Solar Photovoltaic Industry Is Likely a Net Electricity Provider

Outdoor Solar Panels

The construction of the photovoltaic power industry since 2000 has required an enormous amount of energy, mostly from fossil fuels. The good news is that the clean electricity from all the installed solar panels has likely just surpassed the energy going into the industry’s continued growth, Stanford researchers find.

A new study from Stanford researchers suggests that electricity generated by all of the world’s installed solar photovoltaic (PV) panels has caught up to the amount of energy going into the production of those panels, making the global solar photovoltaic industry a net energy producer. The results suggest that the PV industry was a net consumer of electricity as recently as 2010, but there is a >50% that in 2012 the PV industry was a net electricity provider and will “pay back” the electrical energy required for its early growth before 2020.

The rapid growth of the solar power industry over the past decade may have exacerbated the global warming situation it was meant to soothe, simply because most of the energy used to manufacture the millions of solar panels came from burning fossil fuels. That irony, according to Stanford University researchers, is coming to an end.

For the first time since the boom started, the electricity generated by all of the world’s installed solar photovoltaic (PV) panels last year probably surpassed the amount of energy going into fabricating more modules, according to Michael Dale, a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford’s Global Climate & Energy Project (GCEP). With continued technological advances, the global PV industry is poised to pay off its debt of energy as early as 2015, and no later than 2020.

Solar Photovoltaic Industry is Likely Now a Net Energy Producer

Credit: Michael Dale and Sally M. Benson, Environ. Sci. Technol., 2013, 47 (7), pp 3482–3489; DOI: 10.1021/es3038824

“This analysis shows that the industry is making positive strides,” said Dale, who developed a novel way of assessing the industry’s progress globally in a study published in the current edition of Environmental Science & Technology. “Despite its fantastically fast growth rate, PV is producing – or just about to start producing – a net energy benefit to society.”

The achievement is largely due to steadily declining energy inputs required to manufacture and install PV systems, according to co-author Sally Benson, GCEP’s director. The new study, Benson said, indicates that the amount of energy going into the industry should continue to decline, while the issue remains an important focus of research.

“GCEP is focused on developing game-changing energy technologies that can be deployed broadly. If we can continue to drive down the energy inputs, we will derive greater benefits from PV,” she said. “Developing new technologies with lower energy requirements will allow us to grow the industry at a faster rate.”

The energy used to produce solar panels is intense. The initial step in producing the silicon at the heart of most panels is to melt silica rock at 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit (1,650 degrees Celsius) using electricity, commonly from coal-fired power plants.

As investment and technological development have risen sharply with the number of installed panels, the energetic costs of new PV modules have declined. Thinner silicon wafers are now used to make solar cells, less highly refined materials are now used as the silicon feedstock, and less of the costly material is lost in the manufacturing process. Increasingly, the efficiency of solar cells using thin film technologies that rely on earth-abundant materials such as copper, zinc, tin, and carbon have the potential for even greater improvements.

To be considered a success – or simply a positive energy technology – PV panels must ultimately pay back all the energy that went into them, said Dale. The PV industry ran an energy deficit from 2000 to now, consuming 75 percent more energy than it produced just five years ago. The researchers expect this energy debt to be paid off as early as 2015, thanks to declining energy inputs, more durable panels, and more efficient conversion of sunlight into electricity.

Strategic implications

If current rapid growth rates persist, by 2020 about 10 percent of the world’s electricity could be produced by PV systems. At today’s energy payback rate, producing and installing the new PV modules would consume around 9 percent of global electricity. However, if the energy intensity of PV systems continues to drop at its current learning rate, then by 2020 less than 2 percent of global electricity will be needed to sustain growth of the industry.

This may not happen if special attention is not given to reducing energy inputs. The PV industry’s energetic costs can differ significantly from its financial costs. For example, installation and the components outside the solar cells, like wiring and inverters, as well as soft costs like permitting, account for a third of the financial cost of a system, but only 13 percent of the energy inputs. The industry is focused primarily on reducing financial costs.

Continued reduction of the energetic costs of producing PV panels can be accomplished in a variety of ways, such as using less materials or switching to producing panels that have much lower energy costs than technologies based on silicon. The study’s data covers the various silicon-based technologies as well as newer ones using cadmium telluride and copper indium gallium diselenide as semiconductors. Together, these types of PV panels account for 99 percent of installed panels.

The energy payback time can also be reduced by installing PV panels in locations with high quality solar resources, like the desert Southwest in the United States and the Middle East. “At the moment, Germany makes up about 40 percent of the installed market, but sunshine in Germany isn’t that great,” Dale said. “So from a system perspective, it may be better to deploy PV systems where there is more sunshine.”

This accounting of energetic costs and benefits, say the researchers, should be applied to any new energy-producing technology, as well as to energy conservation strategies that have large upfront energetic costs, such as retrofitting buildings. GCEP researchers have begun applying the analysis to energy storage and wind power.

Reference: “Energy Balance of the Global Photovoltaic (PV) Industry – Is the PV Industry a Net Electricity Producer?” by Michael Dale and Sally M. Benson, 26 February 2013, Environmental Science & Technology.
DOI: 10.1021/es3038824

5 Comments on "Solar Photovoltaic Industry Is Likely a Net Electricity Provider"

  1. Loyal Severson | April 3, 2013 at 8:35 pm | Reply

    My sister in law thinks those twisty bulbs that are florescent are bad for the invironment , because of mercury . but I notice in Los Angeles we had no rolling blackouts because the city as a whole uses less electricity because of those bulbs ,
    at a local Home Depot I asked a guy about recycleing 4 and 8 ft. bulbs he said break off the ends and bring them and they would recycle them , I said thats against the law as that would release mercury , He said he never heard that before.

  2. Loyal Severson | April 3, 2013 at 8:38 pm | Reply

    Also those solar yard lights dont seem to last very long.

  3. Fred c schwartz | April 7, 2013 at 9:13 am | Reply

    The other way to validate this would be for Stanford, or some other university, to build a solar energy demonstration plant that has exactly two macroscopic inputs: sunlight and sand, and produces solar cells

    Wouldn’t this be an energy machine that produces energy at essentially no cost after the seed investment?

  4. Use of a solar electric lighting systems by rural health centers increases the quality of health care provided. Solar electric systems improve patient diagnoses through brighter task lighting. Even today, child birth happens at rural homes having no access to electricity, supplying a regulated amount of light through solar lanterns will improve and make child birth easier.

  5. I live in a rural area, and solar lighting has made a difference for the disabled I care for. The lighting in the yard automatically comes on with no bending down or switch flipping required. I know that’s not the kind of energy output and decrease of energy the article is addressing, but on a much smaller scale the decrease in effort to provide and assist these members of my family makes solar lighting the light of choice for us. Additionally, the small outlay to acquire the solar lights has paid for itself many, many times since that initial purchase.

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