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Solar energy technologies produce energy by capturing solar radiation emitted by the sun. Solar electric systems are the fastest-growing energy technology in the United States, according to the Solar Energy Industry Association (SEIA). SEIA reports that solar electric installations in 2011 grew 109% to reach 1,855 MW.
Solar electric systems use photovoltaic (PV) cells as the electric generation technology that converts solar radiation into electric energy. PV cells are aggregated into modules, which range in size from 10 to 300 watts, but can be combined in an array to produce even more power. PV arrays can either be mounted at a fixed angle facing south, or can be mounted on a tracking device that follows the sun. The PV module or array is used to capture the solar radiation, and then connects to an inverter which converts from direct-current (DC) to utility grid-compatible alternating current (AC) electric power.
PV cells can be used to power everything from calculators to homes and businesses. Most PV cells are made from crystalline silicon or thin-film semiconductor material. Although silicon cells are more efficient at converting sunlight to electricity, they tend to have higher manufacturing costs, while thin-film materials are less efficient, but cost less to manufacture.
Solar electric systems work any time the sun is shining, though electricity production increases in relation to sunlight intensity. Additionally, solar energy production is dependent on the time of day, time of year, local topography, weather conditions and geospatial location. In Wisconsin, the average solar energy potential for basic (flat plate) PV panels tilted at 40 to 50 degrees (according to latitude) is approximately 1,000 kilowatt-hours per year per kilowatt of system capacity installed.
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