Photovoltaic power systems are generally classified according to their functional and operational requirements, their component configurations, and how the equipment is connected to other power sources and electrical loads. The two principal classifications are grid-connected or utility-interactive systems and stand-alone systems. Photovoltaic systems can be designed to provide DC and/or AC power service, can operate interconnected with or independent of the utility grid, and can be connected with other energy sources and energy storage systems.
Grid-connected or utility-interactive PV systems are designed to operate in parallel with and interconnected with the electric utility grid. The primary component in grid-connected PV systems is the inverter, or power conditioning unit (PCU). The PCU converts the DC power produced by the PV array into AC power consistent with the voltage and power quality requirements of the utility grid, and automatically stops supplying power to the grid when the utility grid is not energized. A bi-directional interface is made between the PV system AC output circuits and the electric utility network, typically at an on-site distribution panel or service entrance. This allows the AC power produced by the PV system to either supply on-site electrical loads, or to back-feed the grid when the PV system output is greater than the on-site load demand. At night and during other periods when the electrical loads are greater than the PV system output, the balance of power required by the loads is received from the electric utility This safety feature is required in all grid-connected PV systems, and ensures that the PV system will not continue to operate and feed back into the utility grid when the grid is down for service or repair.
Figure 1. Diagram of grid-connected photovoltaic system.
Stand-alone PV systems are designed to operate independent of the electric utility grid, and are generally designed and sized to supply certain DC and/or AC electrical loads. These types of systems may be powered by a PV array only, or may use wind, an engine-generator or utility power as an auxiliary power source in what is called a PV-hybrid system. The simplest type of stand-alone PV system is a direct-coupled system, where the DC output of a PV module or array is directly connected to a DC load (Figure 3). Since there is no electrical energy storage (batteries) in direct-coupled systems, the load only operates during sunlight hours, making these designs suitable for common applications such as ventilation fans, water pumps, and small circulation pumps for solar thermal water heating systems. Matching the impedance of the electrical load to the maximum power output of the PV array is a critical part of designing well-performing direct-coupled system. For certain loads such as positive-displacement water pumps, a type of electronic DC-DC converter, called a maximum power point tracker (MPPT), is used between the array and load to help better utilize the available array maximum power output.
Figure 2. Direct-coupled PV system.
In many stand-alone PV systems, batteries are used for energy storage. Figure 3 shows a diagram of a typical stand-alone PV system powering DC and AC loads. Figure 4 shows how a typical PV hybrid system might be configured.
Figure 3. Diagram of stand-alone PV system with battery storage powering DC and AC loads.
Figure 4. Diagram of photovoltaic hybrid system.