The World's #1 Renewable Energy Network for News, Information, and Companies.

Making Life-Cycle Analysis Matter to the Global Solar PV Supply Chain

A new report seeks to bring lifecycle analysis into the equation when calculating the economics of solar PV supply and demand. Now it's up to policymakers and advocates to decide whether this helps inform and resolve, or just fan the flames, of the ongoing trade wars.

The story of solar PV manufacturing today is one of Chinese dominance and the pressures, and allure, of severely low-cost manufacturing. But we shouldn't lose sight of the bigger picture of why we're all fighting for solar and all renewable energy sources in the first place: a cleaner, more responsible energy future. (That's one of the biggest dichotomies about China: its massive renewable energy push is more than offset by its deep reliance on dirtier energy sources.)

"The fact is, we cannot any longer ignore things like carbon footprinting -- especially in the energy space, where we should be the people most aware of the issue," pointed out Seth Darling, scientist with the U.S. Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory, co-author of a new study with Northwestern University seeking to close the gap between bottom-line economics and environmental values. "Today it's essentially being ignored."

In their new study to be published in the July issue of the journal Solar Energy, Darling and peers examines the broader impacts of supplying Chinese solar panels to European end-markets. In a nutshell, they find that mainstream Chinese-made silicon solar panels have more than twice the carbon footprint than panels made in Europe, and take up to 30 percent longer to offset the energy used to make them. And that doesn't include transportation costs to get them to Europe, which would magnify the discrepancy even more.

The key is establishing a lifecycle analysis (LCA) for Chinese PV suppliers, something already established for European and North American supply chains but glaringly underinformed for China where there are different and often less-stringent industrial and environmental rules. The team performed a LCA scenario comparing Chinese and European manufacturing of three kinds of silicon-based solar PV technologies, from mining the raw materials through processing into solar panels, and calculated how long each type of panel takes to offset the energy used to make them. (Monocrystalline was found to have the longest energy payback period despite the best energy output; "ribbon" silicon, stringing out the material from a molten bath, created the least efficient material but did so more efficiently and with faster energy payback.)

Carbon footprints of different types of solar panels made in China (CN) vs. Europe (RER). The colors in the bars
represent carbon-emission contributions from the different stages of making a solar panel. Source: Argonne National Labs

The same basic LCA comparison and result would similarly apply between the U.S. and China since U.S. energy mix and environmental regulations are similar, Darling acknowledged, though only a fraction of solar panels are made in the U.S. They didn't explicitly explore that comparison using U.S. data within the scope of this study, though.

The next step after raising the issue of LCA and carbon footprinting is what to do about it. Ultimately these findings point beyond simply advising whether it makes sense to ship panels from China to Europe -- it's about how to assign value to sustainable solar manufacturing, including where it should come from. And that brings the discussion into the ongoing turmoil of regional solar trade conflicts. "The way it's done now, it's Wild West and unfair," Darling said. Policies need to address how to come at the carbon angle, whether by taxing the emitters or placing tariffs on the final products and those who use them. Each has "their own minefields to navigate," he said. Folding their analysis into calculation for the EU/China tariff negotiations, the Argonne/Northwestern team suggests creating a breakeven carbon tariff model of €103-129/ton of CO2, close to reported CO2 capture and sequestration costs, depending on whether and how carbon taxes are finalized by each region. That, the report concludes, "would be a better market- and science-based solution than a solar panel tariff."

Lead image: Global change and Earth climate symbol, via Shutterstock

RELATED ARTICLES

Renewable Energy Is Beginning To Power Africa

Andrew Burger, Contributor According to the International Energy Agency, sub-Saharan Africa will require more than $300 billion in investment to achieve universal electricity access by 2030. Committing more than $7 billion in U.S. government support ...

Renewable Power Can Now Flow All Over Europe

Rachel Morison and Weixin Zha After almost two years of delays, Germany, France and their neighbors in central-western Europe connected their electricity markets on Wednesday under a system that lets prices dictate where power flows between countries. F...

Yingli Seeks to Reassure Investors After Stock Plunge

Louise Downing and Justin Doom Yingli Green Energy Holding Co., the second-largest panel maker said it’s confident it can keep making repayments on its debt and that it is taking steps to mitigate risks to its business. It blamed media reports ...
Electric Vehicle

Tesla E-motorcycles Complement SolarCity Microgrids

Mahesh Bhave, Contributor Batteries are the renewed focus of attention given the launch of Tesla’s PowerWall on April 30. What or where might the next major application be? Utility scale storage appears to be one. My thesis is that launching Tesla e...
Jim is Contributing Editor for RenewableEnergyWorld.com, covering the solar and wind beats. He previously was associate editor for Solid State Technology and Photovoltaics World, and has covered semiconductor manufacturing and related industries, ...

CURRENT MAGAZINE ISSUE

03/01/2015
Volume 18, Issue 3
file

STAY CONNECTED

To register for our free
e-Newsletters, subscribe today:

SOCIAL ACTIVITY

Tweet the Editors! @megcichon @jennrunyon

FEATURED PARTNERS



EVENTS

EU PVSEC 2015 (European PV Solar Energy Conference and Exhibition)

The EU PVSEC is the largest international Conference for Photovoltaic re...

CA Wine Industry's 2015 Solar Update- WEBINAR

Proceeds from event registration will go to the CA Sustainable Win...

SMA More Power, More Profit Tour - Duluth

SMA’s More Power, More Profit Tour is aimed to provide highly-valu...

COMPANY BLOGS

EU PVSEC 2014 extends its Scope

Added focus on application and policy topicsAbstracts for conference con...

EU PVSEC 2014: Call for Papers Receives Great Response

More than 1,500 contributions apply for presentation in AmsterdamScienti...

Harnessing the #ElonEffect: Deconstructing the PR Success of Tesla’...

As most of the world has heard by now, Tesla and its co-founder, Elon Mu...

NEWSLETTERS

Renewable Energy: Subscribe Now

Solar Energy: Subscribe Now

Wind Energy: Subscribe Now

Geothermal Energy: Subscribe Now

Bioenergy: Subscribe Now  

 

FEATURED PARTNERS