Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Does Solar produce net energy globally?



                                   Comments due by Feb. 4, 2017
The rapid growth of the solar power industry over the past decade may have exacerbated the global warming situation it was meant to soothe, simply because most of the energy used to manufacture the millions of solar panels came from burning fossil fuels. That irony, according to Stanford University researchers, is coming to an end.
For the first time since the boom started, the electricity generated by all of the world's installed solar photovoltaic (PV) panels last year probably surpassed the amount of energy going into fabricating more modules, according to Michael Dale, a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford's Global Climate & Energy Project (GCEP). With continued technological advances, the global PV industry is poised to pay off its debt of energy as early as 2015, and no later than 2020.
"This analysis shows that the industry is making positive strides," said Dale, who developed a novel way of assessing the industry's progress globally in a study published in the current edition of Environmental Science & Technology. "Despite its fantastically fast growth rate, PV is producing – or just about to start producing – a net energy benefit to society."
The achievement is largely due to steadily declining energy inputs required to manufacture and install PV systems, according to co-author Sally Benson, GCEP's director. The new study, Benson said, indicates that the amount of energy going into the industry should continue to decline, while the issue remains an important focus of research.
 "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," she said. "Developing new technologies with lower energy requirements will allow us to grow the industry at a faster rate."
The energy used to produce solar panels is intense. The initial step in producing the silicon at the heart of most panels is to melt silica rock at 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit using electricity, commonly from coal-fired power plants.
Mark ShwartzMichael Dale portrait
To be considered a success, PV panels must ultimately pay back all the energy that went into them, said Michael Dale, a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford's Global Climate & Energy Project.
As investment and technological development have risen sharply with the number of installed panels, the energetic costs of new PV modules have declined. Thinner silicon wafers are now used to make solar cells, less highly refined materials are now used as the silicon feedstock, and less of the costly material is lost in the manufacturing process. Increasingly, the efficiency of solar cells using thin film technologies that rely on earth-abundant materials such as copper, zinc, tin and carbon have the potential for even greater improvements.
To be considered a success – or simply a positive energy technology – PV panels must ultimately pay back all the energy that went into them, said Dale. The PV industry ran an energy deficit from 2000 to now, consuming 75 percent more energy than it produced just five years ago. The researchers expect this energy debt to be paid off as early as 2015, thanks to declining energy inputs, more durable panels and more efficient conversion of sunlight into electricity.

Strategic implications

If current rapid growth rates persist, by 2020 about 10 percent of the world's electricity could be produced by PV systems. At today's energy payback rate, producing and installing the new PV modules would consume around 9 percent of global electricity. However, if the energy intensity of PV systems continues to drop at its current learning rate, then by 2020 less than 2 percent of global electricity will be needed to sustain growth of the industry.
This may not happen if special attention is not given to reducing energy inputs. The PV industry's energetic costs can differ significantly from its financial costs. For example, installation and the components outside the solar cells, like wiring and inverters, as well as soft costs like permitting, account for a third of the financial cost of a system, but only 13 percent of the energy inputs. The industry is focused primarily on reducing financial costs.
Continued reduction of the energetic costs of producing PV panels can be accomplished in a variety of ways, such as using less materials or switching to producing panels that have much lower energy costs than technologies based on silicon. The study's data covers the various silicon-based technologies as well as newer ones using cadmium telluride and copper indium gallium diselenide as semiconductors. Together, these types of PV panels account for 99 percent of installed panels.
The energy payback time can also be reduced by installing PV panels in locations with high quality solar resources, like the desert Southwest in the United States and the Middle East. "At the moment, Germany makes up about 40 percent of the installed market, but sunshine in Germany isn't that great," Dale said. "So from a system perspective, it may be better to deploy PV systems where there is more sunshine."
This accounting of energetic costs and benefits, say the researchers, should be applied to any new energy-producing technology, as well as to energy conservation strategies that have large upfront energetic costs, such as retrofitting buildings.  GCEP researchers have begun applying the analysis to energy storage and wind power.
Mark Golden works in communications at the Precourt Energy Efficiency Center at Stanford University.

13 comments:

Anonymous said...

