EME 812
Utility Solar Power and Concentration

2.1 Available Solar Radiation and How It Is Measured


Before talking about concentration of light for practical purposes, it would be good for us to review what kinds of natural radiation are available to us and how that radiation is characterized and measured.

The fraction of the energy flux emitted by the sun and intercepted by the earth is characterized by the solar constant. The solar constant is defined as essentially the measure of the solar energy flux density perpendicular to the ray direction per unit are per unit time. It is most precisely measured by satellites outside the earth atmosphere. The solar constant is currently estimated at 1367 W/m2 [cited from Stine and Harrigan, 1986]. This number actually varies by 3% because the orbit of the earth is elliptical, and the distance from the sun varies over the course of the year. Some small variation of the solar constant is also possible due to changes in Sun's luminosity. This measured value includes all types of radiation, a substantial fraction of which is lost as the light passes through the atmosphere [IPS - Radio and Space Services].

As the solar radiation passes through the atmosphere, it gets absorbed, scattered, reflected, or transmitted. All these processes result in reduction of the energy flux density. Actually, the solar flux density is reduced by about 30% compared to extraterrestrial radiation flux on a sunny day and is reduced by as much as 90% on a cloudy day. The following main losses should be noted:

  • absorbed by particles and molecules in the atmosphere - 10-30%
  • reflected and scattered back to space - 2-11%
  • scattered to earth (direct radiation becomes diffuse) - 5-26% [Stine and Harrigan, 1986]

As a result, the direct radiation reaching the earth surface (or a device installed on the earth surface) never exceeds  83% of the original extraterrestrial energy flux. This radiation that comes directly from the solar disk is defined as beam radiation. The scattered and reflected radiation that is sent to the earth surface from all directions (reflected from other bodies, molecules, particles, droplets, etc.) is defined as diffuse radiation. The sum of the beam and diffuse components is defined as total (or global) radiation.

It is important for us to differentiate between the beam radiation and diffuse radiation when talking about solar concentration in this lesson, because the beam radiation can be concentrated, while the diffuse radiation, in many cases, cannot.

Short-wave radiation, in the wavelength range from 0.3 to 3 μm, comes directly from the sun. It includes both beam and diffuse components.

Long-wave radiation, with wavelength 3 μm or longer, originates from the sources at near-ambient temperatures - atmosphere, earth surface, light collectors, other bodies.

The solar radiation reaching the earth is highly variable and depends on the state of the atmosphere at a specific locale. Two atmospheric processes can significantly affect the incident irradiation: scattering and absorption.

Scattering is caused by interaction of the radiation with molecules, water, and dust particles in the air. How much light is scattered depends on the number of particles in the atmosphere, particle size, and the total air mass the radiation comes through.

Absorption occurs upon interaction of the radiation with certain molecules, such as ozone (absorption of short-wave radiation - ultraviolet), water vapor and carbon dioxide (absorption of long-wave radiation - infrared).

Due to these processes, out of the whole spectrum of solar radiation, only a small portion reaches the earth surface. Thus most of x-rays and other short-wave radiation is absorbed by atmospheric components in the ionosphere, ultraviolet is absorbed by ozone, and not-so abundant long-wave radiation is absorbed by CO2. As a result, the main wavelength range to be considered for solar applications is from 0.29 to 2.5 μm  [Duffie and Beckman, 2013].

Different types of radiation Short wave:Beam solar, diffuse solar, reflected solar Long wave:long wave sky, reflected sky, long wave surface
Figure 2.1. Different types of radiation at the earth surface: orange - short wave; blue - long wave.
Credit: Mark Fedkin - modified after Duffie and Beckman, 2013

The amount of solar radiation on the earth surface can be instrumentally measured, and precise measurements are important for providing background solar data for solar energy conversion applications.

There are two important types of instruments to measure solar radiation:

  1. Pyrheliometer is used to measure direct beam radiation at normal incidence. There are different types of pyrheliometers. According to Duffie and Beckman (2013), Abbot silver disc pyrheliometer and Angstrom compensation pyrheliometer are important primary standard instruments. Eppley normal incidence pyrheliometer (NIP) is a common instrument used for practical measurements in the US, and Kipp and Zonen actinometer is widely used in Europe. Both of these instruments are calibrated against the primary standard methods.

    Based on their design, the above listed instruments measure the beam radiation coming from the sun and a small portion of the sky around the sun. Based on the experimental studies involving various pyrheliometer design, the contribution of the circumsolar sky to the beam is relatively negligible on a sunny day with clear skies. However, a hazy sky or a uniform thin cloud cover redistributes the radiation so that contribution of the circumsolar sky to the measurement may become more significant.

