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New study says solar panels have repaid their fossil fuel debt


Phys.org reports: The climate friendly electricity generated by solar panels in the past 40 years has all but cancelled out the polluting energy used to produce them, a study said Tuesday. Indeed, by some calculations, the so-called “break-even point” between dirty energy input and clean output may already have arrived, researchers in the Netherlands reported.

Mariëtte Le Roux, Phys.org

The climate-friendly electricity generated by solar panels in the past 40 years has all but cancelled out the polluting energy used to produce them, a study said Tuesday.

Indeed, by some calculations, the so-called “break-even point” between dirty energy input and clean output may already have arrived, researchers in the Netherlands reported.

“We show strong downward trends of environmental impact” of solar panel production, the team wrote in the journal Nature Communications.

ORIGINAL RESEARCH PAPER:
Re-assessment of net energy production and greenhouse gas emissions avoidance after 40 years of photovoltaics development 

The study sought to address concerns that solar technology may be using fossil fuel energy in the panels’ manufacture, and emitting greenhouse gases, faster than it was able to offset.

The authors found that for every doubling in solar capacity installed, energy used to produce solar panels decreased by 12-13 percent, and greenhouse gas emissions dropped by 17-24 percent, depending on the material used.

Solar panels, which convert sunlight into electricity, are a key player in the fast-growing renewable energy sector, which also includes water- and wind-generated electricity.

Unlike energy from fossil fuels such as oil, coal and gas, the generation of electricity by so-called photovoltaic (PV) panels does not release planet-harming carbon dioxide.

Solar panel capacity grew sharply, on average, by 45 percent per year from 1975 to reach 230 billion watts (Gigawatt or GW) in 2015.

In 1975, there were fewer than 10,000 solar panels around the world, compared to about a billion today, study co-author Wilfried Van Sark of Utrecht University in the Netherlands told AFP.

By the end of 2016, “we would have some 300 GW installed”—about 1-1.5 percent of global electricity demand.

Falling costs

Over an average lifespan of 30-odd years, a PV system pays back the energy that was used in producing it “multiple times,” said the study authors.

Looking at data since 1976, the researchers calculated that on a global scale, solar energy’s “debt was likely already repaid in 2011” for both energy input and greenhouse gases.

Even on the least optimistic data, break-even point will be reached at the latest next year for net energy, and in 2018 for greenhouse gases, they said.

The photovoltaic effect, by which certain materials convert the photon particles in sunlight into energy, was first identified by French physicist Edmund Bequerel in 1839.

The first photovoltaic battery was built in 1954 but was too expensive for widespread use.

The technology was used in the 1960s to generate power on spacecraft, and only started taking root on Earth in the 1970s.

From 1975, costs decreased by about 20 percent for every doubling in capacity, the study found.

In 1976, one would have paid about $80 (75 euros at today’s rates) for one Watt-peak (Wp) unit, compared to about 64-67 US cents today.

ORIGINAL RESEARCH PAPER:
Re-assessment of net energy production and greenhouse gas emissions avoidance after 40 years of photovoltaics development  

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2 Responses “New study says solar panels have repaid their fossil fuel debt”

  1. 21st December 2016 at 11:21 pm

    The numbers in the excerpt are quite damning – 40 years of PV development and it seems that we only now got the first net energy to society.

  2. 23rd December 2016 at 2:09 pm

    I cannot comment on the calculations of Van Stark and Atse Louven, but I advocate thinking from the other side, the side of lay persons. In short:

    (1) How come that the late Herman Scheer, until his death President of Euro-Solar and the chief protagonist of solar PV energy in Europe/Germany, could claim already in 1994 that PV energy, with the tech of that period, could well compete with coal-based energy, and now Louven says that break even was achieved in 2011 after doubling the capacity word wide etc etc. And at worst sites (Germany, England, Norway?) break-even can be achieved after many doublings of capacity by 1917. There must be several things wrong in the way people like Louven calculate net energy. I have pointed out how Georgescu-Roegen thought net energy (EROEI) should be calculated.

    (2) If break-even can be achieved in Central Europe in 2017, when will the surplus for our consumption be flowing? And will the surplus be so high that the need for fossil-fuel based energy could be completely eliminated? What about the second generation of all PV-energy related industries and equipments (the viability question).

    (3) I still have my doubts. There is one thing missing in all these arguments. 2017 is a point in time. But what about the following years? As we know, mining companies first exploit the most easily accessible and richest sources of non-renewables (i.e. all minerals which are needed for industries). Gradually, they must go to sources that are more and more difficult to access for less and less yields. If that is true, the energy cost (EI) (ignore the market money cost which depends on many factors) must be continually rising. And technological miracles cannot be expected here. All such “miracles” in other areas were possible because huge amounts of energy could be used.

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