« How to Keep Warm in a Cool House | Main | How Sustainable is Stored Sunlight? »


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

John Weber


All the things in our world have an industrial history. Behind the computer, the T-shirt, the vacuum cleaner is an industrial infrastructure fired by energy (fossil fuels mainly). Each component of our car or refrigerator has an industrial history. Mainly unseen and out of mind, this global industrial infrastructure touches every aspect of our lives. It pervades our daily living from the articles it produces, to its effect on the economy and employment, as well as its effects on the environment.
Solar energy collecting devices also have an industrial history. It is important to understand the industrial infrastructure and the environmental results for the components of the solar energy collecting devices so we don’t designate them with false labels such as green, renewable or sustainable.
This is an essay challenging ‘business as usual’. If we teach people that these solar devices are the future of energy without teaching the whole system, we mislead, misinform and create false hopes and beliefs.
Provided by the various industries themselves, I have provided both charts and videos for the solar cells, modules, aluminum from ore, aluminum from recycling, aluminum extrusion, inverters, batteries and copper.
Please note each piece of machinery you see in each of the videos has its own
industrial interconnection and history.

Ray Orb


One factor which is rarely considered is if the solar panels are placed on a roof, how much additional cost is placed on the homeowner for roof repairs or a new roof?? This article is one of the best I've read.



Thanks for this article;
One question though: has end-of-life phasis been considered in the LCA? Are recycling process available for PV cells and, if exists, how much energy- and carbon-intensive are they, compared to production?



Efficiency! People who use solar are aware of efficiency and use less energy, not more
. . . Using Less:
. . . . . . LED's,
. . . . . . Insulation,
. . . . . . Energy Star Appliances,
. . . . . . Ceiling Fans,

Centralized Fossil Fuel!
. . . over 50% of the energy generated, is not used and causes pollution.
. . . Uses large amounts of Water
. . . Large amount of capital spent on building and maintaining "Poles & Wires."

Distributed Solar & Storage
. . . Solar saves 30%, and
. . . Solar with storage saves 60%,
. . . (Zero Water Usage, no maintenance, no pollution = Energy/Water Nexus)

Norris Thomlinson


Besides the energy payback time, and the end-of-life disposal Thomas brought up, it's important to recognize that solar panels and other "green technology" still require mining, an inherently destructive process: always ecocidal, and often genocidal. We can't honestly term these technologies "sustainable."

Green Technology & Renewable Energy FAQs:

p droege


this is an unfortunate article. it reiterates many old misconception spun by the fossil fuel lobby. good is the observation that local and regional applications are preferable over global ones. but seen in a historical perspective it is irrelevant where solar is produced: it has to be produced and applied everywhere. and the comparisons with nat gas or nuclear are misleading: solar has no resource cost. and all energy forms require storage, also oil, coal and uranium: that vast infrastructure is ignored. also, the proposed solutions won't work in a market economy etc. but the most important aspect is: as soon as we move to 50 and 100% the fossil content decreases. forever. the sun sends us no bills.

Kris De Decker


@ p droege

Maybe we could finally make progress if people from the renewable energy industry stop countering every criticism on solar panels by blaming the fossil fuel lobby. All the more because the renewable energy industry is producing at least as much disinformation as the fossil fuel industry does.

@ Thomas

Recycling of solar panels is not yet a reality and is therefore not included. It would improve the CO2-balance of solar PV and is therefore an important part of the solution, as it is stated in the article. However, part of the profit will be eaten by the energy required to recycle the panels.

Jason Olshefsky


I hope you will address the costs of lithium versus lead when discussing Li-Ion battery storage in a future essay. My broad understanding is that acquiring lithium is environmentally intensive and occurs in areas where labor exploitation is likely. It's not like I'm a proponent of lead, but—at least in the U.S.—there is a reasonably robust infrastructure for recycling and recovery.

Bart Hawkins Kreps


There are many good points in this article, which cast recent gains by photovoltaics in a more realistic light.

However the discussion of sustainable growth rate for PV seems somewhat misguided (unless I have misunderstood this discussion). On the one hand, if PV manufacturing were to increase by 1000% annually for five years, it is true that during those 5 years the manufacturing would emit more carbon than was saved by the operation of the panels in the same years. But is that really significant? In this hypothetical case, if after those 5 years, production of PVs suddenly stopped, wouldn't the ongoing carbon emission savings more than make up for the temporary "excess" of carbon emissions during the manufacturing years?

