Science

Solar Panels Paying Back Energy Debt

By Zach White , Apr 02, 2013 07:36 PM EDT
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Renewable energy skeptics and fossil fuel advocates always enjoy pointing out that photovoltaic solar panels take more energy to make than they produce, as an argument that this cornerstone of our green energy future isn’t as green as its fans would like us to believe — but Stanford researchers released a report Tuesday to disprove this point.

The argument goes that the photovoltaic solar panels consume more energy, which comes from the fossil fuels that photovoltaic solar panels are meant to replace, than they eventually save — so they are actually doing more harm to the environment than good. According to the researchers at the Stanford Global Climate & Energy Project, this more than likely stopped being true last year.

Rapidly falling prices of photovoltaic solar panels and numerous increases in their efficiency over the past several years have evened out the imbalance, making 2012 the first time that the world’s solar panels contributed more to the world’s energy consumption than their manufacture took out.

In 2005, according to the report, it took 75 percent more energy to make a solar panel than it would have produced. But, assuming prices continue to fall and the manufacturing process continues to get more efficient, solar panels will pay back that debt, making up for all of the energy it has ever taken to produce every solar panel, sometime between 2015 and 2020.

"This analysis shows that the industry is making positive strides," Michael Dale, a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford's Global Climate & Energy Project, said in a release. "Despite its fantastically fast growth rate, PV is producing – or just about to start producing – a net energy benefit to society."

GCEP's director, Sally Benson, is excited to see how further developments in the photovoltaic solar panel industry will impact global energy consumption, and the role that Stanford could play in that market.

"GCEP is focused on developing game-changing energy technologies that can be deployed broadly. If we can continue to drive down the energy inputs, we will derive greater benefits from PV," Benson said. "Developing new technologies with lower energy requirements will allow us to grow the industry at a faster rate."

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