Global Solar Photovoltaic Industry Is Likely Now Net Energy Positive

For the first time since the renewable energy boom started, the electricity generated by all of the world’s installed 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.

“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.”

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.

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