Kris De Decker


@ Bart

The point is that solar PV could be reducing CO2 emissions already today if we would carefully select the location of both manufacturing and installation. If we don't do that, the potential CO2-savings are not more than a future promise, and the immediate effect are higher CO2-emissions. This makes solar PV inferior to other solutions such as lowering energy demand, which has immediate positive effects.

A growth rate of 1000% with manufacturing in China and installation in less sunny countries would produce a massive CO2-debt that would take decades to redeem. This might mean that the net CO2-balance never becomes positive, because solar panels have to be replaced every 30 years at best. So, if you take 5 years to cover the world with solar panels, you will have to start doing that again 25 years later. If you have manufactured them in China and placed them in less sunny locations, this will happen before the carbon debt has been paid back.

Also, don't forget that such a spectacular growth rate would require the building of hundreds or thousands of solar PV manufacturing facilities, which also costs energy.



At least in my case, my solar panels were manufactured in a factory some 50 miles away from my house, here in Western Washington. Since a vast majority of our energy comes for what is effectively zero-emissions hydro, they're likely much lower impact than any of your charts suggest.

Even when you take into account the raw materials that went into the panels, which silica is essentially sand, most of that for my panels were dredged out of the Columbia River and refined at the REC Solar's factory in Moses Lake, WA - which is also just down the road from the nation's largest single source of electricity, the Grand Coulee Dam.

Also, now that China's grid is rapidly reducing their demand for coal, I'd double check your numbers on their power sources. China coal demand is down some 40% in just the past year.



"This might mean that the net CO2-balance never becomes positive, **because solar panels have to be replaced every 30 years at best.**"

This statement doesn't seem to be based in reality. Most solar panels have warranties of at least 25 years, if not 30 years. And existing solar panels have shown they have a longevity well beyond their warranty period and should easily last beyond 50-years.

The first array I installed on my office in 2007 has only seen a 3% reduction in output over the first 8 years of operation. At that rate of output decline, they'll still be producing 75% of their nameplate capacity 50 years from now. I expect them to last beyond my own lifetime and still be functional for my unborn childrens' lifetimes.

Sam Gardner


The article raises very good points, but I would like to disagree with the presentations of "energy cannibalism"

We are dealing with an old accounting principle we call "investment". In finance: Any company investing will use temporarily more money than they earn. They gather capital or take a loan to pay for it. In a stable country, these payments, loans, are spread over many years, for this kind of investments, 10 years or more are acceptable.

The same should be done with energy accounting. If we would look at the energy balance, not in the first 3 years of installation, but over the life cycle.

The situation we are facing is an emergency. We have a certain amount of money, a carbon ceiling we should not pass and a certain amount of time. How fast can we bring our carbon emissions down forever? The price of the solar panels is here a real issue for getting there. As solar panel production is low in labor, and high in energy, It must be possible to compete with China on this.

Most solar panels are installed nowadays in China itself,so local production makes sense.China installs also more renewables than any other country in the world.

However, the energy use in the production in China should rather be addressed by a carbon tax than by moving production to the rich north and shipping the panels to China.

Kris De Decker


@ Steve

Yours are pretty sustainable solar panels. We should see more of them.

It would be interesting to have better data on the life expectancy of solar panels, which is not available now. If you accept a lower performance, solar panels could indeed last longer. But then solar energy needs more land, and land use is already an important disadvantage of renewable energy. So it's not always a solution.

On a side note, the panels that are produced today don't necessarily have the same life expectancy as those made 10 or 20 years ago. Your panels were produced before manufacturing moved to China and solar cells got much cheaper. We have the technical capacity to make solar panels that last for many decades, but the problem is that quality can be sacrificed for other reasons.

@ Sam

If I would be managing your financial account, I would look for the cheapest investment. I would get a loan at the bank that offers me the lowest interest rate. I would buy the cheapest stocks. With energy accounting, it's the same.



