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Study: Solar Panel Industry Now a Net Energy Producer

Solar Panels (NREL)

(National Renewable Energy Laboratory)

The global photovoltaic industry has reached a point where solar panels are now likely generating more energy than needed to produce the panels, concludes a new study by Stanford University’s Global Climate and Energy Project. The findings of postdoctoral fellow Michael Dale and project director Sally Benson appear in the 2 April issue of the journal Environmental Science and Technology (paid subscription required).

Dale and Benson devised a computer model to track energy inputs for manufacturing and installing photovoltaic systems, and used the model to forecast energy requirements for scaling up the industry and calculate the balance between energy consumption and generation to the year 2020. The researchers developed the model from data on the industry’s global capacity, and energy consumption in photovoltaic manufacture and deployment.

The model indicates the growth of the photovoltaic industry since 2000 has ironically consumed more energy created from fossil fuels than generated renewable electric power, a condition that continued until about 2010. The energy needed to produce solar panels is substantial. The silicon in most panels is made by melting of silica rock at 3,000 degrees F, which requires vast amounts of electric power, commonly from coal-fired power plants.

As investment increased and solar technology developed, however, panels required thinner silicon wafers and less costly materials, encouraging more solar energy installations. The team calculates that in 2012, there was more than a 50 percent chance that the industry became a net energy producer rather than consumer, and by 2020 — and maybe as early as 2015 — the surpluses generated will likely overtake the energy consumed in earlier years.

While new solar technologies, such as semiconductors made with cadmium telluride and copper indium gallium diselenide, can reduce the energy costs of photovoltaics, installation and permitting costs can offset these technological gains. Spending on related electronics, such as wiring and inverters, as well as building permits can account for one-third of the financial cost of a solar system.

The energy payback time for solar can be reduced, however, by installing photovoltaic (PV) systems in locations with plenty of sunshine, such as the U.S. desert Southwest. “At the moment,” says Dale, “Germany makes up about 40 percent of the installed market, but sunshine in Germany isn’t that great. So from a system perspective, it may be better to deploy PV systems where there is more sunshine.”

In the following video, Dale tells more about the study.

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