How does sunlight affect life on Earth?
All life on earth is supported by the sun, which produces an amazing amount of energy. Only a very small percentage of this energy strikes the earth but that is still enough to provide all our needs. A nearly constant 1.36 kilowatts per square meter (the solar constant) of solar radiant power impinges on the earth's outer atmosphere. Approximately 70% of this extraterrestrial radiation makes it through our atmosphere on a clear day. In the southwestern United States, the solar irradiance at ground level regularly exceeds 1,000 w/m2. In some mountain areas, readings over 1,200 w/m2 are often recorded. Average values are lower for most other areas, but maximum instantaneous values as high as 1,500 w/m2 can be received on days when puffy-clouds are present to focus the sunshine. These high levels seldom last more than a few minutes. The atmosphere is a powerful absorber and reduces the solar power reaching the earth at certain wavelengths. The part of the spectrum used by silicon PV modules is from 0.3 to 0.6 mirometers, approximately the same wavelengths to which the human eye is sensitive. These wavelengths encompass the highest energy region of the solar spectrum.
Talking about solar data requires some knowledge of terms because on any given day the solar radiation varies continuously from sunup to sundown and depends on cloud cover, sun position and content and turbidity of the atmosphere. The maximum irradiance is available at solar noon which is defined as the midpoint, in time, between sunrise and sunset. Irradiance is the amount of solar power striking a given area and is a measure of the intensity of the sunshine. PV engineers use units of watts (or kilowatts) per square meter (w/m2) for irradiance. Insolation (now commonly referred as irradation) differs from irradiance because of the inclusion of time. Insolation is the amount of solar energy received on a given area over time measured in kilowatt-hours per square meter (kwh/m2) - this value is equivalent to "peak sun hours". Peak sun hours is defined as the equivalent number of hours per day, with solar irradiance equaling 1,000 w/m2, that gives the same energy received from sunrise to sundown. In other words, six peak sun hours means that the energy received during total daylight hours equals the energy that would have been received had the sun shone for six hours with an irradiance of 1,000 w/m2. Therefore, peak sun hours corresponds directly to average daily insolation given in kwh/m2. Many tables of solar data are often presented as an average daily value of peak sun hours (kwh/m2) for each month. Insolation varies seasonally because of the changing relation of the earth to the sun. This change, both daily and annually, is the reason some systems use tracking arrays to keep the array pointed at the sun. For any location on earth the sun's elevation will change about 47 from winter solstice to summer solstice. Another way to picture the sun's movement is to understand the sun moves from 23.5 north of the equator on the summer solstice to 23.5 south of the equator on the winter solstice. On the equinoxes, March 21 and September 21, the sun circumnavigates the equator. For any location the sun angle, at solar noon, will change 47 from winter to summer.
The power output of a PV array is maximized by keeping the array pointed at the sun. Single-axis tracking of the array will increase the energy production in some locations by up to 50 percent for some months and by as much as 35 percent over the course of a year. The most benefit comes in the early morning and late afternoon when the tracking array will be pointing more nearly at the sun than a fixed array. Generally, tracking is more beneficial at sites between 30 latitude North and 30 latitude South. For higher latitudes the benefit is less because the sun drops low on the horizon during winter months.
For tracking (structures that follow the sun across the sky by various mechanisms, thereby increasing the energy captured from the sun) or fixed arrays, the annual energy production is maximum when the array is tilted at the latitude angle; i.e., at 40N latitude, the array should be tilted 40 up from horizontal. If a wintertime load is the most critical, the array tilt angle should be set at the latitude angle plus 15 degrees. To maximize summertime production, fix the array tilt angle at latitude minus 15 degrees.
Using inaccurate solar data will cause design errors, so you should try to find accurate, long-term solar data for your system location. These data are becoming more available, even for tilted and tracking surfaces. Check local sources such as solar system installers, universities, airports, or government agencies to see if they are collecting such data or know where you might obtain these values. If measured values on a tilted surface are not available, you may use the modeled data here. Data for fixed and single-axis tracking surfaces at three tilt angles (latitude and latitude 15) are provided. Two-axis tracking data are given also, as well as a set of world maps that show seasonal values of total insolation at the three tilt angles. All data are in units of kilowatt-hours per square meter. This is equivalent to peak sun hoursthe number of hours per day when the sun's intensity is one kilowatt per square meter.