EME 810
Solar Resource Assessment and Economics

1.5 What is a Solar Energy Conversion System?

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Reading Assignment

  • J.R. Brownson, Solar Energy Conversion Systems (SECS), Chapter 12 - "Systems Logic of Devices: Patterns"

We are jumping far, far ahead to see where we can take the concept of a Solar Energy Conversion System in society. The text in Chapter 12 complements your reading of Ch 2 and goes in depth to identify the different technological patterns in solar energy conversion systems. I think you will find the content relevant in the broad sense of designing systems, and that it will engage your creative processes for the future project at the end of the course.

Think about the way in which so many of our technologies and biologies are in fact "solar energy conversion systems," with some or all components of a functional aperture, receiver, distribution mechanism, storage, and control mechanism. What may be even more interesting is when you start to identify collections of different SECSs in the same space.

An important context of the approach to solar energy is understanding what a system is. We define a system as a collection of elements that are connected together via weak or strong network relations and that have a pattern or structure that yields an emergent set of behaviors. We are concerned, in this course, with environmental systems, each with boundaries that describe the system and its surroundings.

A Solar Energy Conversion System (SECS), as the name implies, is a system that converts the energy from the solar resource into work found useful by society. This system has the potential to be deployed as an ecosystems technology or an environmental technology, meaning the energy system interacts in a constructive way with the patterns of nature. As a process, solar energy conversion calls upon designers and engineers to include all the elements essential for the proper functioning of a conversion system. These include the Sun, the Earth and the applied technological system (for example solar thermal or solar photovoltaic) in question. These systems call upon researchers to simultaneously assess scales of solar resource supply and use, systems design, distribution needs, predictive economic models for the fluctuating solar resource, and storage plans to address transient cycles.

Collector Basics

We have reviewed the basic system concept that can be used to design solar energy conversion applications, and more detailed and thorough information will be presented in a future lesson. At this point, we move on to the nature and composition of SECS on the Earth side (incident surfaces).

A Solar Energy Conversion System consists of the following elements:

  • Aperture (the opening to allow light in, and at the same time constrain the solar flux into the system);
  • Receiver (the opaque absorber that converts the sun to other forms of energy, the active element that is responsible for energy conversion);
  • Storage (sometimes there will be a designed or naturally present storage mechanism as sunlight is intermittent);
  • Distribution Mechanism (internal to the system, responsible for energy delivery);
  • Control Mechanisms (which helps adapt the conversion process to the intermittent/seasonal changes and user needs).

The next section of this lesson provides you with an exercise to identify these elements in several different solar energy conversion systems functioning in diverse settings.