The solar photovoltaic panel was unveiled around 1954, the cells have become more efficient and are manufactured at cheaper rates. Think of the manufacturing process of the solar panel. There is a requirement of quartz and copper, then the raw materials get converted and encased in protective material, and followed by the shipping process. A question that comes up is whether the solar industry has saved any energy in the process.
The research was conducted by researchers at the University of Utrecht and the University of Groningen. Spearheaded by Dr Wilfried van Sark, the study was published in Nature Communications. The study states that since 1975, the solar panel industry has been able to prevent greenhouse-gas emissions. The objective was to study the environmental impact of solar panels over time. The researchers had to find and then calibrate 40 years of data (both economic and energy) from different countries. The study has a best-case and worst-case scenario, and the authors suggested a break-even on the net energy in 2017. In 2018 the break-even on the greenhouse gas emissions was suggested. The optimistic view states that the energy debt was paid off in 1997.
Professor of chemical and environmental engineering at Olin College, Scott Hersey, said that the study had solid methods but was fraught with assumptions.
The Biggest Sources of Uncertainty
- Solar environmental impact data age and quality: The environmental impact data from the 1970s to the 2010s varies, as the new data logically would be of higher quality. The older methods of data collection vary over time.
- Location of panel production: Solar panels manufactured in Europe and China vary. As China relies more on coal-burning for its electricity and is fraught with lax environmental protections. Whereas, the EU has more clean energy and stricter environmental bases. Solar panels, thus manufactured in China, would require a lot of energy against the EU.
- The energy produced by Solar panels: Production ratios are quite uneven. A panel installed in Saudi Arabia would have a higher production ratio, sunny and clear. At the same time, the ratio would vary in Argentina. Assumptions could impact this ratio. So, the break-even point for energy and greenhouse gas emissions could vary by a few years accordingly.
The future development of photovoltaic maybe be difficult to predict, but it is certainly getting more efficient and cheaper.