't any better ones waiting to be discovered beyond the solution space that we have explored. As humans, we can easily get complacent and settled with the solutions that we feel good about, leaving the job (and the reward) of finding better solutions to another time or someone else.

Artificial intelligence (AI) is about to change all that. As design is essentially an evolution of solutions, AI techniques such as genetic algorithms (GA) are an excellent fit to the nature of many design problems and can generate a rich variety of competitive designs in the same way genetics does for biology (no two leaves are the same but they both work). These powerful tools have the potential to help people learn, design, and discover new things. In this article, I demonstrate how GA can be used to design a photovoltaic (PV) solar farm. As always, I first provide a short screencast video in which I used the daily output or profit as the objective function to speed up the animation so that you can see the evolution driven by GA. The actual assessments are based on using the annual output or profit as the objective function, presented in the text that follows the video. Note that the design process is still geared towards a single objective (i.e., the total output in kWh or the total profit in dollars over a given period of time). Design problems with multiple objectives will be covered later.


In GA, the solution depends largely on the choice of the objective function (or the fitness function), which specifies the main goal. For example, if the main goal is to generate as much electricity as possible on a given piece of land without the concern of the cost of solar panels, a design in which solar panels are closely packed may be a good choice. On the other hand, if the main goal is to generate as much electricity as possible from each solar panel because of their high price, a design in which rows of solar panels are far away from one another would be a good choice (in the case shown in the video, a single rack of solar panels was unsurprisingly found as the best solution). The real-world problems always lie between these two extremes, which is why they must be solved using the principles of engineering design. The video above clearly illustrates the design evolution driven by GA in the three cases (the two extremes and an intermediate).

Figure 1. An Energy3D model of an existing solar farm in Massachusetts.
To test the usefulness of the GA implementation in Energy3D for solving real-world problems, I picked an existing solar farm in Massachusetts (Figure 1) to see if GA could find better solutions. A 3D model of the solar farm had been created in the Virtual Solar Grid based on the information shown on Google Maps and its annual output calculated using Energy3D. Because I couldn't be exactly sure about the tilt angle, I also tweaked it a bit manually and ensured that an optimal tilt angle for the array be chosen (I found it to be around 32° in this case). The existing solar farm has 4,542 solar panels, capable of generating 2,255 MWh of electricity each year, based on the analysis result of Energy3D. [I must declare here that the selection of this site was purely for the purpose of scientific research and any opinion expressed as a result of this research should be viewed as exploratory and not be considered as any kind of evaluation of the existing solar farm and its designer(s). There might be other factors beyond my comprehension that caused a designer to choose a particular trade-off. The purpose of this article is to show that, if we know all the factors needed to be considered in such a design task, we can use AI to augment our intelligence, patience, and diligence.]

Figure 2. The results of 10 iterations.
Energy3D has a tool that allows the user to draw a polygon within which the solar farm should be designed. This polygon is marked by white lines. Using this tool, we can ensure that our solutions will always be confined to the specified area. I used this tool to set the boundary of the solar farm under design. This took care of an important spatial constraint and guaranteed that GA would always generate solutions on approximately the same land parcel as is situated by the existing solar farm.

For the objective function, we can select the total annual output, the average annual output of a solar panel, or the annual profit. I chose the annual profit and assumed that the generated electricity would sell for 22.5 cents per kWh (the 2018 average retail price in Massachusetts) and the daily cost of a solar panel (summing up the cost of maintenance, financing, etc.) would be 20 cents. I don't know how accurate these ROI numbers are. But let's just go with them for now. The annual profit is the total sale income minus the total operational cost. Qualitatively, we know that a higher electricity price and a lower operational cost would both favor using more solar panels and a lower electricity price and a higher operational cost would both favor using less solar panels. Finding the sweet spots in the middle requires quantitative analyses and comparisons of many different cases, which can be outsourced to AI.

