Photovoltaics (PV) is the name of a method of converting solar energy into direct current electricity using semiconducting materials that exhibit the photovoltaic effect, a phenomenon commonly studied in physics, photochemistry and electrochemistry. A photovoltaic system employs solar panels composed of a number of solar cells to supply usable solar power. The process is both physical and chemical in nature, as the first step involves the photoelectric effect from which a second electrochemical process take place involving crystallized atoms being ionized in a series, generating an electric current.
Power generation from solar PV has long been seen as a clean sustainable energy technology which draws upon the planet’s most plentiful and widely distributed renewable energy source – the sun. The direct conversion of sunlight to electricity occurs without any moving parts or environmental emissions during operation. It is well proven, as photovoltaic systems have now been used for fifty years in specialized applications, and grid-connected PV systems have been in use for over twenty years. They were first mass-produced in the year 2000, when German environmentalists including Eurosolar succeeded in obtaining government support for the 100,000 roofs program.
Driven by advances in technology and increases in manufacturing scale and sophistication, the cost of photovoltaics has declined steadily since the first solar cells were manufactured, and the levelised cost of electricity from PV is competitive with conventional electricity sources in an expanding list of geographic regions. Net metering and financial incentives, such as preferential feed-in tariffs for solar-generated electricity, have supported solar PV installations in many countries.
Solar PV is now, after hydro and wind power, the third most important renewable energy source in terms of globally installed capacity. More than 100 countries use solar PV. Installations may be ground-mounted (and sometimes integrated with farming and grazing) or built into the roof or walls of a building (either building-integrated photovoltaics or simply rooftop).
In 2014, worldwide installed PV capacity increased to at least 177 gigawatts (GW), sufficient to supply 1 percent of global electricity demands. Due to the exponential growth of photovoltaics, installations are rapidly approaching the 200 GW mark – about 40 times the installed capacity of 2006. China, followed by Japan and the United States, is the fastest growing market, while Germany remains the world’s largest producer, with solar contributing about 7 percent to its annual domestic electricity consumption.