Simulations chart solar-panel performance

A University of Iowa research team is developing standards for a new generation of solar panels with help from the university’s Neon high-performance computing cluster.


Fatima Toor, assistant professor of electrical engineering, describes her team’s focus on bifacial solar panels, which absorb sunlight from both sides.


“Traditional solar panels only collect light from the side facing the sun,” she says. “But we know that panels mounted on reflective surfaces—even concrete—receive a lot of reflected light on the opposite side. We want to chart how much more energy is produced when we collect this light, too.”


Toor’s research focuses on light detection, generation, and manipulation, including computer simulations of photovoltaic systems that convert light to energy. Much of her work informs design of new devices, including solar cells that test for certain cancers, sensors that detect water contaminants, and infrared LEDs.


Solar manufacturers are testing bifacial panels without any technical standards. These panels may increase energy output by 10-30 percent, but the lack of standards means there’s no scientific confirmation for manufacturer claims on the energy gain and no reliable way to gauge bifacial panel performance.


The Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico, leads the project. There researchers have installed a bifacial solar panel testbed where they can manipulate conditions and collect performance data.


Sandia feeds their data to the UI team, which develops computer models that simulate even more scenarios. That’s where Neon comes in.


“Light modeling requires a tremendous amount of computing power,” Toor says. “Using the HPC cluster lets us run simulations as quickly as we can.”


The Toor lab’s work will shape new International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) standards for testing bifacial panels and provide the basis for freely available software package that predict energy output for bifacial panels installed under various conditions.


The project is funded by the Department of Energy Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy’s SuNLaMP initiative. Additional partners include the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.