The Solar PV Industry Cosmos — Linking Cost and Physics

In a competition between physics and finance (profitability), physics always wins. The smart money will always be on the side of physics. Understanding this dynamic may be the single biggest advantage in solar PV.

That doesn’t mean that there are not substantial wins available for finance and profitability. However, if you’re looking for risk, the risk is on the finance side driven by the physics.

If you are active in the PV industry, the PV cosmos is important to you because you play a role in that cosmology whether you’re aware of it or not. The good news is, the broader your education, experience and “perspective” are in the overall elements of PV, the more likely you are to make better decisions and understand the impacts of the decisions you make.

So what does that have to do with the PV cosmos or PV cosmology?

The cosmos (UK /ˈkɒzmɒs/, US /ˈkɒzmoʊs/) is the universe regarded as a complex and orderly system; the opposite of chaos.”

Cosmology (from the Greek κόσμος, kosmos “world” and -λογία, -logia “study of”) is the study of the origin, evolution, and eventual fate of the universe. Physical cosmology is the scholarly and scientific study of the origin, large-scale structures and dynamics, and ultimate fate of the universe, as well as the scientific laws that govern these realities”.

In short, the PV cosmology is the study of the origin, evolution, history and eventual fate of the PV universe. It is the sojourn into separating chaos from what hopefully would be a functional, complex and orderly system. This includes the project/s that you are working on today, tomorrow and yesterday.

The PV cosmos incorporates everything from the most modest electron volt to gigawatt-sized PV systems. As with the physical cosmology of the universe, where we see individual elements of atoms on one end and galaxy clusters on the other, there is a lot of mystery that fits in between.

You may be the ultimate professional in one particular part of the PV cosmos. However, because your perspective is so tied to that area, you may have limited your ability to see often simple interconnections. Your marriage to your expertise may actually be limiting you technically, organizationally or professionally.

In the day-to-day world of PV, we often see are a lot of specialists who do not have that broader perspective or training. What’s worse, they may not see a need to broaden that perspective and as a result this segmentation becomes pretty risky. This can become hazardous if in the process you are handed information or you hand off information without understanding the basics of what you were given in the first place.

For example: If the project objective is to be the least-cost project, many potential solutions will be ignored because they appear to fall outside of that objective. This raises a red flag over what your real objectives may be. We often see this conflict enunciated with this simple phrase, “we can’t afford to do this or that!” Almost without exception, this is without having a clue as to what the real costs or results would be if those “this’s or that’s” were actually addressed and quantified.

So what is your role in the PV cosmos? … and what about the rest of your organization?

Do your peers understand what their role is and do you understand what they do? Do you understand the implications of PV physics and how it impacts what you do? I know, some of you are thinking, “Physics doesn’t have anything to do with my job.” Yet the reality is that it does! Its ultimate impact is on finance.

Cosmology is all about relationships. Think about it in terms of the associates that you work with where you are in substantial agreement as compared to those associates that do not have a clear understanding of what you do or why you do it. As a result, we often see people working with limitations that are self-imposed or organizationally imposed by default. Those limitations have consequences.

Why should you care about plant reliability, availability, maintainability, testability, safety or project viability if it’s not your job? Is it not somebody else’s responsibility?

If you think that PV is simple, that may be the first indicator of what you may wish to reconsider.

The reality is that PV is not simple and the physics of PV back this up quite clearly. Therefore, if your primary perspective and position isn’t accurate, what does that mean for your project and the work that you do with your peers. Is it possible in your day-to-day efforts, from time to time, that your team slips into the world of assumption while slipping out of the physical world of fact? Don’t forget about cause-and-effect.

It may seem silly, but I ask those questions of myself and my clients on a regular basis. And I have to be honest that sometimes we don’t like to hear what the answer is. After all, who wants to come to terms with that penultimate Homer Simpson moment? …“Doh!”

I have a number of brilliant colleagues who are much smarter than I am. Sometimes they are so focused on their areas of expertise that they do not always see how they interact with other project professionals and the conditions that they bring to a project. They will take a position, right or wrong, to their graves when it would be much easier to come to terms with facts, which include physics. I think it’s only human and a very difficult habit to break. I always get that creepy feeling that I just did something stupid when it occurs to me.

Understanding the broader reaches of our PV cosmos is an effective tool towards improving our work within our industry. Yet, it isn’t easy; it requires levels of communications that take time to build and develop.

If there’s anything that you might take away from this article, it is simply that understanding more about our technologies in our industry, the PV cosmos, and sharing them with our colleagues may result in better results. First however, you have to be aware of how expensive and extensive our PV cosmos is. That alone is pretty mind-boggling and requires some very serious consideration and contemplation.

The other thing that is often overlooked is that no matter how intelligent, educated or skilled we are, we are not capable of understanding the whole PV cosmos. That’s where it requires that we rely on effective teams filling those gaps. Those teams have to be able to ask tough questions and address incredibly tough answers. It’s important to keep in mind that as participants, we are also evolving in this PV cosmology.

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John R. Balfour, MEP, PhD, is President and CTO of AstroPower Corp. Dr. Balfour has spent 32 of his 40 years of PV experience as an EPC and has been a PV energy consultant and author since 1977. AstroPower is a consortium of specialized, experienced PV- and technology-related organizations dedicated to making PV projects more efficient and profitable throughout their lifecycle. Contact:

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