Figure 3: The best design from 2,000 solutions
Figure 4: The second best design from 2,000 solutions.
In Energy3D, GA always starts with the current design as part of the first generation (so if you already have a good design, it will converge quickly). In order for GA not to inherit anything from the existing solar farm, I created an initial model that had only a rack with a few solar panels on it and a zero tilt angle. The size of the population was set to be 20. So at the beginning, this initial model would compete with 19 randomly generated solutions and was almost guaranteed to lose the chance to enter the next generation. In order to stop and check the results, I let GA run for only 10 generations. For convenience, let's call every 10 generations of GA evolution an iteration. Figure 2 shows that GA generated solutions below the supposed human performance in the first two iterations but quickly surpassed it after that. The solution kept improving but got stuck in iterations 5-7 and then it advanced again and stagnated again in iterations 8-10. This process could continue indefinitely, but I decided to terminate it after 10 iterations, or 100 generations. By this time, the software had generated and evaluated 2,000 solutions, which took a few hours as it had to run 2,000 annual simulations for thousands of solar panels.

The best solution (Figure 3) that emerged from these 2,000 generated solutions used 5,420 solar panels fixed at a tilt angle of 28.3° to generate 2,667 MWh per year and was about 16% better than the existing one based on the ROI model described above. The second best solution (Figure 4) used 4,670 solar panels fixed at a tilt angle of 38.6° to generate 2,340 MWh per year and was about 5.5% better than the existing one based on the ROI model. Note that if we use the average annual output per solar panel as the criterion, the second best solution would actually be better than the best one, but we know that the average panel output is not a good choice for the fitness function as it can result in an optimal solution with very few solar panels.

In conclusion, the generative design tools in Energy3D powered by AI can be used to search a large volume of the solution space and find a number of different solutions for the designer to pick and choose. The ability of AI to transcend human limitations in complex design is a significant application of AI and cannot be more exciting! We predict that future work will rely more and more on this power and today's students should be ready for the big time.

Virtual Solar Grid comes online

Fig. 1: Modeled output of the Virtual Solar Grid
Fig. 2: A residential rooftop PV system.
If you care about finding renewable energy solutions to environmental problems, you probably would like to join an international community of Energy3D users to model existing or design new solar power systems in the real world and contribute them to the Virtual Solar Grid — a hypothetical power grid that I am developing from scratch to model and simulate interconnected solar energy systems and storage. My ultimate goal is to crowdsource an unprecedented fine-grained, time-dependent, and multi-scale computational model for anyone, believer or skeptic of renewables, to study how much of humanity's energy need can be met by solar power generation on the global scale — independent of any authority and in the spirit of citizen science. I have blogged about this ambitious plan before and I am finally pleased to announce that an alpha version of the Virtual Solar Grid has come online, of course, with a very humble beginning.

Fig. 3: The Micky Mouse solar farm in Orlando, FL.
Fig. 4: NOOR-1 parabolic troughs in Morocco.
As of the end of January, 2018, the Virtual Solar Grid has included 3D models of only a bit more than 100 solar energy systems, ranging from small rooftop photovoltaic solar panel arrays (10 kW) to large utility-scale concentrated solar power plants (100 MW) in multiple continents. At present, the Virtual Solar Grid has a lot of small systems in Massachusetts because we are working with many schools in the state.

With this initial capacity, the Virtual Solar Grid is capable of generating roughly 4 TWh per year, approximately 0.02% of all the electricity consumed by the entire world population in 2016 (a little more than 2 PWh). Although 0.02% is too minuscule to count, it nonetheless marks the starting point of our journey towards an important goal of engaging and supporting anyone to explore the solar energy potential of our planet with serious engineering design. In a sense, you can think of this work as inventing a "Power Minecraft" that would entice people to participate in a virtual quest for switching humanity's power supply to 100% renewable energy.

