The Debt We Pay with Solar
New solar technology aims to clear the air.
By Patrick Ford
Pictured above: Production of solar cells, requiring a clean work environment.
What are we paying for? One of the most common misconceptions in the realm of renewable energy and resources has revolved around the solar industry. There is a belief as old as solar technology itself that photovoltaic solar cells used in commercial solar panels induce more harm on the environment than they relieve when used in lieu of nonrenewable energy sources. This belief was born somewhere upon the discovery of the energy intensive manufacturing processes used to manufacture solar energy products in the 20th century. The belief was then perpetuated into undeserving relevancy in the 21st century due to a general lack of recognition of the advances that have been made in solar technology and the manufacturing processes used to produce solar goods. Solar skeptics have promoted the idea for decades that the energy required to manufacture solar products is so great, that most solar cells and, consequently, solar panels will fail to generate the same amount of energy used to manufacture them within their useful lifespan. Additionally it is believed that because most of the energy used for manufacturing solar goods is sourced from nonrenewable energy sources, more greenhouse gases will be released into the atmosphere than otherwise, had solar products never been manufactured to begin with. A glimpse into the modern solar industry will shed some light on the situation.
Pictured above: the Ivanpah Solar Power Facility resides in the Mojave Desert.
What are the non-monetary costs of solar? The titular “debt” we pay refers to a time frame known as the “energy payback” period. This time frame spans from the beginning of the solar manufacturing process and ends when a piece of solar technology officially generates the same amount of energy that was required to manufacture it. Under ideal conditions where sunshine is abundant, modern photovoltaic solar cells can reach the end of their energy payback period in as little as one year, according to a popular FAQ published by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. This provides a great deal of incentive to those living in areas where the sun is always shining. Beyond location, payback period duration can be altered by the level of technology used on a solar product and how old the product is. The most important thing to consider is the ability of a solar cell to produce enough energy to not only reach the end of its energy payback period but to produce energy well beyond this point. With modern solar cells producing energy for up to 30 years or longer, this makes solar an increasingly viable and attractive option for many.
What else factors into the environmental impact of solar products? One of the biggest variables in determining the impact of solar product manufacturing is the region in which said products are made. As many are aware, different regions of the world have adopted and adhered to different environmental standards, some stringent and some notoriously loose. Different countries in Asia, namely, manufacture most of the consumer solar panels available today and have been doing so for the last ten years when solar cell and panel manufacturing was largely moved from Europe, Japan and the U.S. to China, Malaysia, Taiwan and the Philippines. Lax environmental regulations have brought manufacturing costs down, but in doing so environmental impact has risen, tarnishing the sustainable image the solar industry tries to promote. This factor was acknowledged by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers in a report highlighting the variables involved in determining environmental impact of solar cell manufacturing.
What does the future have in store for solar? With continuous efforts being made towards furthering research and development in solar technology, the future of solar is looking bright. Efficiency and lifespan of solar goods across the board is on the upswing and with every moment solar continuous to dominate a bigger and bigger share of the renewable energy market. Modern manufacturing processes are continuously being improved upon to maximize efficiency and reduce consumption. With the improvements we are seeing with environmental regulations in regions where solar products are commonly manufactured, the writing is on the wall and it’s looking more and more like the skepticism behind solar as a viable and sustainable energy source belongs in the 20th century. Now I suppose with the ever increasing popularity of solar, the question is how do we keep those relentless door to door solar solicitors from knocking?