Solar Power Energy Payback Time Is Now Super Short

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This article is part of our “CleanTechnica Answer Box” collection. In this collection of articles, we respond to dozens of common anti-cleantech myths.

Some solar power critics seem to enjoy trying to point out that the energy payback time for solar power is too long, and therefore this form of renewable energy is not valid. Those critics have not kept up with the times or are simply lying to you.

Years ago, when solar cells were less efficient, there might have been some truth in questioning the energy payback of solar panels because they were most likely manufactured using electricity generated from coal, natural gas, or nuclear power and were less efficiently manufactured.

Today’s solar panels are more efficient, so they produce more electricity, and this fact along with more efficient manufacturing means that energy payback periods have decreased to just a few years. Research has found, “Energy payback estimates for rooftop PV systems are 4, 3, 2, and 1 years: 4 years for systems using current multicrystalline-silicon PV modules, 3 years for current thin-film modules, 2 years for anticipated multicrystalline modules, and 1 year for anticipated thin-film modules (see Figure 1). With energy paybacks of 1 to 4 years and assumed life expectancies of 30 years, 87% to 97% of the energy that PV systems generate won’t be plagued by pollution, greenhouse gases, and depletion of resources.”

Other estimates also show solar is viable and have tremendous energy payback periods. “In Australia, the International Energy Agency[vii] calculated the energy payback period for a solar power system to be under two years. This means a solar power system takes less than two years to generate enough energy to break even on the amount of energy taken to manufacture it.

“Based on models and data examined by both the International Energy Agency and the US Department of Energy[viii], solar panels do pay back their energy investment. With solar panels lasting as long as 25 years, they make more energy over their lifetime than it takes to manufacture the panel. Since the payback times are decreasing over time, we have now reached the point that even at this strong growth, the total installed PV capacity is a net producer of energy and a net GHG sink.”

Floating solar power plantSolar power has already been used in manufacturing, so it is at least in theory possible it will eventually be used to produce solar panels (and it must be in some places). Once solar power is being used to produce solar panels, the question is, what does energy payback even matter?

Solar cells might eventually made from cheaper and more efficient materials, which would decrease their production costs even more and perhaps increase their efficiency and energy payback period.

Misleading Metrics

Additionally, some of metrics, like energy payback, seem to be questionable in the way they are used by solar power critics and climate change deniers. For example, they don’t reference that the cost of continuing to use only fossil fuels are vastly greater than manufacturing and installing solar panels. “The share of national GDP at risk from climate change exceeds $1.5 trillion in the 301 major cities around the world. Including the impact of human pandemics – which are likely to become more severe as the planet warms — the figure increases to nearly $2.2 trillion in economic output at risk through 2025.”

The figures in the US are huge too“Extreme weather, made worse by climate change, along with the health impacts of burning fossil fuels, has cost the U.S. economy at least $240 billion a year over the past ten years, a new report has found. And yet this does not include this past month’s three major hurricanes or 76 wildfires in nine Western states. Those economic losses alone are estimated to top $300 billion, the report notes.”

It’s very obvious that the financial costs of continuing to do business as usual are tremendous, but the human costs could be even greater.

Air pollution in China is so severe it may be contributing to 1.6 million human deaths per year“Outdoor air pollution contributes to the deaths of an estimated 1.6 million people in China every year, or about 4,400 people a day, according to a newly released scientific paper.”

In the US, climate change actually may do severe financial damage to people who are already struggling. “The poorest third of US counties will likely lose up to 20 percent of their incomes, and regions such as the Pacific Northwest and New England will gain economically over the Gulf and Southern states, if climate change continues unmitigated through the end of the century, according to a new study co-led by two UC Berkeley researchers and published today in the journal Science.”

The critics of solar power fail to mention these fossil fuel costs over and over and over again. How could the fossil fuel industries even begin to pay for all the damage they have caused to human health and the planet? First of all, they wouldn’t do it, and they couldn’t afford it, so the fossil fuel damage payback time would be never.

What is the premature death payback time for coal power, or how about the oil spills payback time for petroleum companies? The Deepwater Horizon spill damage may very well still be occurring. “For those long-lived things like turtles and sperm whales and dolphins … they’re still in the middle of this. And we may not know for another 30 or 40 years where the impacts are,” said Larry McKinney, executive director of the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies at Texas A&M University. He made that remark in 2017, so perhaps we won’t know the full extent of the damage until at least 2047. By that time, will BP still be in business and will the company pay more than it has so far?

It is simply ludicrous to try to apply an energy payback standard to solar power, and yet, somehow, fossil fuels which have had an enormously damaging impact for years get off scot-free? Continuing to fail with only fossil fuels isn’t an option.

Images by Vinaykumar8687 •• CC BY-SA 4.0, by SUNGROW Power Supply Co., and by Asia Chang on Unsplash.

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Jake Richardson

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