On Photovoltaic Generators and Scattering Cross Sections

Subtitle: Dimensional Analysis again.

Our photovoltaic generator has about 5 kW rated ‘peak’ power – 18 panels with 265W each.

PV Generator: 10 modules oriented south-east

South-east oriented part of our generator – 10 panels. The remaining 8 are oriented south-west.

Peak output power is obtained under so-called standard testing condition – 1 kWp (kilo Watt peak) is equivalent to:

  • a panel temperature of 25°C (as efficiency depends on temperature)
  • an incident angle of sunlight relative to zenith of about 48°C – equivalent to an air mass of 1,5. This determines the spectrum of the electromagnetic radiation.
  • an irradiance of solar energy of 1kW per square meter.
Simulated direct irradiance spectra for air mass=0 to 10 with SMARTS 2.9.5

Simulated spectra for different air masses (Wikimedia, User Solar Gate). For AM 1 the path of sunlight is shortest and thus absorption is lowest.

The last condition can be rephrased as: We get 1 kW output per kW/minput. 1 kWp is thus defined as:

1 kWp = 1 kW / (1 kW/m2)

Canceling kW, you end up with 1 kWp being equivalent to an area of 1 m2.

Why is this a useful unit?

Solar radiation generates electron-hole pairs in solar cells, operated as photodiodes in reverse bias. Only if the incoming photon has exactly the right energy, solar energy is used efficiently. If the photon is not energetic enough – too ‘red’ – it is lost and converted to heat. If the photon is too blue  – too ‘ultraviolet’ – it generates electrical charges, but the greater part of its energy is wasted as the probability of two photons hitting at the same time is rare. Thus commercial solar panels have an efficiency of less than 20% today. (This does not yet say anything about economics as the total incoming energy is ‘free’.)

The less efficient solar panels are, the more of them you need to obtain a certain target output power. A perfect generator would deliver 1 kW output with a size of 1 m2 at standard test conditions. The kWp rating is equivalent to the area of an ideal generator that would generate the same output power, and it helps with evaluating if your rooftop area is large enough.

Our 4,77 kW generator uses 18 panels, about 1,61 m2 each – so 29 m2 in total. Panels’ efficiency  is then about 4,77 / 29 = 16,4% – a number you can also find in the datasheet.

There is no rated power comparable to that for solar thermal collectors, so I wonder why the unit has been defined in this way. Speculating wildly: Physicists working on solar cells usually have a background in solid state physics, and the design of the kWp rating is equivalent to a familiar concept: Scattering cross section.

An atom can be modeled as a little oscillator, driven by the incident electromagnetic energy. It re-radiates absorbed energy in all directions. Although this can be fully understood only in quantum mechanical terms, simple classical models are successful in explaining some macroscopic parameters, like the index of refraction. The scattering strength of an atom is expressed as:

[ Power scattered ] / [ Incident power of the beam / m2 ]

… the same sort of ratio as discussed above! Power cancels out and the result is an area, imagined as a ‘cross-section’. The atom acts as if it were an opaque disk of a certain area that ‘cuts out’ a respective part of the incident beam and re-radiates it.

The same concept is used for describing interactions between all kinds of particles (not only photons) – the scattering cross section determines the probability that an interaction will occur:


Particles’ scattering strengths are represented by red disks (area = cross section). The probability of a scattering event going to happen is equal to the ratio of the sum of all red disk areas and the total (blue+red) area. (Wikimedia, User FerdiBf)