THAT solar panels do not emit greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide when they are generating electricity is without question. This is why they are beloved of many who worry about the climate-altering potential of such gases. Sceptics, though, observe that a lot of energy is needed to make a solar panel in the first place. In particular, melting and purifying the silicon that these panels employ to capture and transduce sunlight needs a lot of heat. Silicon’s melting point, 1,414°C, is only 124°C less than that of iron. Wilfried van Sark, of Utrecht University in the Netherlands, and his colleagues have therefore tried to put some numbers into the argument. As they report in Nature Communications, they have calculated the energy required to make all of the solar panels installed around the world between 1975 and 2015, and the carbon-dioxide emissions associated with producing that energy. They also looked at the energy these panels have produced since their installation and the corresponding amount of carbon dioxide they have prevented from being spewed into the atmosphere. Others have done life-cycle assessments for solar power in the past. None, though, has accounted for the fact that the process of making the panels has become more efficient over the course of time. Dr Van Sark’s study factors this in.
Economist 10th Dec 2016 read more »