Photovoltaics (PV) is a method of converting solar energy into direct current electricity using semiconducting materials that exhibit the photovoltaic effect. A photovoltaic system employs solar panels composed of a number of solar cells to supply usable solar power. 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.
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 (LCOE) 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. With current technology, photovoltaics recoup the energy needed to manufacture them in 1.5 (in Southern Europe) to 2.5 years (in Northern Europe).
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 2013, the fast-growing capacity of worldwide installed solar PV increased by 38 percent to 139 gigawatts (GW). This is sufficient to generate at least 160 terawatt hours (TWh) or about 0.85 percent of the electricity demand on the planet. China, followed by Japan and the United States, is now the fastest growing market, while Germany remains the world’s largest producer, contributing almost 6 percent to its national electricity demands.