If the PV industry continues to drive down its production costs and energy needed for product manufacturing; it will be able to produce a greater positive net global energy. Solar energy is definitely becoming more popular. As prices and energy needed to produce solar panels decrease, the output produces a greater net gain on energy used. If these solar panels are actually placed in areas like the desert where the sun is robust and present for many hours of the day, it will become even more efficient. However, the investment and technology aspect also need to continue to thrive in order to fund projects for these proposed new areas. Advances in technology make the whole production process of the solar panels cheaper and usually more beneficial to the environment. This means cutting down required resources and making the process more effective. Once the process is producing a large positive net energy, the world will be able to switch over many things to solar power and we can continue to focus on other green energy sources and make them more efficient too.

Nicholas Arciszewski

Bradley Pidgeon said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bradley Pidgeon said...

Even though PV panel technology requires a ton of fossil fuels to develop, it is helpful to view the resources used as an investment toward future 'greening', rather than an expense of developing panels. The fossil fuels that go into PV development are indirectly converted to a renewable resource, through the form of solar panel. If these same fossil fuels were used in other industry, they are typically used up and burnt, to produce a good that can not generate future energy. PV is already proving its efficiency and in the future will definitely show a net increase in global energy.

Anonymous said...

My first thought was, "Why not build a PV panel plant with the intention of powering it with PV panels?" Once the solar field is installed and the plant is in place, then there is no need for fossil fuel energy to be part of the process. Also, since the development of solar panels is ever advancing, wont that mean that the ones currently installed will become obsolete? I cannot help but think that it might be better to let the technology develop before installing so many. This relates to the problem with cellphones. If you get the latest model it is only a matter of time until the next bigger, badder and faster one is out.

Creating electricity is one thing, storing it is another. Solar radiation hits the planet once and is either captured and used, or reflected and not used. The first law of thermodynamics states that the energy in an isolated system cannot be created nor destroyed. But do we look at the planet as being an isolated system? Or should we look at our solar system as being the isolated system since our planet gets energy (input) from the sun's radiation? Either way, I am under the opinion that we have one chance to capture this radiation, once the moment passes, we will never get that energy back. I feel that we should capture it while we can. The potential energy of the gases in the sun are our solar systems biggest "battery". These gases are the stored energy. Perhaps these are just ramblings but isn't that the point?

Chase Harnett

Anonymous said...

PV panel is helpful in many ways. First of all, it will reduce the global warming and the environment. PV technology at first might be considered expensive however, in the future it will be very beneficial and useful. Since the PV uses sun energy to provide back energy it will not be consuming and wasting world's resources. Also, PV system in the mean time will be much cheaper and helpful for environment. I believe, PV systems will be playing very important role in the future when providing energy to the world. Especially in the areas where it is sunny because PV systems converts energy from the sun.

Mehmet F Karademir

Miguel Araujo said...

The concept of PV panels become a sustainable source of energy that has the possibility of eventually needing minimal global power to produce is amazing. One thing is that although it is still consuming a large amount of global power to produce/ install the PV panels, it does make sense to use this opportunity as an investment toward a greater tomorrow. Of course, there are alternatives to solar power but while PV panels are expensive to make, they produce large amount of recyclable energy. Yes, we cause a bit more damage to the environment but we have to think about it in the long run. Having a short term solution will help in the time being but would just slow the process of finding a possibly permanent solution that will continue to evolve and become more efficent as technology advances.

Miguel Araujo

Abbigail Jones said...

I found it interesting that these solar panels, which seem like a completely eco-friendly option in terms of sustainable energy, are manufactured from burning fossil fuels. Now that solar panels are becoming the norm across the world, it makes sense that scientists are discovering new ways to make the manufacturing of them better for the environment. I think that as long as we find ways to produce these PV panels more efficiently and at smaller costs, they will take over the way we view and use energy. PV panels should definitely be viewed as an investment because in the long run they will pay for themselves and be more sustainable than any other energy source. I also thought it was interesting how this blog post mentioned that Germany is one of the biggest countries that are keen on PV panels, even though there is not much sunshine there. However, because the energy payback is greater in locations where there is sun, I think its important for places like California and the Southwest to learn more about PV panels.

Abbigail Jones

Tasfin Hossain said...

