Solar Industry Now a Net Energy Producer

April 4, 2013

As the solar  industry continues explosive growth, you can bet the pushback from fossil fuel interests will increase. Trust me on this, you’ll be hearing about “solar cell syndrome” soon.
One of the more superficially credible snarks you might have heard in recent years would be the one about how much energy or rare materials go into producing solar panels.  As the concerns about costly materials are steadily being addressed by new technology, new research at Stanford indicates that the obvious is now occurring – solar is becoming a net producer of energy, and going forward, more and more of the energy produced is “extra” energy that will be used for economic activity and to provide services.

Stanford University with H/T to CleanTechnica:

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 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.

“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 first step in producing the silicon at the heart of most panels is to melt silica rock at 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit 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 feed stock, 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 the industry to pay off this energy debt as early as 2015, thanks to declining energy inputs, more durable panels and more efficient conversion of sunlight into electricity.

29 Responses to “Solar Industry Now a Net Energy Producer”

  1. Bruce Miller Says:

    New beginnings America! This is great, no expensive clean up decomissioning, no humanocidal waste, way to go! Next: Super insulation to imporve heating/cooling costs.

  2. daveburton Says:

    Unfortunately, most of the energy used to produce the solar panels came from soot-belching, coal-fired power plants in China, and most of the energy replaced by solar panels would have been produced in clean power plants with state-of-the-art “scrubbers” in North America, Europe & Australia.

    So, Chinese workers get emphysema, and American & European greens get to feel self-righteous. What a deal.

    • greenman3610 Says:

      poor reasoning here.
      the problem is the coal, the solar panels are the solution.

    • andrewfez Says:

      I can’t think of a better purpose for a soot-belching plant than for it to make non-soot belching replacements for itself. It’s better than making Barbie dolls, designer purses, and China’s oversupply of real estate.

      • skeptictmac57 Says:

        Excellent point Andrewfez!! After all,the Chinese workers will be utilizing their coal burning energy for something regardless. They need to provide jobs for their people,they might as well be producing something useful for our planet.

    • MorinMoss Says:

      Unfortunately, the owners of the coal plants have always bitched, moaned and bellyached about having to install those “state of the art scrubbers”.

      Their preferred solution has long been taller chimneys to throw the offending emissions higher and further away, a Smokestack Olympics, if you will.

      Had they started doing this back in the ’90s, I would have praised them (somewhat) but it’s only in the last few years, a mere 35 years after the passage of the Clean Air Act of 1970, that they’ve undertaken a serious effort to clean up the flue gases.

      That still leaves HUNDREDS of plants, totaling perhaps 200+ GW of electrical output with ZERO, yes, ZERO emissions controls on sulfur dioxide.

      And there are probably TWICE as many plants without scrubbers as with even partially effective ones.

      Since you mentioned Australia, I thought I’d share a solar milestone for our cousins Down Under – 1 MILLION residential rooftop PV systems now installed for a nameplate capacity of 2.5 GW, a fantastic growth from just 20,000 in 2008.

      http://reneweconomy.com.au/2013/solar-milestone-1000000-pv-systems-installed-in-australia-44201

      • daveburton Says:

        Extremely tall chimneys were an effective approach to addressing the public health problems associated with ground level air pollution, a half-century and more ago. But the ice age scare of the 1970s, and the acid rain scare of the late 1970s and 1980s, put an and to that. Power plants still have tall chimneys, but building taller and taller chimneys hasn’t been considered a primary remedy for air pollution in many decades.

        American power plants are very clean these days. There are no longer any operating coal-fired power plants in the USA without scrubbers, and there haven’t been for many years. That’s why, a couple of weeks ago, the Washington Post ran a picture of fake smoke belching from a power plant: because they couldn’t run any pictures of real smoke from a power plant, because, in the USA, there are no power plants which emit any visible smoke, anymore.

        Some things are easier to remove from emissions than others, and SO2 is one of the harder things. But even SO2 emissions are down a lot from 40 years ago, and, believe it or not, they came down substantially in the 1970s. American power plants still emit SO2, but not at levels that cause significant human health effects or environmental harm. If they did, you’d smell it, because SO2 stinks (though not as bad as hydrogen sulfide).

        • MorinMoss Says:

          Your concept of “many” is staggeringly weak.
          In 1970 only 2 smokestacks at coal plants were over 500 feet which exploded to nearly 200 surpassing that height in a bit more than 15 years.

          And half of the 300 tallest smokestacks at powerplants in the USA were built after 1990.

          FYI, that’s “a couple” or , at best, “a few” decades, not “many”.

          Also, utilities claim they’ve spent $30 billion in scrubber retrofits since the mid-2000s so that makes your “many decades” claim yet another gross exaggeration.

          SO2 emissions were high enough at 200 coal plants that’s it’s unlikely they have scrubbers or are not working properly.

          To see how America stacks (sorry) up recently, go to http://www.epi2010.yale.edu/Metrics/SulfurDioxideEmissions, choose the Country Groups chart, click on Groups, and choose Cluster 7 from the Cluster Analysis Groups.
          Doing better than Canada and Australia but well behind a lot of other industrialized nations.

          • daveburton Says:

            MorinMoss, you seem to be under the impression that scrubbers are just for the removal of SO2, and perhaps under the impression that SO2 is the most important pollutant from coal combustion. Neither is true.