Fig. 5: Khi Solar One solar power tower in South Africa.
Fig. 6: PS 10 and PS 20 in Spain.
The critical infrastructure underlying the Virtual Solar Grid is our free, versatile Energy3D software that allows anyone from a middle school student to a graduate school student to model or design any photovoltaic or concentrated solar power systems, down to the exact location and specs of individual solar panels or heliostats. Performance analysis of solar power systems in Energy3D is based on a growing database of solar panel brand models and weather data sets for nearly 700 regions in every habitable continent. To construct a grid, micro or global, an Energy3D model can be geotagged — the geolocation is automatically set when you import a Google Maps image into an Energy3D model. Such a virtual model, when uploaded to the Virtual Solar Grid, will be deployed to a Google Maps application that shows exactly where it is in the world and how much electricity it produces at a given hour on a given day under average weather conditions. This information will be used to investigate how solar power and other renewables, with thermal and electric storage, can be used to provide base loads and meet peak demands for a power grid of an arbitrary size, so to speak.

Finally, it is important to note that the Virtual Solar Grid project is generously funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation through grant number #1721054. Their continuous support of my work is deeply appreciated.

General Motors funds engineering education based on Energy3D

Designing a parking lot solar canopy at Detroit Airport
General Motors (GM), along with other RE100 companies, has committed to powering its worldwide factories and offices with 100% renewable energy by 2050. Last month, the company furthered its commitment by giving the Engineering Computation Team at the Concord Consortium a $200,000 grant to promote engineering education using renewable energy as a learning context and artificial intelligence as a teaching assistant.

Modeling GM's rooftop solar arrays in Baltimore, MD
Modeling GM's solar arrays in Warren, MI
The project will use our signature Energy3D software, which is a one-stop-shop CAD tool for designing and simulating all kinds of solar power systems including photovoltaic (PV) and concentrated solar power (CSP), both of which have reached a very competitive cost of merely 5¢ per kWh or below in the world market. A unique feature of Energy3D is its ability to collect and analyze "atomically" fine-grained process data while users are designing with it. This capability makes it possible for us to develop machine learning algorithms to understand users' design behaviors, based on which we can develop intelligent agents to help users design better products and even unleash their creativity.

The generous grant from GM will allow us to bring this incredible engineering learning tool and the curriculum materials it supports to more science teachers across New England. It will also help extend our fruitful collaboration with the Virtual High School (VHS) to convert our Solarize Your World curriculum into an online course for sustainable engineering. VHS currently offers more than 200 titles to over 600 member schools. Through their large network, we hope to inspire and support more students and teachers to join the crucial mission that GM and other RE100 companies are already undertaking.

By supporting today's students to learn critical engineering design skills needed to meet the energy and environmental challenges, GM is setting an example of preparing tomorrow's workforce to realize its renewable energy vision.

Energy3D allows users to select brand name solar panels

Fig. 1: 20 brand name solar panels in Energy3D
Fig. 2: The daily outputs of 20 types of solar panels
Previous versions of Energy3D were based on a generic model of solar panel, which users can set its properties such as solar cell type, peak efficiency, panel dimension, color, nominal operating cell temperature, temperature coefficient of power, and so on. While it is essential for users to be able to adjust these parameters and learn what they represent and how they affect the output, it is sometimes inconvenient for a designer to manually set the properties of a solar panel to those of a brand name.

