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John Greenberg: Contrary to commentary, today’s solar panels are superior to carbon fuels

Aug 24, 2023

Commentaries are opinion pieces contributed by readers and newsmakers. VTDigger strives to publish a variety of views from a broad range of Vermonters. Commentaries give voice to community members and do not represent VTDigger’s views. To submit a commentary, follow the instructions here.

This commentary is by John Greenberg, a resident of Marlboro.

The commentary “Solar energy has a big carbon footprint” is a litany of disinformation.

1. “ … Electricity produced from solar is about three times more expensive than from hydrocarbons.” The financial company Lazard does comparative estimates of the cost of electricity generated by different sources on an annual basis. Its latest report compares the unsubsidized cost of utility scale solar at $24-$96, compared with $68-$166 for coal and $39-$101 for natural gas. With storage, often not necessary, solar rises to $46-$102. Onshore wind without storage comes to $24-$75 and with storage: $42-$114. Solar and wind prices continue to decline sharply over time. Not so, fossil fuels.

2) “The materials — mostly silicon, aluminum, copper and silver — have to be mined, refined, processed, assembled and shipped, all of which are energy-intensive processes.” Of course, natural gas and coal are dropped from the heavens by storks requiring no such processes. So, too, are natural gas and coal generating plants.

3) “Most of these materials are nonrecyclable and end up in landfills.” In fact, “Solar panel recycling has both a tremendous environmental and economic benefit. A 2016 study by IRENA estimates the recyclable materials in old solar modules will be worth $15 billion in recoverable value by the year 2050. IRENA predicts solar panel recycling can help spawn new industries and will create green job opportunities.

“PV Cycle, a European solar panel recycling association, developed a mechanical and thermal treatment process last year that achieves a 96% recovery rate for silicon-based photovoltaic panels. … Non-silicon-based solar panels can have a recovery rate of up to 98 percent.”

Where does fossil fuel waste end up? How about the decommissioned generating plants?

4) “When you buy a solar panel, or anything mining-intensive, you are mostly paying for the energy that went into making it.” The same is true for every generating source: coal and nuclear require mining, gas, drilling. Nuclear also requires vast energy resources for milling and processing uranium ore. As noted in No. 8 below, the issue of comparative energy inputs and outputs has been extensively studied.

5) “At 16 cents each, the 11,929 kWh would earn …” My latest Green Mountain Power bill shows charges of 18.035 cents per KWh. This would imply a higher rate of payback than the commentary’s analysis.

6) “The average lifespan of a panel is 25 years.” Not so: “Generally, most solar panels degrade at less than 0.8 percent per year, and most manufacturers guarantee at least 80 percent of their products’ original output by year 25.” The 0.8% rate continues after 25 years, meaning that panels will continue to produce power, albeit slightly less, each year. (NREL estimates 0.5%.)

7) “If solar was a sustainable energy option, it would not require subsidies.” Every energy source in America is subsidized and has been since the earliest days of the republic. Until the Obama administration, subsidies to fossil fuels and nuclear power dwarfed those to renewables.

8) The commentary’s overall thesis is that solar panels never pay back the carbon put into them. Plenty of studies show precisely the opposite: e.g, “Energy payback time and carbon footprint of commercial roof-top photovoltaic systems are calculated based on new 2011 manufacturers’ data; and on 2013 equipment manufacturers’ estimates of ‘micromorph’ silicon photovoltaic modules. The energy payback times and carbon footprints are 1.96, 1.24, 1.39, 0.92, 0.68, and 1.02 years and 38.1, 27.2, 34.8, 22.8, 15.8, and 21.4 g CO2-eq/kWh for monocrystalline silicon, multicrystalline silicon, amorphous silicon, ‘micromorph’ silicon, cadmium telluride and CIGS roof-top photovoltaic systems, respectively, assuming a poly-silicon production with hydropower; ingot-, wafer-, solar cell and module production with UCTE electricity; an irradiation on an optimized-angle of 1700 kWh/(m2×year); excluding installation, operation and maintenance and end-of-life phase. Shifting production of poly-silicon, ingots, wafers, cells and modules to China results in similar energy payback times but increases the carbon footprint by a factor 1.3–2.1, depending on the electricity intensity of manufacturing.”

Current panels are far more efficient that they were in 2011-13 and continue to reach higher and higher levels of efficiency. “Today, most top solar panels have conversion efficiencies above 20%, compared with their previous average of less than 15%.”

It should also be noted that energy payback is not the same as economic payback, thanks to many kinds of market distortions.

Similarly, many studies have compared energy sources according to both carbon footprint and environmental damage. All of them show that photovoltaic solar and wind are vastly superior to all carbon fuels in every respect. Here’s an example.

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