            BTW, where’d you find the smokestack height stats?

  3. petersjazz Says:

    Interesting. But is there any kind of energy that comes without initial costs and recouses? I have heard it takes two years for PV to pay for the construction. With wind its a bit shorter

  4. petersjazz Says:

    The biggest producer in China uses mostly electricity from solar panels in producing solar panels.

  5. pendantry Says:

    The energy used to produce solar panels is intense. The first step in producing the silicon at the heart of most panels is to melt silica rock at 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit…

    No-brainer time:

    I wonder how many manufacturing plants are currently being built in sandy deserts using mirrors to generate the necessary heat?

    .. are there even any plans for such things, or is it all still business as usual with a feel-good gloss coat?

  6. Bruce Miller Says:

    May your soul be quietened to know that cutting edge Pebble Bed Gas and Thorium LFTR type reactors are actually under construction in China a this very moment and will, within three years, begin to displace Coal heat. (Thorium debut 2017) moreover; China advances as rapidly as is humanly possible in Solar, Wind, Wave, Hydro, Tidal, Geothermal, Biological, all clean, all CO2 free, all renewable = perpetual = eternal based Domestic energy systems. Unfortunately China commits ecocide by not recognizing waste streams as concentrations of resource flow, but will soon see the advantages to anaerobic digestions of humanure, manure, carcasses, and waste vegetation for Methane gas production and a top soil building fertilizer final output. The extreme advantage in China is that if brought to the attention if the Politburo, these problems can be remedied by decree, and are not necessarily profit motivated as in America where human sewage and animal manures are destroying lakes, rivers, streams, swamps, and even fields as we speak, for lack of a methane and fertilizer market.

    • daveburton Says:

      Bruce wrote, “The extreme advantage in China is that if brought to the attention [of] the Politburo, these problems can be remedied by decree, and are not necessarily profit motivated as in America…”

      Ah, yes, the triumph of ideology over evidence, so typical in the Climate Movement.

      Reality check: Everywhere in the world, societies run by the principles of Scientific Socialism are characterized by poisonous air, filthy water, and low living standards. Everywhere in the world, capitalist societies have much cleaner air and water, and far higher standards of living.

      That is not some strange, improbable coincidence. Thomas Jefferson understood it almost 200 years ago. In 1821 he wrote, “Were we directed from Washington when to sow and when to reap, we
      should soon want [for] bread.”


  7. We need to use our current energy sources to springboard into renewables – how else would you think it could be done?

    The second generation of solar panels and wind turbines and wave and tidal systems, etc. will be made using energy from the first, and the third generation will be made using the energy from the second – and so on. Things will get cleaner and cleaner and cleaner.

    Neil

    • skeptictmac57 Says:

      I’d give this 10 thumbs up if possible. That is the fault in the chain of logic that naysayers of renewables conveniently make. They want to always apply today’s dirtier manufacturing requirements,rather than the cleaner techniques and sources that we are trying to (without their help) move to.

  8. uknowispeaksense Says:

    Here you go Peter. Apparently if you are sensitive to electricity, solar systems are a health hazard….http://www.eiwellspring.org/SolarEMFHazard.pdf

    • daveburton Says:

      This smells like nonsense, to me. Unsigned, no references, no evidence, and grab-your-wallet, because they’re peddling a “solution” to this supposed problem.

      Hmmm… well, those last two objections probably don’t bother most climate alarmists. 😉


    • Quality solar inverters and grid ties are FCC, Class B certified – an RF emissions standard that applies to the computer you’re using.

      • uknowispeaksense Says:

        Charles, I’m not a denier. I was merely showing Peter that his comment about “solar cell syndrome” was pretty well spot on and there are already idiots out there claiming solar power is unhealthy.


        • @uknowispeaksense, As a regular reader of this blog, it didn’t cross my mind that you are a denier. As a fellow “climate alarmist”, I was going along with your clearly satirical comment by adding some techie trivia.

          • uknowispeaksense Says:

            Cheers Charles. I need to make sure I have more coffee before interpreting comments in future 🙂

  9. MorinMoss Says:

    Your concept of “many” is staggeringly weak.
    In 1970 only 2 smokestacks at coal plants were over 500 feet which exploded to nearly 200 surpassing that height in a bit more than 15 years.

    And half of the 300 tallest smokestacks at powerplants in the USA were built after 1990.

    FYI, that’s “a couple” or , at best, “a few” decades, not “many”.

    Also, utilities claim they’ve spent $30 billion in scrubber retrofits since the mid-2000s so that makes your “many decades” claim yet another gross exaggeration.

    SO2 emissions were high enough at 200 coal plants that’s it’s unlikely they have scrubbers or are not working properly.

    To see how America stacks (sorry) up recently, go to http://www.epi2010.yale.edu/Metrics/SulfurDioxideEmissions, choose the Country Groups chart, click on Groups, and choose Cluster 7 from the Cluster Analysis Groups.
    Doing better than Canada and Australia but well behind a lot of other industrialized nations.

  10. petersjazz Says:

    Are uou still using coal and gas for electricity generation. So old fashion. Sweden uses water, nucear and wind. We use more electricity per capita than US. We have higt tax on electricity.

    • greenman3610 Says:

      we are very old fashioned here in the US, but technology will reach us even here in this anti-science cultural backwater.


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