Fig. 3: The Micky Mouse solar farm
From Version 7.4.4, I started to add support of brand name solar panels to Energy3D. Twenty brand names were initially added to this version (Figure 1). These models are: ASP-400M (Advanced Solar Photonics), CS6X-330M-FG (Canadian Solar), CS6X-330P-FG (Canadian Solar), FS-4122-3 (First Solar), HiS-M280MI (Hyundai), HiS-S360RI (Hyundai), JAM6(K)-60-300/PR (JA Solar), JKM300M-60 (Jinko), LG300N1C-B3 (LG), LG350Q1K-A5 (LG), PV-UJ235GA6 (Mitsubishi), Q.PRO-G4 265 (Q-cells), SPR-E20-435-COM (SunPower), SPR-P17-350-COM (SunPower), SPR-X21-335-BLK (SunPower), SPR-X21-345 (SunPower), TSM-325PEG14(II) (Trina Solar), TSM-365DD14A(II) (Trina Solar), VBHN330SA16 (Panasonic), and YL305P-35b (Yingli). Figure 2 shows a comparison of their daily outputs in Boston on June 22 when they are laid flat (i.e., with zero tilt angle). Not surprisingly, a smaller solar panel with a lower cell efficiency produces less electricity.

Note that these models are relatively new. There are hundreds of older and other types of solar panels that will take a long time to add. If your type is not currently supported, you can always fall back to defining it using the "Custom" option, which is the default model for a solar panel.

Adding these brand names helped me figure out that the solar panels deployed in the Micky Mouse Solar Farm in Orlando (Figure 3) are probably from First Solar -- only they make solar panels of such a relatively small size (1200 mm × 600 mm).

Deciphering a solar array surprise with Energy3D

Fig. 1: An Energy3D model of the SAS solar farm
Fig. 2: Daily production data (Credit: Xan Gregg)
SAS, a software company based in Cary, NC, is powered by a solar farm consisting of solar panel arrays driven by horizontal single-axis trackers (HSAT) with the axis fixed in the north-south direction and the panels rotating from east to west to follow the sun during the day. Figure 1 shows an Energy3D model of the solar farm. Xan Gregg, JMP Director of Research and Development at SAS, posted some production data from the solar farm that seem so counter-intuitive that he called it a "solar array surprise" (which happens to also acronym to SAS, by the way).

The data are surprising because they show that the outputs of solar panels driven by HSAT actually dip a bit at noon when the intensity of solar radiation reaches the highest of the day, as shown in Figure 2. The dip is much more pronounced in the winter than in the summer, according to Mr. Gregg (he only posted the data for April, though, which shows a mostly flat top with a small dip in the production curve).

Fig. 3: Energy3D results for four seasons.
Anyone can easily confirm this effect with an Energy3D simulation. Figure 3 shows the results predicted by Energy3D for 1/22, 4/22, 7/22, and 10/22, which reveal a small dip in April, significant dips in January and October, and no dip at all in July. How do we make sense of these results?

Fig. 4: Change of incident sunbeam angle on 1/22 (HSAT).
One of the most important factors that affect the output of solar panels, regardless of whether or not they turn to follow the sun, is the angle of incidence of sunlight (the angle between the direction of the incident solar rays and the normal vector of the solar panel surface). The smaller this angle is, the more energy the solar panel receives (if everything else is the same). If we track the change of the angle of incidence over time for a solar panel rotated by HSAT on January 22, we can see that the angle is actually the smallest in early morning and gradually increases to the maximum at noon (Figure 4). This is opposite to the behavior of the change of the angle of incidence on a horizontally-fixed solar panel, which shows that the angle is the largest in early morning and gradually decreases to the minimum at noon (Figure 5). The behavior shown in Figure 5 is exactly the reason why we feel the solar radiation is the most intense at noon.

Fig. 5: Change of incident sunbeam angle on 1/22 (fixed)
If the incident angle of sunlight is the smallest at 7 am in the morning of January 22, as shown in Figure 4, why is the output of the solar panels at 7 am less than that at 9 am, as shown in Figure 3? This has to do with something called air mass, a convenient term used in solar engineering to represent the distance that sunlight has to travel through the Earth's atmosphere before it reaches a solar panel as a ratio relative to the distance when the sun is exactly vertically upwards (i.e. at the zenith). The larger the air mass is, the longer the distance sunlight has to travel and the more it is absorbed or scattered by air molecules. The air mass coefficient is approximately inversely proportional to the cosine of the zenith angle, meaning that it is largest when the sun just rises from the horizon and the smallest when the sun is at the zenith. Because of the effect of air mass, the energy received by a solar panel will not be the highest at dawn. The exact time of the output peak depends on how the contributions from the incidental angle and the air mass -- among other factors -- are, relatively to one another.

