Veterans of the solar industry understand full well the positive environmental impact that solar can have. For every kWh produced by coal, just over two pounds of CO2 is released into the atmosphere. For every kWh of natural gas 1.22 pounds of CO2 is released. For every kWh of electricity produced by solar panels zero CO2 is released into the atmosphere and zero emissions or GHG (Green House Gasses) are released.
So we know that solar is great for the environment because it is a zero emissions energy source. But what about in the production of the panels themselves? To answer this question, it should be stated first that to manufacture the solar panels and associated equipment and the environmental cost to deliver the product to the build site there will be a certain amount of initial pollution built into production.
What is required for the environmental benefits to be pronounced and sustaining and for solar to be an actualized environmental option is a short energy payback time and a long lifetime.
A recent article published in Nature Communications makes the claim that, ”For every doubling of installed photovoltaic capacity, energy use decreases by 13 and 12% and greenhouse gas footprints by 17 and 24%, for poly- and monocrystalline based photovoltaic systems, respectively.”
What this means is that for every doubling of solar installation capacity in the world, the energy required to produce solar panels decreases and will show a corresponding decrease in GHG. The article continues, “In the context of experience curves, there is often mention of the ‘learning rate’, which is the cost decrease for a doubling of cumulative production.” When manufacturing facilities ratchet up their production, economies of scale are achieved, less material becomes scrapped, and both economic and environmental savings are realized.
In fact, we have already experienced the break-even point from the energy produced by solar and the energy used to produce the panels themselves. It is difficult to ascertain the exact year this has occurred, although it is thought to have been sometime in the last ten years. The study continues to state that:
“The climate-friendly electricity generated by solar panels in the past 40 years has all but cancelled out the polluting energy used to produce them, a study said Tuesday.
Indeed, by some calculations, the so-called "break-even point" between dirty energy input and clean output may already have arrived, researchers in the Netherlands reported.
We show strong downward trends of environmental impact" of solar panel production, the team wrote in the journal Nature Communications.”
What Does This Mean For American Solar Panels?
The study had an interesting finding. The environmental impact from production is largely dependent on the geographical location of where solar panels are manufactured:
“Both the production and installation location of PV influence its environmental impact. The production location mainly because the environmental impact of the electricity used in production is very locationally dependent, and as a result, production of PV in China has, for example, almost twice the GHG footprint compared to production in Europe.”
Chinese solar panels have more than twice the negative environmental impact that European solar panels have. There was no indication of how American solar panel manufacturers fared in the article, although it is easy to see that with a shorter supply chain, American manufacturers will have far less of an environmental impact in terms of shipping distribution. In short, American solar panels do not have to cross an ocean to get to their destination. It should also be stated that American environmental standards are equivalent to their European counterparts.
In order to best take advantage of the environmental advantages of solar installations, the industry has to continue to grow and expand. Solar panel manufacturing will become more efficient and therefore more environmentally friendly. To best reach solar installation companies in a timely manner and thus reduce environmental impacts, solar panel manufacturing should be scaled up here at home in America.
We have higher environmental standards than plants in China and Southeast Asia, and the supply chain will be shorter, necessitating reduced fuel expenditure. Ohio solar installation companies and their customers can share in the ensuing cost reductions as well as know they are taking part in an environmental solution to our climate change epidemic. A thriving solar panel manufacturing industry is needed in America, and in particular, Ohio, to truly realize the full benefits of solar.