The function of a MPPT is analogous to the transmission in a car. When the transmission is in the wrong gear, the wheels do not receive maximum power. That's because the engine is running either slower or faster than its ideal speed range. The purpose of the transmission is to couple the engine to the wheels, in a way that lets the engine run in a favourable speed range in spite of varying acceleration and terrain.
Let's compare a PV module to a car engine. Its voltage is analogous to engine speed. Its ideal voltage is that at which it can put out maximum power. This is called its maximum power point. (It's also called peak power voltage, abbreviated Vpp). Vpp varies with sunlight intensity and with solar cell temperature. The voltage of the battery is analogous to the speed of the car's wheels. It varies with battery state of charge, and with the loads on the system (any appliances and lights that may be on). For a 12V system, it varies from about 11 to 14.5V.
In order to charge a battery (increase its voltage), the PV module must apply a voltage that is higher than that of the battery. If the PV module's Vpp is just slightly below the battery voltage, then the current drops nearly to zero (like an engine turning slower than the wheels). So, to play it safe, typical PV modules are made with a Vpp of around 17V when measured at a cell temperature of 25°C. They do that because it will drop to around 15V on a very hot day. However, on a very cold day, it can rise to 18V!
The PWM controller is in essence a switch that connects a solar array to a battery. The result is that the voltage of the array will be pulled down to near that of the battery.
The MPPT controller is more sophisticated (and more expensive): it will adjust its input voltage to harvest the maximum power from the solar array and then transform this power to supply the varying voltage requirement, of the battery plus load. Thus, it essentially decouples the array and battery voltages so that there can be, for example, a 12 volt battery on one side of the MPPT charge controller and a large number of cells wired in series to produce 36 volts on the other.
The MPPT controller will harvest more power from the solar array. The performance advantage is substantial (10% to 40%) when the solar cell temperature is low (below 45°C), or very high (above 75°C), or when irradiance is very low.
At high temperature or low irradiance the output voltage of the array will drop dramatically. More cells must then be connected in series to make sure that the output voltage of the array exceeds battery voltage by a comfortable margin.
Ohm’s law tells us that losses due to cable resistance are Pc (Watt) = Rc x I², where Rc is the resistance of the cable. What this formula shows is that for a given cable loss, cable cross sectional area can be reduced by a factor of four when doubling the array voltage.
In the case of a given nominal power, more cells in series will increase the output voltage and reduce the output current of the array (P = V x I, thus, if P doesn’t change, then I must decrease when V increases).
As array size increases, cable length will increase. The option to wire more panels in series and thereby decrease the cable cross sectional area with a resultant drop in cost, is a compelling reason to install an MPPT controller as soon as the array power exceeds a few hundred Watts (12 V battery), or several 100s of Watts (24 V or 48 V battery).
The PWM charge controller is a good low cost solution for small systems only, when solar cell temperature is moderate to high (between 45°C and 75°C).
To fully exploit the potential of the MPPT controller, the array voltage should be substantially higher than the battery voltage. The MPPT controller is the solution of choice for higher power systems (because of the lowest overall system cost due to smaller cable cross sectional areas). The MPPT controller will also harvest substantially more power when the solar cell temperature is low (below 45°C), or very high (above 75°C), or when irradiance is very low.