So we can conclude that it is largely the motion of the solar panels driven by HSAT that is responsible for this "surprise." The constraint of the north-south alignment of the solar panel arrays makes it more difficult for them to face the sun, which appears to be shining more from the south at noon in the winter.

If you want to experiment further, you can try to track the changes of the incident angle in different seasons. You should find that the change of angle from morning to noon will not change as much as the day moves to the summer.

This dip effect becomes less and less significant if we move closer and closer to the equator. You can confirm that the effect vanishes in Singapore, which has a latitude of one degree. The lesson learned from this study is that the return of investment in HSAT is better at lower latitudes than at higher latitudes. This is probably why we see solar panel arrays in the north are typically fixed and tilted to face the south.

The analysis in this article should be applicable to parabolic troughs, which follow the sun in a similar way to HSAT.

Canadian researchers use Energy3D to design renewable energy systems for mobile hospitals in Libya

Fig. 1: A H-shaped mobile hospital designed using Energy3D
Prof. Tariq Iqbal and his student Emadeddin Hussein from the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the Memorial University of Newfoundland in Canada published a paper in the Journal of Clean Energy Technologies titled with "Design of Renewable Energy System for a Mobile Hospital in Libya."

The researchers recognized that the United Nations' efforts to provide field hospitals have recently decreased in areas that face a high risk in transportation, lack of power, and lack of security for field officers, such as war-torn countries like Libya and Syria. In those unfortunate parts of the world, lack of aids and health resources have a major effect on people's lives. Their paper proposes a photovoltaics (PV) hybrid system for supplying an electric load of a mobile hospital in an area where there is no grid. Such a hybrid system is believed to be a cost-effective solution to power a mobile hospital capable of providing uninterrupted power to support a doctor and two nurses.

Our Energy3D software was used in their research as a simulation tool to study the heat load and optimize the design solution. Figure 1 shows a H-shaped design from their paper (I guess the H-shape was chosen because it is the initial of the word "hospital").

Fig. 2: Energy3D supports 450 regions from 117 countries.
We highly appreciate the researchers' efforts in finding ways to help people living in remote areas and war zones in the world. We are glad to learn that our software may have helped a bit in providing humanitarian aids to those people. Inspired by their work, we will add more weather data to Energy3D to cover areas in the state of unrest (455 regions from 120 countries are currently supported in Energy3D, as shown in Figure 2). In the future, we will also develop curriculum materials and design challenges to engage students all over the world to join these humanitarian efforts through our global drive and outreach.

Modeling parabolic dish Stirling engines in Energy3D

Fig. 1: A parabolic dish Stirling engine
Fig. 2: The Tooele Army Depot solar project in Utah
A parabolic dish Stirling engine is a concentrated solar power (CSP) generating system that consists of a stand-alone parabolic dish reflector focusing sunlight onto a receiver positioned at the parabolic dish's focal point. The dish tracks the sun along two axes to ensure that it always faces the sun for the maximal input (for photovoltaic solar panels, this type of tracker is typically known as dual-axis azimuth-altitude tracker, or AADAT). The working fluid in the receiver is heated to 250–700 °C and then used by a Stirling engine to generate power. A Stirling engine is a heat engine that operates by cyclic compression and expansion of air or other gas (the working fluid) at different temperatures, such that there is a net conversion of thermal energy to mechanical work. The amazing Stirling engine was invented 201 years ago(!). You can see an infrared view of a Stirling engine at work in a blog article I posted early last year.

