Solar panels repay their energy ‘debt’ – study

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PARIS: The climate-friendly electricity generated by solar panels in the past 40 years has all but cancelled out the polluting energy used to produce them, a study said Tuesday.

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Indeed, by some calculations, the so-called “break-even point” between dirty energy input and clean output may already have arrived, researchers in the Netherlands reported.

“We show strong downward trends of environmental impact” of solar panel production, the team wrote in the journal Nature Communications.

The study sought to address concerns that solar technology may be using fossil fuel energy in the panels’ manufacture, and emitting greenhouse gases, faster than it was able to offset.

The authors found that for every doubling in solar capacity installed, energy used to produce solar panels decreased by 12-13 percent, and greenhouse gas emissions dropped by 17-24 percent, depending on the material used.

Solar panels, which convert sunlight into electricity, are a key player in the fast-growing renewable energy sector, which also includes water- and wind-generated electricity.

Unlike energy from fossil fuels such as oil, coal and gas, the generation of electricity by so-called photovoltaic (PV) panels does not release planet-harming carbon dioxide.

Solar panel capacity grew sharply, on average, by 45 percent per year from 1975 to reach 230 billion watts (Gigawatt or GW) in 2015.

In 1975, there were fewer than 10,000 solar panels around the world, compared to about a billion today, study co-author Wilfried Van Sark of Utrecht University in the Netherlands told AFP.

By the end of 2016, “we would have some 300 GW installed” — about 1-1.5 percent of global electricity demand.

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