Say you wanted to build an industry from the ground up. On a macro level, the research, development, manufacturing, sourcing, distribution, and fueling would require a lot of energy. This is particularly true for energy industries. But the great thing about renewable energy is that it generally requires no fuel and starts to pay for itself as it scales.
Solar photovoltaic production consumed more energy than it produced while it was getting started. The whole industrial process has taken more energy to create than solar PV has produced — and created more greenhouse gases than it prevented — since 2000. However, a study from Stanford University found that in recent years, all the electricity produced by solar panels in the world has become greater than the energy required to produce it. Due to the amazing growth of the industry, it will generate enough energy by 2015 or 2020 to have “paid back” the energy debt accumulated while the industry got on its feet.
The energy cost to produce and install solar has been shrinking, and can be expected to continue doing so. The more the industrial process gets refined, the more the industry will grow.
As investment and technological development have risen sharply with the number of installed panels, the energetic costs of new PV modules have declined. Thinner silicon wafers are now used to make solar cells, less highly refined materials are now used as the silicon feedstock, and less of the costly material is lost in the manufacturing process. Increasingly, the efficiency of solar cells using thin film technologies that rely on earth-abundant materials such as copper, zinc, tin and carbon have the potential for even greater improvements.
In fact, just today First Solar announced it set a world record for a cadmium-telluride module conversion efficiency of 16.1 percent. This comes 6 weeks after the company broke the previous record for cadmium-telluride cell efficiency of 17.3 percent by 1.5 percent to 18.3 percent. In English, this means that thin-film solar panels, which are much cheaper to produce, are getting more and more efficient.
Looking further down the road, 10 percent of global electricity will come from solar PV by 2020. At today’s rates, it would take 9 percent of the world’s energy generation to produce solar PV, yet with the current rate of efficiency improvement, that would shrink to 2 percent. The energy deficit gap will widen even more if solar is installed in high-capacity areas like the American Southwest instead of Northern Europe. More than 40 percent of total U.S. solar capacity came online last year. The growth, nationally and globally, has been exponential:
- Australia has reached 1 million solar rooftop installations on homes and businesses.
- 9.8 gigawatts of solar energy projects have been announced in Latin America and the Caribbean as of this month, with the most promising projects located in Chile, the Dominican Republic, and Mexico.
- Austria more than doubled its capacity last year.
- Last month, Peru inaugurated two new solar plants comprising nearly 100 MW of capacity.
- A 400 MW solar installation on a remote Japanese island received approval and will begin construction soon.
- In India and Italy, solar power has reached grid parity.
- The Middle East and North Africa should reach 1 GW of demand this year, a six-fold increase.
- The UK has seen a record-breaking start to 2013 in solar production.
- In 2013, energy generated from solar power will be the second-largest source added to the U.S. electric grid.
- Lancaster, CA aims to be the first solar energy exporting city in the world, largely at the behest of its Republican mayor. (He recently said “Is global warming indeed a threat? Absolutely. I may be a Republican. I’m not an idiot.”)
- 34 MW of the 200 MW AZ Sun program will be constructed in Gila Bend, outside of Phoenix this year.
Within the next few years, solar energy will be a total net positive. And the fuel is free. Eventually solar power will contribute larger and larger portions of its power to the grid, so the factories that create and the labs that improve solar panel technology will be powered by the very same energy source it harnesses. That is as close to a perpetual motion machine as we are likely to get.