Although parabolic dish systems have not been deployed at a large scale -- compared with its parabolic trough cousin and possibly due to the same reason that AADAT is not popular in photovoltaic solar farms because of its higher installation and maintenance costs, they nonetheless provide solar-to-electric efficiency above 30%, higher than any photovoltaic solar panel in the market as of 2017.

In Version 7.2.2 of Energy3D, I have added the modeling capabilities for designing and analyzing parabolic dish engines (Figure 1). Figure 2 shows an Energy3D model of the Tooele Army Depot project in Utah. The solar power plant consists of 429 dishes, each having an aperture area of 35 square meters and outputting 3.5 kW of power.

Fig. 3: All four types of real-world CSP projects modeled in Energy3D
With this new addition, all four types of main CSP technologies -- solar towers, linear Fresnel reflectors, parabolic troughs, and parabolic dishes, have been supported in Energy3D (Figure 3). Together with its advancing ability to model photovoltaic solar power, these new features have made Energy3D one of the most comprehensive and powerful solar design and simulation software tools in the world, delivering my promise made about a year ago to model all major solar power engineering solutions in Energy3D.

An afterthought: We can regard a power tower as a large Fresnel version of a parabolic dish and the compact linear Fresnel reflectors as a large Fresnel version of a parabolic trough. Hence, all four concentrated solar power solutions are based on parabolic reflection, but with different nonimaging optical designs that strike the balance between cost and efficiency.

Analyzing the linear Fresnel reflectors of the Sundt solar power plant in Tucson

Fig. 1: The Sundt solar power plant in Tucson, AZ
Fig. 2: Visualization of incident and reflecting light beams
Tucson Electric Power (TEP) and AREVA Solar constructed a 5 MW compact linear Fresnel reflector (CLFR) solar steam generator at TEP’s H. Wilson Sundt Generating Station -- not far from the famous Pima Air and Space Museum. The land-efficient, cost-effective CLFR technology uses rows of flat mirrors to reflect sunlight onto a linear absorber tube, in which water flows through, mounted above the mirror field. The concentrated sunlight boils the water in the tube, generating high-pressure, superheated steam for the Sundt Generating Station. The Sundt CLFR array is relatively small, so I chose it as an example to demonstrate how Energy3D can be used to design, simulate, and analyze this type of solar power plant. This article will show you how various analytic tools built in Energy3D can be used to understand a design principle and evaluate a design choice.

Fig. 3: Snapshots
One of the "strange" things that I noticed from the Google Maps of the power station (the right image in Figure 1) is that the absorber tube stretches out a bit at the northern edge of the reflector assemblies, whereas it doesn't at the southern edge. The reason that the absorber tube was designed in such a way becomes evident when we turn on the light beam visualization in Energy3D (Figure 2). As the sun rays tend to come from the south in the northern hemisphere, the focal point on the absorber tube shifts towards the north. During most days of the year, the shift decreases when the sun rises from the east to the zenith position at noon and increases when the sun lowers as it sets to the west. This shift would have resulted in what I call the edge losses if the absorber tube had not extended to the north to allow for the capture of some of the light energy bounced off the reflectors near the northern edge. This biased shift becomes less necessary for sites closer to the equator.

Energy3D has a way to "run the sun" for the selected day, creating a nice animation that shows exactly how the reflectors turn to bend the sun rays to the absorber pipe above them. Figure 3 shows five snapshots of the reflector array at 6am, 9am, 12pm, 3pm, and 6pm, respectively, on June 22 (the longest day of the year).

As we run the radiation simulation, the shadowing and blocking losses of the reflectors can be vividly visualized with the heat map (Figure 4). Unlike the heat maps for photovoltaic solar panels that show all the solar energy that hits them, the heat maps for reflectors show only the reflected portion (you can choose to show all the incident energy as well, but that is not the default).