  2. Pyranometer is used to measure total hemispherical radiation - beam plus diffuse - on a horizontal surface. If shaded, a pyranometer measures diffuse radiation. Most of solar resource data come from pyranometers. The total irradiance (W/m2) measured on a horizontal surface by a pyranometer is expressed as follows:

    I tot = I beam cosθ+ I diffuse

    where θ is the zenith angle (i.e., angle between the incident ray and the normal to the horizontal instrument plane.

    Examples of pyranometers are Eppley 180o or Eppley black-and-white pyranometers in the US and Moll-Gorczynsky pyranometer in Europe. These instruments are usually calibrated against standard pyrheliometers. There are pyranometers with thermocouple detectors and with photovoltaic detectors. The detectors ideally should be independent on the wavelength of the solar spectrum and angle of incidence. Pyranometers are also used to measure solar radiation on inclined surfaces, which is important for estimating input to collectors. Calibration of pyranometers depends on the inclination angle, so experimental data are needed to interpret the measurements.

  3. Photoelectric sunshine recorder. The natural solar radiation is notoriously intermittent and varying in intensity. The most potent radiation that creates the highest potential for concentration and conversion is the bright sunshine, which has a large beam component. The duration of the bright sunshine at a locale is measured, for example, by a photoelectric sunshine recorder. The device has two selenium photovoltaic cells, one of which is shaded, and the other is exposed to the available solar radiation. When there is no beam radiation, the signal output from both cells is similar, while in bright sunshine, signal difference between the two cells is maximized. This technique can be used to monitor the bright sunshine hours.

    More detailed explanation of how these instruments work and what kind of data are obtained from those measurements is available in the following Duffie and Beckman (2013) book referred below. Please spend some time acquiring basic knowledge on solar resource data. For everyone who took EME 810 and is more or less familiar with this topic, this still may be a useful refresher.

Reading Assignment

Book Chapter: Duffie, J.A. Beckman, W., Solar Engineering of Thermal Processes, Chapter 2 (p.43).

This book is available online through the PSU Library system and can also be accessed through e-reserve link on Canvas.

Assuming that you have already learned about solar resource in your prerequisite courses, I suggest that you spend no more than two hours on reading for this topic.

Solar radiation data collected through the above-mentioned instrumental methods provide the basis for development of any solar projects. We can summarize the types of solar resource data as follows:

Solar radiation data...see text description below
Figure 2.2. Overview of different types of solar radiation data.
Click here for a text description
Solar radiation data supplied via pyrheliometric and pyranometric measurements may represent time resolved information: e.g. irradiance (instantaneous measurements of solar energy flux), irraidation (integrated energy flux over time), or averaged irradiation. Depending on measurement setup, the data can be for horizontal or inclined surface. The Data can characterize different types of radiation: beam, diffuse, or total
Credit: Mark Fedkin

Before moving on, please work through the following questions to check your background:

Check Your Understanding - Multiple Choice Question

What would be the typical irradiance on the earth surface on a sunny day?

(a) 1367 W/m2
(b) 900 W/m2
(c) 450 W/m2

Click for answer.

ANSWER: (b) 900 W/m2

Check Your Understanding - Multiple Choice Question

The beam radiation that comes to earth directly from the sun is:

(a) Short wave radiation
(b) Long wave radiation
(c) Combination of short and long wave radiation

Click for answer.

ANSWER: (a) Short wave radiation

Check Your Understanding - Multiple Choice Question

The scattered radiation reflected from the ground is:

(a) Short wave radiation
(b) Long wave radiation
(c) Combination of short and long wave radiation

Click for answer.

ANSWER: (b) Long wave radiation

Check Your Understanding - Essay Question

Can you write down the value of the solar constant? What is its meaning?

Click for answer.


1367 W/m2 (±3%). This value is the measure of the extraterrestrial solar radiation flux density intercepted by the earth outside the atmosphere.

Check Your Understanding - Essay Question

How would you estimate the beam radiation intensity on the earth surface based on the solar constant and transmittance of the atmosphere of 0.5 at a certain location? Type in the number here:

Click for answer.


You need to multiply extraterrestrial radiation, represented by the solar constant by transmittance: 1367 x 0.5 = 683.5 W/m2 - see Chapter 2.8, Duffie and Beckman, 2013