Solar Panels In Winter and Cold Climates: Do They Work?

I’m sure you’ve seen on TV or online that solar panels are the new green energy source for your home. You can use them to power your house, heat water, and even generate electricity!

But do they actually work in winter and cold climates?

There are many factors to go into solar production, electric and utility bill savings, and more. Hopefully, we can help answer some of these questions. 

The answer might surprise you. In this article, we dive briefly into how solar panels work technologically and how winter or cold climates will affect their performance.

Let’s dive in!

Do Solar Panels Work in Cold or Winter Climates?

Indeed, clouds, shorter days in winter, snow cover, and the reduced angle of the sun will lower the capacity of solar photovoltaic (PV) panels. But no matter how cold it is, as long as some sun hits the solar panel, it’ll generate electricity. Cold increases solar output, and rain isn’t a problem. 

As solar technology improves and prices continue to drop, more people are willing to give solar a go. And there’s increasing evidence that solar panels will even work in sub-zero conditions. After delving deeper, I’m convinced that strong state and local solar policies that promote solar energy are more critical than temperature.

Since our first net-zero home renovation is in sunny Florida, you don’t have to rely on what I say. I’ve dug out some research results and scientific opinions for you. So first, let’s quickly look at the science behind solar panels and temperature.

How Do Solar Panels Work?

PV solar panels incorporate a layer of silicon cells. When light from the sun’s radiation interacts with these cells, they set electrons in motion and start a flow of electric current. 

In effect, the solar panel absorbs energy from the sun, not heat or just sunlight. When it’s colder, a greater difference in voltage will be achieved by the solar panel, creating more energy. 

A picture of our net-zero solar home renovation project in Cape Coral, FL. It shows the exterior of the white-painted home with dark blue solar panels during a sunset.
Solar installed on our first net-zero solar energy home renovation project in Cape Coral, FL. The humidity plus high temperatures through most of the year actually contribute less to the solar panel’s efficiency, since the panels get so hot themselves. The same concept exists when things like computers overheat.

In winter, or cold weather, solar panels aren’t likely to reach peak power or temperature. Once they reach peak temperature, like in the summertime, the solar panel’s performance will decrease. 

Solar Panel Efficiency In Lower Temperatures 

There’s a widespread belief that solar panels don’t work in winter or cold climates. But – nothing could be further from the truth. Even though their output is lower when it’s cold and cloudy, solar panels are more efficient in colder temperatures.  

How We Know Solar Panels Work in Cold Climates

Solar is a critical source of power in places most people would never have imagined. This, in itself, illustrates its value in cold areas. For instance:

● At McMurdo Station, the main U.S. scientific research on Antarctica

● In the International Space Station that orbits the earth

There is also evidence that the solar industry is thriving in many cold-weather states and countries. This is not surprising since scientists, researchers, and solar companies have very strong evidence that renewable solar energy can cover a large number of energy needs in homes in cold climates. 

You may only satisfy heating and thermal needs with solar energy in cold regions, or you might use solar to support a heat pump or other systems in the home. Either way, I believe it will add value. 

It’s still more expensive to implement solar in colder climates, and capacity is lower. But costs have dropped dramatically, and they continue to do so, which opens up more opportunities in cold climates.

Solar Panels Work Well in the Cold Nordic Climate

SINTEF, one of Europe’s largest research institutes, has undertaken numerous experiments to see how solar cells function in the icy Nordic climate. 

What I found particularly interesting about this research is that it was motivated by the fact that even though hydroelectricity in Norway is inexpensive, solar-generated power is now very competitive. That’s why they need to know how effective solar cells are in the cold Norwegian climate. 

Because capital costs are fundamental to the price of solar power in Norway, researchers compared the costs of solar power with the costs of electricity from the grid, which includes hydropower. 

They tested solar cell panels in all sorts of conditions and different temperatures, including ice forms on the panels. 

A picture of snow falling on a house by the lake in a very cold and dark Nordic winter setting.
Solar panels in cold Nordic climates at first glance would seem like a no-go, but the research says different.

They found cold was an asset, and too much heat was a disadvantage. They were surprised that rain didn’t cause problems, and light rain had a positive effect. This is because the solar rays pass through rain, as they do through a layer of ice. But the shadow effect with ice and snow can be detrimental, and these layers should be removed with lukewarm water. 

Ultimately, the initial series of experiments showed that it is economically viable to invest in solar-generated electricity. The catch though is that you are going to consume the electricity yourself and not resell it. 

Solar Panel Performance in the Snow

More than a decade ago, the U.S. Solar Energy Technologies Office (SETO) launched SunShot, to reduce the costs of renewable energy (without subsidies) and improve its efficiency. It’s been hugely successful, and the current 2030 goals aim to make it one of the least expensive new power generation options.  

One of the initiatives SunShot funds is a series of regional test centers for solar technologies in different climate regions in the U.S. They are used to develop guidelines and standards for PV modules and systems in various field conditions. They also provide testbeds for the U.S. solar PV industry to help manufacturers understand how solar technologies perform across different climates.

A picture of a hotel with snow on the roof, and solar panels mounted off to the right, indicating they work well in lower temperatures.
There are many benefits of solar panels operating in cold climates. In this case – the steep angle of the panels adds to the efficiency because it targets the sun lower in the sky during the winter. The snow landing on it and sliding off actually helps to clean the panels!

Researchers at the test centers located in cold climates have shown that solar is an option for harsh environments, including snowy areas. But there is a caveat. While a light dusting of snow will blow off in the wind, and light will reach the solar panel, heavy snow cover will prevent power generation. 

Heavy snow can also cause issues because of the stress its weight places on the support frames most panels have. Researchers quickly found a way around this, and they recommend panels without frames in this environment so that the snow can slide off naturally. 

An advantage of snow is that it helps keep the panels clean, which helps them be more efficient. 

Solar Energy for Cold Climate Homes 

Lastly, here’s a scientific opinion from an engineer, Maxime Mussard, who believes it is worth implementing solar energy technologies “for certain uses” in cold climates, including polar regions. 

Mussar studied solar energy under cold conditions in numerous parts of the globe, including North America, Northern and Central Europe, and Antarctica. He shared his research findings in an extensive paper, Solar energy under cold climatic conditions: A review (Elsevier, July 2017), published after the World Renewable Energy Congress in 2017. 

Mussar believes there is huge potential for the development and sustainability of solar energy in most cold climate areas. But, as we know, he says that while solar thermal systems produce more energy in summer, our needs are higher in winter. This makes seasonal storage of solar energy a vital issue and one that will help to add even more value to your home. 

As he says, other very minor details like the constant shadow from mountains and trees can minimize or even negate the investment. 

Because PV panels are temperature-sensitive and operate more efficiently at low temperatures, they are great for cold climate areas. Wherever they are, houses with PV panels can send surplus electricity to the grid in summer and get paid for it. Otherwise, homeowners can store the excess energy in a battery and literally save it for a rainy day.

Mussar suggests that solar thermal collectors are another ideal option in cold climates. 

Conclusion

Some of the most popular areas for solar energy in the U.S. have snow in winter. While cold weather and limited sunlight will decrease the levels of solar energy production, this doesn’t mean that solar panels won’t be effective. 

Like most other electronic devices, they work better in cold conditions than in the heat. And, if the Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy is anything to go by, their research and the research of others is going to make sure that solar panels will perform even better in the future. 

If you live in a cold climate, solar panels will be an investment that will reduce your energy consumption throughout the year. Even if the solar system runs at reduced efficiency in winter, you’re sure to benefit overall. 

I’m convinced!

Erin Shine

Erin Shine

Founder | Attainable Home

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