The energy needed create the many millions of solar panels produced so far has been more than the electricity they have collectively generated – but that is about to change and possibly may have recently already done so.
According to a study out of Stanford, the electricity produced by the world’s installed solar panels may have recently surpassed the energy consumed, much of it fossil fuel sourced, going into the getting the PV industry to the stage it is now.
According to study author Michael Dale (pictured), a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford’s Global Climate & Energy Project (GCEP), the global PV industry is certainly on the brink of paying off its “energy debt”; which will definitely occur sometime between 2015 and 2020.
“Despite its fantastically fast growth rate, PV is producing – or just about to start producing – a net energy benefit to society,” says Dale.
The energy used to produce solar panels is considerable; but as processes have evolved, the amount required has reduced. For example, REC solar panels have an energy payback time of just 12 months, meaning each module will be a net producer of energy for decades.
Michael Dale says the PV industry operated under an energy deficit from 2000 to recently and had consumed 75 percent more energy than it produced just five years ago.
If the energy intensity involved with producing PV systems continues to decline at current rates, then by 2020 less than 2 percent of global electricity will be needed to sustain growth of the industry; while contributing up to around 10 percent of the world’s electricity needs.
The energy intensity of solar panel production gave rise to a myth that more power went into creating a module than it would ever produce. Like many myths, it had its roots in fact as in many cases the energy consumed would indeed be more than produced – but when viewed in terms of a single year of production.
Given the productive lifespan of a quality solar module is decades; it will repay the energy gone into production many times over.