THAT solar panels do not emit greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide when they are generating electricity is without question. This is why they are beloved of many who worry about the climate-altering potential of such gases. Sceptics, though, observe that a lot of energy is needed to make a solar panel in the first place. In particular, melting and purifying the silicon that these panels employ to capture and transduce sunlight needs a lot of heat. Silicon’s melting point, 1,414°C, is only 124°C less than that of iron.
Silicon is melted in electric furnaces and, at the moment, most electricity is produced by burning fossil fuels. That does emit carbon dioxide. So, when a new solar panel is put to work it starts with a “carbon debt” that, from a greenhouse-gas-saving point of view, has to be paid back before that panel becomes part of the solution, rather than part of the problem. Observing this, some sceptics have gone so far as to suggest that if the motive for installing solar panels is environmental (which is often, though not always, the case), they are pretty-much useless.
Wilfried van Sark, of Utrecht University in the Netherlands, and his colleagues have therefore tried to put some numbers into the argument. As they report in Nature Communications, they have calculated the energy required to make all of the solar panels installed around the world between 1975 and 2015, and the carbon-dioxide emissions associated with producing that energy. They also looked at the energy these panels have produced since their installation and the corresponding amount of carbon dioxide they have prevented from being spewed into the atmosphere. Others have done life-cycle assessments for solar power in the past. None, though, has accounted for the fact that the process of making the panels has become more efficient over the course of time. Dr Van Sark’s study factors this in.
To estimate the number of solar panels installed around the world, Dr Van Sark and his team used data from the International Energy Agency, an autonomous intergovernmental body. They gleaned information on the amount of energy required to make panels from dozens of published studies. Exactly how much carbon dioxide was emitted during the manufacture of a panel will depend on where it was made, as well as when. How much emitted gas it has saved will depend on where it is installed. A panel made in China, for example, costs nearly double the greenhouse-gas emissions of one made in Europe. That is because China relies more on fossil fuels for generating power. Conversely, the environmental benefits of installing solar panels will be greater in China than in Europe, as the clean power they produce replaces electricity that would otherwise be generated largely by burning coal or gas.
Once the team accounted for all this, they found that solar panels made today are responsible, on average, for around 20 grams of carbon dioxide per kilowatt-hour of energy they produce over their lifetime (estimated as 30 years, regardless of when a panel was manufactured). That is down from 400-500 grams in 1975. Likewise, the amount of time needed for a solar panel to produce as much energy as was involved in its creation has fallen from about 20 years to two years or less. As more panels are made, the manufacturing process becomes more efficient. The team found that for every doubling of the world’s solar capacity, the energy required to make a panel fell by around 12% and associated carbon-dioxide emissions by 17-24%.
The consequence of all this number-crunching is not as clear-cut as environmentalists might hope. Depending on the numbers fed into the model, global break-even could have come as early as 1997, or might still not have arrived. But if it has not, then under even the most pessimistic assumptions possible it will do so in 2018. After that, solar energy’s environmental credentials really will be spotless.
This article appeared in the Science & technology section of the print edition under the headline “Shine on”
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