The world’s sunniest PV testing field

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The Engie Laborelec unit of the French energy giant recently commissioned a PV module testing facility and innovation center in northern Chile’s Atacama Desert – an area with the world’s highest solar radiation.

Trackers and inverters are also being tested at the site. Image: Engie Laborelec

Image: Engie Laborelec

The center is designed to test technology, including inverters and cleaning systems, for large scale solar projects. “The test bed is designed for large scale applications and will help optimize designs based on a systemic approach,” said Thore Müller, head of bifacial PV R&D at Engie Laborelec. “We want to shift the general view away from a linear project development [approach] where components are evaluated and picked individually and towards … making design choices based on their combined impact on the LCOE [levelized cost of energy]. Then, we want to test and develop innovative technologies to maximize the yield.”

Six bifacial panels are currently under scrutiny at the Atacama site.
Image: Engie Laborelec

Engie Laborelec is testing six bifacial panels from three manufacturers as well as two trackers, plus string inverters. “But, most importantly, we test combinations of these to see how they affect each other,” said Müller.

The center will use measurements of albedo, rear and front-side plane-of-array irradiance and soiling. There will be a special focus on the distribution of rear-side irradiance measurements to assess mismatch losses stemming from design choices.

Thore Müller said conditions at the center are typical of those in which several large scale PV projects are planned.
Image: Engie Laborelec

The desert environment and high solar radiation offer advantages including small day-to-day variability, high soiling levels and low rainfall. “These conditions are typical for many sites where new large scale power plants are planned: Chile, Mexico [the] Middle East,” said Müller. “We believe that a test center that reflects such conditions will be especially helpful.”

Engie announced a 1 GW renewables development plan for Chile in late 2019, with a planned investment of up to $1 billion. The first two projects in the plan – the Capricorn Solar Park and the Calama Wind Site – are currently being built and construction also started on a third project, the Tamaya Solar Park, in the first quarter.