Snow-covered panels: Does solar power work in the Upper Peninsula?

It snowed last night. And the weather forecast for tonight? This might surprise you, but it's calling for snow. 
 
So goes life here in the Upper Peninsula, where snow totals for the season are measured by the foot and temperatures often plummet below zero. 
 
While some things are built specifically to survive an Upper Peninsula winter (Boss Snowplows, Stormy Kromers and Iverson Snowshoes, to name a few), some things weren't designed with the frozen tundra in mind. One such thing is growing in popularity across the globe, but hasn't been heavily adopted in the U.P. yet--solar power. 
 
In order to make solar power work, you need panels that absorb the heat and light from the sun. The energy gathered charges batteries, which are then used as a source of power. 
 
The problem is, days are pretty short in the Upper Peninsula during the winter (don't blink or they're gone!) and snow tends to practice being opaque more often than translucent. 
 
There are those who are quick to point out that solar cells actually work better in the cold than they do in the warmth in terms of creating energy, but in order for that to work, sunlight still has to be able to reach the panels. 
 
Thankfully, there are folks working hard at helping solve these problems, like the brilliant minds at the Michigan Technological University's Keweenaw Research Center, which is currently part of a two-year study that will help determine how snow affects solar panels and the ability to create power. 
 
To that end, a large array of solarvoltaic panels has been built at the research center, each set at a different angle from completely flat to 45 degrees. 
 
"If you tilt them at 60 degrees, almost no snow sticks to the panels, but you also lose a lot of sunlight when they are not facing the sky," says Tim Townsend, a principal engineer for solar services with DNV GL, an international engineering firm that specializes in large energy- and sustainability-related projects. DNV GL built the solar panel array for the study. 
 
And while the study is designed to help determine power loss on big arrays and not so much for smaller arrays like a homeowner might install, the information is helpful nonetheless. For example, similar studies have determined that year-round losses can be anywhere from a few percent to a 12-percent loss in power generation for panels tilted at 39 degrees to a whopping 18 percent for panels kept totally flat. 

Small amounts of solar power loss aren't a big deal to a homeowner who is simply using a couple of panels to offset their energy costs. But for companies looking to install large arrays designed for use on grids across the nation, any data that helps determine the best way to use the frozen north in the plans for future solar farms is welcomed information. 
 
"Everybody who wants to develop solar energy in snowy climates on a large scale will need this data," says Joshua Pearce, an associate professor of materials science and engineering/electrical and computer engineering at Michigan Tech, who is participating in the project. "In the olden days, you’d only see solar farms in places like Arizona, and Spain. Now, large solar installations are found throughout the northern U.S. and Canada."
 
More than large arrays being studied
Michigan Tech is helping solve solar mysteries above and beyond the statistics being gathered on power generation loss on large arrays. In fact, the Michigan Tech Solar Photovoltaic Research Facility, also located at the Keweenaw Research Center, has a two-kilowatt system that is designed to help research solar powered systems as well as introduce MTU students to technologies that will hopefully help power the near future. Research also could be conducted on how the system works with the electrical grid, as well as the economics of solar power. 
 
The facility includes a variety of solar panels, and data is being collected and shared regarding performance throughout the year. The panels were donated by mid-Michigan-based Dow Corning and Hemlock Semiconductor. The panels are made by a variety of manufacturers using silicones created by Corning and polycrystalline silicon (a glass-like material used on the surface of panels) manufactured by Hemlock. 
 
The facility also uses 10 microinverters, used to convert the power generated by a solar panel into AC current, which households use. No batteries are required to use the microinverters, which were donated by SolarBridge Technologies of Austin, Texas. SolarBridge's president and CEO, Ron Van Dell, is a 1979 graduate of Michigan Tech. Such technology can make the cost of using solar panels more reasonable, since it makes solar power instantly available with no need for battery banks and more complex systems to be put in place. 
 
According to Van Dell, the 200-plus inches of snow Michigan Tech can receive annually has potential benefits to solar power, since snow reflects sunlight back toward the panels and arrays.
 
A growing desire for solar power
Not everyone is waiting for the data from Michigan Tech. There are companies in the Upper Peninsula already making a name for themselves installing solar panels, and homeowners are using panels to live off the grid. There are even farms using solar power to help drive down their utility bills. 
 
At the Upper Peninsula Builders Show in 2013, there were three local companies touting their ability to bring solar energy to residential properties. Swick Home Services, Green Energy Solutions, and Dawn to Dusk Photovoltaics all had displays featuring solar power for home use. 
 
Part of the growth in the industry, says Dan Perkins, owner of Dawn to Dusk Photovoltaics, is the continuing drop in the price of installing the equipment needed to run the systems. 
 
"We have seen our installed costs on PV systems fall from $10-13 per watt down to close to $6 per watt in the last few years," says Perkins. "This means that most energy consumers can see a payback on their PV system within roughly half of its lifespan and enjoy free power after that."
 
And it's not just residences getting in on the solar-powered action, either. Take this off-grid camp that doubles as a rental property. Their systems are all run off of solar energy. 
 
Additionally, the Au Sable Point Lighthouse, located on the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, is a great example of solar power being put to good use by the National Park Service as the beacon is powered via the sun. 
 
It's clear that the desire for solar power extends well into the northern climates, and that trend will likely continue, which is why research like that being done at Michigan Technological University as well as practical use in homes and businesses across the Upper Peninsula are so important. The more these systems are used and proven to be effective, the more the demand for them will grow. 
 
Increased use of sustainable power sources is always a good thing, as is the recognition that the Upper Peninsula is a perfect location for research, development and installation of these cutting-edge systems. 
 
Sam Eggleston is the managing editor of Upper Peninsula Second Wave. He was born and raised in the U.P. and was using the energy of the sun before it was cool with his handy dandy solar-powered pocket calculators. He can be reached via email
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