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Troszak T.A. (2021) The hidden costs of solar photovoltaic power, NATO ENSEC COE Energy highlights Vol 16, pp 22. Copyright 2021 NATO Energy Security Center of Excellence Reprinted with permission.


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Despite many optimistic predictions, solar photovoltaic (solar PV) power still represents only a small fraction of the global electricity supply as of 2020. More than two decades of near-exponential growth and investment in solar PV development have taken place, yet the amount of fossil fuels being burned for power is still increasing. This apparent paradox has been attributed to a variety of economic or political issues, but a critically important factor may be missing from the discussion. All modern technologies are dependent upon the supply of fossil fuels and fossil energy that made them possible. Similarly, every step in the production of solar PV requires an input of fossil fuels - as raw materials, as carbon reductants for silicon smelting, for process heat and power, for transportation, and for balance of system components. Regardless of any intentions, no quantity of bank-notes or any number of mandates can yield a single watt of power unless a significant expenditure of raw materials and fossil energy takes place as well.
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Global wind power and photovoltaic (PV) installed capacities are growing at very high rates (20 %/yr and 60%/yr, respectively). These technologies require large, 'up-front' energetic investments. Conceptually, as these industries grow, some proportion of their electrical output is 're-invested' to support manufacture and deployment of new generation capacity. As variable and inter-mittent, renewable generation capacity increase grid penetration, electrical energy storage will become an ever more important load-balancing technology. These storage technologies are currently expensive and energy intensive to deploy. We explore the impact on net energy production when wind and PV must 'pay' the energetic cost of storage deployment. We present the net energy trajectory of these two industries (wind and PV), disaggregated into eight distinct technologies—wind: on-shore and off-shore; PV: single-crystal (sc-), multi-crystalline (mc-), amorphous (a-) and ribbon silicon (Si), cadmium telluride (CdTe), and copper indium gallium (di)selenide (CIGS). The results show that both on-shore and off-shore wind can support the deployment of a very large amount of storage, over 300 hours of geologic storage in the case of on-shore wind. On the other hand, solar PV, which is already energetically expensive compared to wind power, can only 'afford' about 24 hours of storage before it becomes the industry operates at an energy deficit. The analysis highlights the societal benefits of electricity generation-storage combinations with low energetic costs.
As an initial investigation into the current and potential economics of one of today's most widely deployed photovoltaic technologies, we have engaged in a detailed analysis of manufacturing costs for each step within the wafer-based monocrystalline silicon (c-Si) PV module supply chain. At each step we find several pathways that could lead to further reductions in manufacturing costs. After aggregating the performance and cost considerations for a series of known technical improvement opportunities, we project a pathway for commercial-production c-Si modules to have typical sunlight power conversion efficiencies of 19–23%, and we calculate that they might be sustainably sold at ex-factory gate prices of $0.60–$0.70 per peak Watt (DC power, current U.S. dollars).
A combination of declining costs and policy measures motivated by greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reduction and energy security have driven rapid growth in the global installed capacity of solar photovoltaics (PV). This paper develops a number of unique data sets, namely the following: calculation of distribution of global capacity factor for PV deployment; meta-analysis of energy consumption in PV system manufacture and deployment; and documentation of reduction in energetic costs of PV system production. These data are used as input into a new net energy analysis of the global PV industry, as opposed to device level analysis. In addition, the paper introduces a new concept: a model tracking energetic costs of manufacturing and installing PV systems, including balance of system (BOS) components. The model is used to forecast electrical energy requirements to scale up the PV industry and determine the electricity balance of the global PV industry to 2020. Results suggest that the industry was a net consumer of electricity as recently as 2010. However, there is a >50% that in 2012 the PV industry is a net electricity provider and will "pay back" the electrical energy required for its early growth before 2020. Further reducing energetic costs of PV deployment will enable more rapid growth of the PV industry. There is also great potential to increase the capacity factor of PV deployment. These conclusions have a number of implications for R&D and deployment, including the following: monitoring of the energy embodied within PV systems; designing more efficient and durable systems; and deploying PV systems in locations that will achieve high capacity factors.
Reykjanes peninsula, Iceland Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Capacity: 110,000 tons
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