Situation is even worse if you consider all the factors to install and maintain solar panels. According to the study "Spain’s Photovoltaic Revolution. The Energy Return on Investment”, by Pedro Prieto and Charles Hall (Springer, 2013) , EROI of PV in Spain is less than 3:1.

For a review of the book, reference information and interesting comments from the author, read: http://energyskeptic.com/2015/tilting-at-windmills-spains-solar-pv/

Kris De Decker


@ Thierry

Great link, thanks !



Location is key to the succes of photovoltaic electricity.
For example some sites in the Swiss alps have the same insulation like in southern Spain. At high altitudes the solar panels will be higher than most clouds. Means there are more hours of sunshine. The atmosphere is thinner and thus blocks less radiation. Additionally colder temperatures means that the PV cells are more efficient.
And the biggest benefits is that there are already a lot of big hydroelectric power station in the Alps, the largest produce more than 1 GW of electricity. And that is a Gigawatt which can be turned on or off and regulated instantly.
It will be more efficient to place PV array near hydro power stations since teh energy can be stored at site and all the transmission lines are there already. Even the lakes could be coverd with swimming PV cells. Those are artificial lakes so enviromental impact is lowered.

In other countries solar power can be used for a recerse osmosis process. No electricity need to be stored just the freshwater in cheap an efficient reservoirs. Or solar energy can used to power air conditioners. Again surplus energy could be used to produce ice. The ice storage will be much cheaper than a battery storage.

Sure there are many application which need a battery storage but with clever engineering a lot of energy could be stored by other needs and off load the batteries considerable.



Solar panels are not the only source of solar power. Mirrors lenses, pipes and molten salt are both usable and sustainable. Admittedly less efficient, power systems based on these technologies are far more sustainable than the high tech processes needed for solar panel manufacture.



I don't see the point over CO2 emissions. Because Solar is one of the best technologies we ever had, if we deploy solar slower, more CO2 will be emitted.
Of course more CO2 related to solar will be emitted as faster you deploy it, but what would happen if solar don't deploy?
Other dirtier energy sources will be used, and the CO2 "saved" by not build more PV will be spended in greater numbers on other energy sources.



Energy East pipeline advertisement by petroleum lobby group in prominent position at top of this story..."good for the economy and safe for the environment" apparently according to their ad...I dont agree with their assessment of pipeline risks to environment, and the ad offends me...just thought Id let you know ;)



to: MrColdWaterOfRealityMan
Not necessary, efficiency of steam trubine and alternator, so it means Turbo-alternator can be over 40%, PV cells have usually between 18-30%. If we will count that thermal collectors has efficiency of 80%, then efficiency of thermal system can be 32% with possibility of cheap energy storage (compared to batteries) and reserve heating by natural gas or heating oil. Atmospheric burning is more ecological than combustion engines.

to: Matthias
You have point, but I somehow, can not imagine that people in Switzerland will let cover their meadows and mountains in solar cells. Even when idea of Matterhorn covered in blue cells is interesting, it is not highly probable. They are not that kind of country which will export it's nature, they have cheap electricity from water, bit from nuclear

In my opinion we should focus on wind and water rather than on solar power. Development and research should be done on plants under 1MW and how gather energy of unstable wind near surface. Undoubtedly it will need dynamo or at least alternator rectifier and inverter in both cases. Because of stability which is not great production will suffer from fluctuation its something power companies don't lake. One or ten kW's are not problem, but hundreds can blow fuses on lines, that can result in serious loses in industrial processes like glass production or ceramic production. Those furnaces today depends on electricity and every outage can result into damages. So some kind of small accumulator will be necessary. Mechanical can be good solution because it's low looses compared to electrical. I estimate that to generator will go 96% of initial power of prime mover in case of mechanical accumulator (we talk about accumulator which will last minutes)in case of electrical we will lose 15-20% of energy. That is not good and batteries will suffer from often re- and dis. charging. And mechanical accumulator will last for decades, chemical for years.



I really wish edison or Nicke Iron batteries were covered in this analysis. I find it to be a better choice then Lithium Ion batteries and lead acid. They have better charging characteristics and indefinite life times with with the addition of fresh water and catalyst every couple of decades.

I think Tesla is wrong to push Lithium Ion batteries for the home. Nickel Iron makes more sense in stationary home applications because of their durability.

