Do Solar Panels Work In The Cold?

Frosty Solar Panels

Solar panels are often associated with sandy/sunny locations where shorts and flip-flops are often the established dress code. And this is easily understood as sunshine is the core component of producing solar power. But what about those places that are NOT conducive to shorts? What about those places where wearing flip-flops would result in frozen, frost-bitten toes?

For those of you who may live in one of those places, I am happy to report that solar can work there too!

So long as direct sunlight is available,solar panels do work in the cold as the colder winter temperature has little to no effect on a solar panel’s ability to produce energy. Point of fact, solar panels can often perform better in a colder climate than in a hot desert. This is due to the way electrons flow through colder material vs hot.

For an in-depth study on photovoltaic and temperature, check out: TeachEngineering

Cold Weather And Solar Panels

Providing 100% of your own power year round can be… interesting. Having lived ‘unplugged’ since 2015, I can attest to this personally!

Life goes from not even thinking about how much electricity I am using in the summer to planning the laundry in accordance with the weekly winter forecast. And while the colder temperatures do eliminate the heavy demands of running A/C, it also brings the ‘bane of my existence’ – namely snow.

In all fairness, it’s not actually the snow that is the real problem, but rather the ever-present clouds that accompany this frozen precipitation. A light dusting of snow – say less than 2 inches – will disappear in a flash when encountering clear sunny skies. But depending on your location, clear skies in the winter months can be a rarity.

For example, I live in the Great Lakes region. And all summer long, those beautiful bodies of water are collecting heat. This means that when the air temperature drops, as it does in the winter, the warm water has moisture to give, which in turn results in cloudy skies.

However, it should be noted that once the temperature of the Great Lakes has dropped (or frozen over) cloudy skies tend to disappear. As proof of this, our backup generator runs about half as much in February as it does in December – just two months earlier. So while the outdoor temps are well below freezing, the lack of moisture in the air reduces cloud cover, allowing our panels to produce power.

Another factor regarding cold weather and solar panels is the physical wear and tear the panels accumulate. If your home depends on panels clear of snow, then there will probably be times were a snow rake is required. This means a potential for scratching – mainly from ice crystals being drug across the surface of the panel.

Also, there is the weight of ‘wet’ snow. Unfortunately, I have become quite the connoisseur regarding the ‘white stuff’ and I can tell you full well that snow comes in different forms. Sometimes it is light and fluffy and sometimes is wet and heavy. In the later, care must be taken not to overload structural design limits. For arrays located on the ground, this isn’t usually a problem. But should your panels be located on the roof of your house – especially if your house is older – then careful observation should be given when large snow accumulation is factor.

Conclusion

Cold weather brings challenges and this is especially true of solar power. If your panels are clear and the sun is shinning, then life is good. But if either of these two variables are ‘less than positive’ then things can become difficult.

A personal example of this would be this past winter. One particular evening, the weather had started off with a light drizzle, which turned to freezing rain mixed with snow. Overnight, the temperature plummeted and I woke up to find my entire array covered with a 3 inch layer of ice (non-transparent white ice).

For five days we lived entirely off of the backup generator as the frigid temps and heavy cloud cover remained unrelenting, keeping our solar panels encased in ice. That was a rough five days!

However, once the panels did clear, the reflective ground covering proved to brighten things – improving power production, as well as our spirits.

Tools To Help

If you are considering solar power and snow is even slightly a factor for your location, then Energy.gov has a great article regarding frame-less panels.

As someone who has framed solar panels, I can tell you the author is spot on in his writing. During the day, when any snow covering the panels melts, water will collect at the bottom of the panel – specifically at the frame. If that water does not clear before night fall, it will freeze and expand during the night.

Not only does this present unwanted pressure at the edge of the panels, but the collection of ice prohibits any additional snow from sliding off of the panels – which ultimately reduces power production.