Wyoming solar panels and solar power plan



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Topic Area: Solar Energy
Geographic Area: Wyoming, United States
Focal Question: Is solar energy a cost-effective alternative energy source for pumping water in rural areas?
(1) Chowdhury, Badrul H., Sadrul Ula, and Kirk Stokes. "Photovoltaic-Powered Water Pumping - Design, and Implementation: Case Studies in Wyoming." IEEE Transactions on Energy Conversion volume 8, number 4, December 1993: 646-652.
(2) Hoagland, William. "Solar Energy." Scientific American. volume 273, number 3, September 1995: 170-173.
Reviewer: Jill M. Maccaferri, Colby College '96

This study, conducted by five rural electric cooperatives in the state of Wyoming with the help of Sandia National Labs and the University of Wyoming, examined photovoltaic-powered water pumping systems installed in seven rural areas in Wyoming. A major objective of the project was to introduce and test alternative energy sources in rural areas located far from the established electricity grid. The study found that indeed photovoltaic-powered systems were cost-effective for these sites and were denoted as satisfactory sources of energy by the system owners.

Photovoltaic pumps use solar panels to collect and convert solar energy into electricity which is then used to power the electric water pumps. Systems may include batteries or sun trackers although these are not necessary. The systems have few moving parts and are relatively easy to maintain. Owner feedback from the study asserted that an example of the maintenance required was simply to clean the modules periodically due to the accumulation of dust and bird droppings. On days with insufficient sunlight to run the system, a battery or generator may be used as a back-up power supply.

Before the systems were set up in the rural areas, extensive site testing was needed in order to determine the type of system necessary for the specific area as changes in pump requirements change the cost of the systems. Technical factors that needed to be examined were the site terrain, storage system details, the amount of water that was to be pumped, the season during which the water would be pumped, and the uses for the water. It was important to optimize the technical factors in order to provide the user with the correct type of pump. For each of the seven locations chosen the end use for the water was for livestock, although the seasonal use of the water varied from location to location. Six of the seven sites used a panel-direct system without a battery. The panel-direct system is used for low volume pumping, requires a large number of photovoltaic modules to generate enough energy to run the motor, and generally will not operate on days with inadequate sunlight. As such the storage systems are very important so that water will be available even on those cloudy days when the system does not operate to capacity. The remaining system used a battery to run the motor and was studied to determine the ability of batteries to withstand freezing temperatures.

The study found that the photovoltaic-powered pumping systems were cost-effective alternatives to extending the existing power lines to the rural areas. Although the photovoltaic systems do have high initial capital costs, the same is true for extending power lines to remote areas (See table). Once the costs of excavation, wiring costs, and the costs of transformers are considered, it is evident that extending the power lines can be quite costly. The cost of the photovoltaic system is related to the amount of water pumped and the distance from which the water needs to be pumped. As either of these requirements increases, the amount of energy required also increases. In order to generate a sufficient amount of power, more solar panels would need to be added. This can significantly increase the cost of the photovoltaic system. For instance, the cost of a photovoltaic system to pump 570 gallons of water per day up 50 feet would amount to $1400 and would use 40 watts of electricity. To pump 6480 gallons of water per day up the same 50 feet would require a system that cost $6500 and used 250 watts.

The sites were monitored and owner feedback was recorded. Of the seven systems in operation, five reported system problems. However it must be noted that the majority of problems were not directly due to the failures of the systems themselves but instead to non-system-related problems. One problem was damage caused by wind. The high winds that can often occur in Wyoming damaged the shock absorber at one site but on both occasions the shock absorber was repaired. At two locations the pump clogged due to sand from the well. Another site reported a well collapse and the final site reported the electric float switch froze due to freezing temperatures. The switch was replaced by a ball float and continued to operate as planned. Despite these setbacks, on the whole owners reported they were satisfied with their systems. The results of the study sparked interest for other rural sites in Wyoming. Currently over 20,000 photovoltaic-powered water pumps are in operation around the world.

Utilizing photovoltaic-powered water pumps promotes sustainability by decreasing the demand for non-renewable energy sources such as fossil fuels. This can result in many environmental benefits such as decreasing the levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide, air pollution, and acid rain. The photovoltaic pumps in Wyoming benefited both parties involved as neither the owners of the sites nor the local utility had to pay for extending the power grid to remote areas, while at the same time improving the environment by reducing the demand for fossil fuels. In conclusion, this study has demonstrated that photovoltaic-powered water pumps are a cost-effective solution to conventional energy sources for rural sites and photovoltaics are certain to become more prevalent in other aspects of daily life.


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