Finally Jay Leno's Edison electric car is still using it's original batteries.



current level technology in solar is just the beginning. moving forward there will be revolutions in 1) efficiency 2) cost of maintanance (variable cost) 3) lifetime 4) cost of production.

consider leaves are 1% solar efficient and green plant life has taken over the oceans and entire planet.

it is all about the underlying technology.

that said, current level solar technology cannot sustain an energy revolution. as advanced as we are, we are still so completely backwards that you could eliminate ALL current solar commercial units and we'd be completely ok with relying on coal and existing tech.

current solar simply is a bridge to the next level technologies . deploying current solar technology is a necessary industrial exercise. without it, we would not learn the necessary lessons required to get information about the directions we must invest in for technological solar technology creation and deployment. the feedback loops of industrial buildout and r&D are inextricably linked.

so even though what we are doing now is insufficient is is entirely necessary and arguable we need to do more of this, even if it seems like a total waste of money now.

don't forget ALL investment necessitates risk, otherwise, it's not investment, it's arbitrage or scalping.

Robin Perrett


We should be looking at what 'Solar Windows Technologies, Inc. are about to bring into the market place, with coverings for window glass that develops electricity from light as well as sun, & out-produces the conventional solar panel. Installation costs are reputed to be recoverable within a year. (solarwindow.com)

kris de decker


I have rewritten the title and introduction to better reflect the contents of the article.

The earlier title was "How sustainable is solar PV power?"

sheila chambers


"Green renewables" that use NON renewable resources are NOT renewable!
Solar panels need raw material made from OIL, there other raw materials are mined using HUGE oil burning machines, they are made by burning OIL, coal & natural gas for energy, they are assembled in factories using huge amounts of energy produced by burning fossil fuels, they are shipped across the pacific in ships burning dirty bunker oil.
They are not "green", they are not "renewable" & "sustainable growth" is a oxymoron.

We get massive amounts of raw materials from fossil resources that provide us with synthetic fibers, MEDICINES, paints, FERTILIZERS, pesticides, herbicides, FOOD, PLASTICS, we literally eat" OIL.
For every calorie of food we eat, TEN calories of OIL were burned!

Most of us would not even exist without OIL & after oil, most of us won't be existing as our excessive population will collapse.
NONE of those "renewables" can produce any of the raw materials we currently get from fossil resources.

So even if you have solar panels, inverter, voltage converter & many batteries to store that energy, you may still have the lights on but you will still be starving to death along with most of the rest of humanity.

Then there is climate change that is already causing a decline in our food production but that's another story.



I like that you're giving a skeptical look to solar boosterism, but Bart is right that there's a key error here. Your analysis shows that over the long term, any form of solar PV leads to a net reduction in carbon emission. That is the main answer to your question of whether solar PV is sustainable (in terms of its effect on climate).

In your introduction, you wrote, "solar PV has actually increased energy use and greenhouse gas emissions instead of lowering them." That is misleading. It really doesn't matter what the emissions are just over the past few years—it matters what the emissions will be over the life of PV cells that are being produced. That is a settled question; producing and installing PV cells is sustainable. It's not a problem that PV production has been increasing so rapidly—it's a boon to climate.

I agree that there is a deeper question about how *best* to use PV cells, and your conclusion on that count makes sense: it would be better if the panels were produced more efficiently. (Though that does raise the question of what would be done with the coal plants that are currently providing power to produce solar cells. If solar cells were made in more efficient places, would the coal plants just be used to power other processes? In that case, it's not clear that moving the PV production would actually make a difference.)



It's mentioned that solar actually creates more carbon if it grows beyond a certain rate, but wouldn't we assume that the more growth, the better as long as it's replacing more carbon-intensive sources? Do we know how much of solar production is replacing or diminishing use of such sources vs just adding more power capacity to the grid?

George Elliot


Here is a recent comparative LCA published in journal Clean Technologies and Environmental Policy that asks the same question: how do CO2e and energy payback periods change depending on where PV panels are manufactured and installed?


They find similar results as the 2014 study you cite here.

John Somdecerff


Sounds like somebody listened:

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been saved. Comments are moderated and will not appear until approved by the author. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear until the author has approved them.

Your Information

(Name is required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)