There are several design parameters you can explore with Energy3D, such as the inter-row spacing between adjacent rows of reflectors. One of the key questions for CLFR design is: At what height should the absorber tube be installed? We can imagine that a taller absorber is more favorable as it reduces shadowing and blocking losses. The problem, however, is that, the taller the absorber is, the more it costs to build and maintain. It is probably also not very safe if it stands too tall without sufficient reinforcements. So let's do a simulation to get in the ballpark. Figure 5 shows the relationship between the daily output and the absorber height. As you can see, at six meters tall, the performance of the CLFR array is severely limited. As the absorber is elevated, the output increases but the relative gain decreases. Based on the graph, I would probably choose a value around 24 meters if I were the designer.
Fig. 4: Heat map visualization

An interesting pattern to notice from Figure 5 is a plateau (even a slight dip) around noon in the case of 6, 12, and 18 meters, as opposed to the cases of 24 and 30 meters in which the output clearly peaks at noon. The disappearance of the plateau or dip in the middle of the output curve indicates that the output of the array is probably approaching the limit.

Fig. 5: Daily output vs. absorber height
If the height of the absorber is constrained, another way to boost the output is to increase the inter-row distance gradually as the row moves away from the absorber position. But this will require more land. Engineers are always confronted with this kind of trade-offs. Exactly which solution is the optimal depends on comprehensive analysis of the specific case. This level of analysis used to be a professional's job, but with Energy3D, anyone can do it now.

Modeling linear Fresnel reflectors in Energy3D

Fig. 1: Fresnel reflectors in Energy3D.
Fig. 2: An array of linear Fresnel reflectors
Linear Fresnel reflectors use long assemblies of flat mirrors to focus sunlight onto fixed absorber pipes located above them, thus capable of concentrating sunlight to as high as 30 times of its original intensity (Figures 1 and 2). This concentrated light energy is then converted into thermal energy to heat a fluid in the pipe to a very high temperature. The hot fluid gives off the heat through a heat exchanger to power a steam generator, like in other concentrated solar power plants such as parabolic troughs and power towers.

Fig. 3: Heap map view of reflector gains
Compared with parabolic troughs and power towers, linear Fresnel reflectors may be less efficient in generating electricity, but they may be cheaper to build. According to Wikipedia and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Fresnel reflectors are the third most used solar thermal technology after parabolic troughs and power towers, with about 15 plants in operation or under construction around the world. To move one small step closer to our goal of providing everyone a one-stop-shop solar modeling software program for solarizing the world, I have added the design, simulation, and analysis capabilities of this type of concentrated solar power technology in Version 7.1.8 of Energy3D.

Fig. 4: Compact linear Fresnel reflectors.
Fig. 5: Heat map view of linear Fresnel reflectors for two absorber pipes.
Like parabolic troughs, Fresnel reflectors are usually aligned in the north-south axis and rotate about the axis during the day for maximal efficiency (interestingly enough, however, some of the current Fresnel plants I found on Google Maps do not stick to this rule -- I couldn't help wondering the rationale behind their design choices). Unlike parabolic troughs, however, the reflectors hardly face the sun directly, as they have to bounce sunlight to the absorber pipe. The reflectors to the east of the absorber start the day with a nearly horizontal orientation and then gradually turn to face west. Conversely, those to the west of the absorber start the day with an angle that faces east and then gradually turn towards the horizontal direction. Due to the cosine efficiency similar to the optics related to heliostats for power towers, the reflectors to the east collect less energy in the morning than in the afternoon and those to the west collect more energy in the morning and less in the afternoon.

Like heliostats for power towers, Fresnel reflectors have both shadowing and blocking losses (Figure 3). Shadowing losses occur when a part of a reflector is shadowed by another. Blocking losses occur when a part of a reflector that receives sunlight cannot reflect the light to the absorber due to the obstruction of another reflector. In addition, Fresnel reflectors suffer from edge losses -- the focal line segments of certain portions near the edges may fall out of the absorber tube and their energy be lost, especially when the sun is low in the sky. In the current version of Energy3D, edge losses have not been calculated (they are relatively small compared with shadowing and blocking losses).