A photovoltaic system is a power system designed to supply usable solar power by means of photovoltaics. It consists of an arrangement of several components, including solar panels to absorb and convert sunlight into electricity, a solar inverter to change the electric current from DC to AC, as well as mounting, cabling and other electrical accessories to set up a working system. PV systems range from small, rooftop-mounted or building-integrated systems with capacities from a few to several tens of kilowatts, to large utility-scale power stations of hundreds of megawatts. Nowadays, most PV systems are grid-connected, while off-grid or stand-alone systems only account for a small portion of the market. Operating silently and without any moving parts or environmental emissions, PV systems have developed from being niche market applications into a mature technology used for mainstream electricity generation. A rooftop system recoups the invested energy for its manufacturing and installation within 0.7 to 2 years and produces about 95 percent of net clean renewable energy over a 30-year service lifetime. Due to the exponential growth of photovoltaics, prices for PV systems have rapidly declined in recent years. However, they vary by market and the size of the system.

Tasfin Hossain

Elizabeth Eggimann said...

If research projections are correct and growth rates persist, PVs could soon be a positive energy technology; however, this can only come to be true if investment and technological development in the solar industry continue to rise as well. Accounting of energetic costs and benefits really exemplifies how growing the solar power industry is a multi-surfaced task. Growing the industry is beneficial to the future but there are still externalizes exacerbating the situation solar panels are intended to provide a solution for. I think systems thinking and ‘mind mapping’ would be really helpful when looking at big interrelated processes such as growing the clean energy industry. To me, it seems like we are a juncture where we need to be the most forward-thinking we can and weigh the future heavily. It is of my opinion that if a sustainable future must be ‘paid forward’ or ‘invested in’ then private and public sector have a social responsibility to invest in clean energy.

Since ‘energy payback time’ decreases when you install PVs in locations with high quality solar resources, it seems like a real missed opportunity to not take advantage of this. It seems like a good idea to frame clean energy plans around the natural world in the area..

Katherine Murphy said...

Although there are some great points in this article regarding the positive changes PV cells are adjusting to, there is still a lot of work to be done. PV cells have come a long way since its first appearance, but the goal is not yet reached, in a net energy sense. Though this source of power is seen as completely green, the article does bring up the fact that in order to create a PV cell the burning of fossil fuels comes into play when specific parts of the cell are created. These cells also rely heavily on exotic materials, such as zinc, copper, etc. These problems seem to be kinks in the shaping of the PV cells as they progress, but the remaining question is will the PV trend continue? Unfortunately this will only become a success globally for the long run if investments in these cells continue which will fund technological development. The main economical benefit from these cells is the cost of the installation and production of the cell itself will not matter, because they will make the money back in energy that was spent on this. It is an energy payback system, in which could be very successful with constant investment. On that note, solar energy can be the start of something great economically and environmentally, but just like every other source it comes with its consequences. The next step, is to weave out these disadvantage overtime with advancing technologies and global investment.

Anonymous said...

Personally I feel that the article had very optimistic points about her future in terms of solar energy. But I can't help to think that at this point we shouldn't be as behind as we are in this area. Technology is constantly changing and improving but we're falling behind in the technology that should have. Investing time time and effort into PV panels is investing time in our future. Maybe inventors should go back to the drawing board and see is PV panels can be made without using up so many natural resources like fossil fuels. Irony that we are using fossil fuels to create something that makes green energy is counterproductive. The best alternative that I can think of is using PV panels to create more PV panels. This in turn will help with the financial support of making PV panels due to the fact that the leftover energy will be replaced with money. This will help immensely since a third of the overall cost of PV panels go into components like wiring,permits and etc. For this to be successful on a global scale clean energy needs to be a priority.

Victoria Viguera

Brielle Manzolillo said...

There is always controversy surrounding renewable energy sources and how sustainable they actually are. The production of these energy sources often uses a lot of natural resources and materials. In this article, it talks about how PV cells are seen as a clean energy source but uses a lot natural resources to produce. However, compared to other renewable energy sources such as wind power, it takes much less natural resources and energy to produce PV cells. PV cells often work better and are more reliable than alternative clean energy sources. Investors should definitely invest in PV cells as opposed to other forms of clean energy in order to ensure that more PV cells are created. Putting money into PV cells will also allow researchers to make them more renewable and clean.

-Brielle Manzolillo

Janelle Gonzalez said...

Renewable energy has been a topic of concern over the years. Many have different opinions about the future of renewable energy sources. Some question whether they are as “green” and sustainable as they are advertised to be. This article expresses that there is a lot that goes into the production of these renewable and “sustainable” sources, that are more costly than we believe. PV cells are discussed throughout this article. Some believe that investments in PV cells can positively impact the future, as this may increase their sustainability for future use. In order for the use of PV cells to be a realistic part of our efforts towards a sustainable energy source for all, investments must increase in renewable energy sources, such as solar energy.