Are Solar Panels Sustainable?

The price of photovoltaic solar panels is on a very impressive downward spike. Cheaper PV holds out the promise of keeping the lights on and keeping our electrical tools and toys going. Even if the oil industry goes belly up, with cheap electricity, we could switch to driving electrical vehicles and not contribute to climate change. It all sounds so good.

But amidst the growing buzz about cheaper panels, cheaper batteries and grid parity, Low Tech Magazine asks, How Sustainable is PV Solar Power?

It’s generally assumed that it only takes a few years before solar panels have generated as much energy as it took to make them, resulting in very low greenhouse gas emissions compared to conventional grid electricity. … A more critical analysis shows that the cumulative energy and CO2 balance of the industry is negative, meaning that solar PV has actually increased energy use and greenhouse gas emissions instead of lowering them.

What about the PV price drop? Many articles claim that government incentives led to increased efficiencies in manufacture. Low Tech cites studies that say otherwise:

 … the decline in costs accelerates sharply from 2009 onwards. This acceleration has nothing to do with more efficient manufacturing processes or a technological breakthrough. Instead, it’s the consequence of moving almost the entire PV manufacturing industry from western countries to Asian countries, where labour and energy are cheaper and where environmental restrictions are more loose.

This is similar to the long tailpipes argument against electric vehicles. It would be a lot more sustainable to build PV on a PV-powered grid in Germany instead of coal-intensive Asia. But buyers voted with dollars for the cheaper products from China. And the tax incentives only accelerated demand from unsustainable suppliers:

Several studies have undertaken a dynamic life cycle analysis of renewable energy technologies. … the net CO2 balance of solar PV was negative for the period 1998-2008. Solar PV power was growing too fast to be sustainable, and the aggregate of solar panels actually increased GHG emissions and energy use. According to the paper, the net CO2 emissions of the solar PV industry during those 10 years accounted to 800,000 tonnes of CO2. These figures take into account the fact that, as a consequence of a cleaner grid and better manufacturing processes, the production of solar PV panels becomes more energy efficient and less carbon-intensive over time.

The sustainability of solar PV has further deteriorated since 2008. On the one hand, industry growth rates have accelerated. … On the other hand, manufacturing has become more carbon-intensive.

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