Linear Fresnel reflectors can focus light on multiple absorbers. Figure 4 shows a configuration of a compact linear Fresnel reflector with two absorber pipes, positioned to the east and west of the reflector arrays, respectively. With two absorber pipes, the reflectors may be overall closer to the absorbers, but the downside is increased blocking losses for each reflector (Figure 5).

Simulation-based analysis of parabolic trough solar power plants around the world

Fig. 1: 3D heat map of the Keahole Plant in Hawaii
Fig. 2: SEGS-8 in California and NOOR-1 in Morocco
In Version 7.1.7 of Energy3D, I have added the basic functionality needed to perform simulation-based analysis of solar power plants using parabolic trough arrays. These tools include 24-hour yield analysis for any selected day, 12-month annual yield analysis, and the 3D heat map visualization of the solar field for daily shading analysis (Figure 1). The heat map representation makes it easy to examine where and how the design can be optimized at a fine-grained level. For instance, the heat map in Figure 1 illustrates some degree of inter-row shadowing in the densely-packed Keahole Solar Power Plant in Hawaii (also known as Holaniku). If you are curious, you can also add a tree in the middle of the array to check out its effect (most solar power plants are in open space with no external obstruction to sunlight, so this is just for pure experimental fun).
Fig. 3: Hourly outputs near Tuscon in four seasons

Fig. 4: Hourly outputs near Calgary in four seasons
As of July 12, I have constructed the Energy3D models for nine such solar power plants in Canada, India, Italy, Morocco, and the United States (Arizona, California, Florida, Hawaii, and Nevada) using the newly-built user interface for creating and editing large-scale parabolic trough arrays (Figure 2). This interface aims to support anyone, be she a high school student or a professional engineer or a layperson interested in solar energy, to design this kind of solar power plant very quickly. The nine examples should sufficiently demonstrate Energy3D's capability of and relevance in designing realistic solar power plants of this type. More plants will be added in the future as we make progress in our Solarize Your World Initiative that aims to engage everyone to explore, model, and design renewable energy solutions for a sustainable world.
Fig. 5: Hourly outputs near Honolulu in four seasons

An interesting result is that the output of parabolic troughs actually dips a bit at noon in some months of the year (Figure 3), especially at high altitudes and in the winter, such as Medicine Hat in Canada at a latitude of about 51 degrees (Figure 4). This is surprising as we perceive noon as the warmest time of the day. But this effect has been observed in a real solar farm in Cary, North Carolina that uses horizontal single-axis trackers (HSATs) to turn photovoltaic solar panels. Although I don't currently have operation data from solar farms using parabolic troughs, HSAT-driven photovoltaic solar arrays that align in the north-south axis work in a way similar to parabolic troughs. So it is reasonable to expect that the outputs from parabolic troughs should exhibit similar patterns. This also seems to agree with the graphs in Figure 6 of a research paper by Italian scientists that compares parabolic troughs and Fresnel reflectors.

The effect is so counter-intuitive that folks call it "Solar Array Surprises." It occurs only in solar farms driven by HSATs (fixed arrays do not show this effect). As both the sun and the solar collectors move in HSAT solar arrays, exactly how this happens may not be easy to imagine at once. Some people suggested that the temperature effect on solar cell efficiency might be a possible cause. Although it is true that the decrease of solar cell efficiency at noon when temperature rises to unfavorable levels in the summer of North Carolina can contribute to the dip, the theory cannot explain why the effect is also pronounced in other seasons. But Energy3D accurately predicts these surprises, as I have written in an article about a year before when I added supports for solar trackers to Energy3D. I will think about this more carefully and provide the explanation later in an article dedicated to this particular topic. For now, I would like to point out that Energy3D shows that the effect diminishes for sites closer to the equator (Figure 5).