In the harsh environment of Antarctica, harnessing solar power is a huge challenge, writes Robert Cathcart – but it’s far from impossible and offers tremendous opportunities
When it comes to remote locations, you can’t get much more remote than Antarctica.
This area is the fifth-largest continent in the world, covering roughly 5.5m square miles, and is largely uninhabited due to its harsh climate and remoteness.
However, Antarctica is also an interesting place, with many scientists interested in its history and what it could tell about our future (especially climate change).
Over the past few years, technological advancements have made travelling, living in, and studying Antarctica easier. One of the most important of these is solar power.
Solar in the extreme
Solar panels create electricity by capturing photons (the sun’s energy) and using them to excite electrons in solar cells.
These can then be flowed out of the cell to create direct current (DC) electricity. DC is converted to AC electricity using an inverter, which can then be used for many everyday uses.
Generating power in this way can be beneficial to everyone, offering a cost-effective source of electricity. However, it is especially beneficial for those that live or work in remote areas that cannot be connected to the grid – such as in Antarctica – offering a reliable source of energy.
Although there are other options for energy production, such as fossil-fuel-powered generators, solar provides a lightweight and practically infinite alternative.
Antarctica holds some interesting environmental records. It is simultaneously the highest, driest, windiest, iciest and coldest continent on the planet.
You may expect solar panels to struggle to operate in such a harsh environment.
Of course, harsh winds, cold, and snow can have a negative physical impact, potentially leading to solar panel lifespan being slightly shorter than in other regions.
Yet, even in such adverse conditions, solar panels can operate efficiently in Antarctica.
But there are two factors that can impact how much energy you can produce.
The first is the availability of sunlight. Although during summer Antarctica can see 24 hours of sunlight (great for solar power generation), during winter several months can pass without sun, making solar practically useless.
Secondly, solar panels have to be mounted high off the ground to help limit snow cover reducing their efficiency. They often need snow and ice clearing from their surface to keep them running smoothly.
The appliance of solar science
The most exciting application of solar power in Antarctica is the way in which it can support scientific research.
Power generated by solar will allow researchers to stay in the harsh conditions of Antarctica for longer by providing power for scientific equipment, heating systems, and lighting. Ultimately this will allow for deeper, long-term research projects.
“It is crucial that governments, research organisations, and private sector businesses continue to invest in solar to ensure a sustainable future”
Many research projects are already using solar power to help meet energy requirements. For example, Australia’s Casey Solar Farm was switched on in March 2019, seeing 105 solar panels capable of providing 10kW of renewable energy into the station’s power grid.
The Princess Elisabeth research station uses 100% renewable energy to meet its energy needs. A large part of this includes 284 PV panels that can produce up to 420 kWh per day.
Keeping Antarctica’s cool
With much of the research being conducted in Antarctica having a focus on the impacts of environmental change and global warming, burning a considerable amount of fossil fuels in order to undertake that research can seem counter-intuitive.
This is a large part of the reason why renewable energy sources are such a great match for research in this part of the world.
By using solar, these research stations can both lower their overall impact through reduced emissions and limit the immediate negative impact of burning fossil fuels on the local environment.
Ultimately, solar power offers a considerable opportunity to help maintain the natural habitats of Antarctica whilst improving our ability to conduct deep research in the area.
Towards future possibilities
We can see that solar power is a great fit for energy production in Antarctica.
But perhaps more excitingly, new innovations in the solar panel space could make generating power in the area easier and more efficient than ever before.
For example, progression in super-lightweight, flexible, thin film panels could make it easier to generate electricity in more areas of Antarctica.
This could include everything from using research station windows as solar panels with clear cells, to facilitating better energy production for vehicles and remote research equipment.
Other developments such as tandem solar cells could drastically increase the efficiency of PV solar panels. For example, recent studies have highlighted that tandem cells could increase panel efficiency by over 30%.
This would reduce the number of panels required to meet power needs, which would lighten the logistical burden of transporting and installing them in a harsh environment.
It is crucial that governments, research organisations, and private sector businesses continue to invest in solar and promote its use to ensure a sustainable future.
Opportunities and challenges
It is clear that the widespread use of solar panels opens up considerable opportunities in Antarctica.
By offering a reliable energy source, solar can help extend research projects in the area and power the research equipment required to make crucial new discoveries.
However, there are challenges to its application in this area such as ensuring panels are well maintained in harsh conditions and no sunlight availability during winter months.
So, it is essential that research into solar panels and their supporting systems continues in order to drive greater efficiency and applicability.
Image: Robert Cathcart, a Yorkshire-based renewable energy researcher, copywriter, and blogger
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