Do Solar Panels Use More Energy Than They Generate?

You’ve probably heard the claim that solar panels take more energy to make than they generate. That’s a pretty crushing thing to hear if you’ve just hired an electrician to install a fancy new solar system in the belief that you’re doing the right thing for the environment. But is it true? We decided to look into it, and hopefully resolve the debate once and for all.

So here’s the claim: As you know, making solar panels requires energy. There’s the direct use of energy in the factory involved in the production of the panels, along with energy involved in the transportation of the panels and their components. Furthermore, you have to think about the energy debt involved in acquiring raw materials and converting them into the parts used to make solar panels.

That can add up fast, and a lot of solar plants are using fuels like coal to generate the energy they need for activities like melting silicon. Researchers Sally Benson and Michael Dale took a look at the industry’s energy needs and overall energy production for Environmental Science & Technology and published a paper detailing their findings. What they found will probably allow you to breathe a sigh of relief: solar panels generate more energy than they use, overall, and have been doing so since at least 2010.

These findings can be attributed to changes in solar technology, the growth of the industry, and more awareness when it comes to energy use in panel production. The industry has reached a tipping point, and these findings are also in line with what the National Renewable Energy Laboratory has found when it’s looked into solar panels and whether they truly offer energy benefits.

They specifically delved into what’s known as “payback“: how many years of operation does it take for a solar panel to generate as much energy as was used in its manufacture? They found that depending on the technology used, it takes between one and four years for solar panels to earn out on their energy debt. Consider that most panels are projected to last between 20 and 25 years with proper maintenance and normal use, and you can see that there’s a net energy gain here that’s rather significant.

For consumers, once they’ve moved through the initial payback phase, their panels are generating energy without using energy, putting lie to the claim that solar panels use up more energy than they can possibly make. The fact that this myth persists, however, is important, indicative of the the slow adoption of solar technologies and the confusion circulating among members of the public about the pluses and minuses of alternative energy options.

As the industry grows and progresses, factories currently relying on outdated energy generation technologies like coal will hopefully turn to alternative energy like solar itself to power their operations. One of the reason coal remains persistent in the solar industry is because very high temperatures are required for the processing of some materials. That may be about to change thanks to the development of products that don’t rely on silicon, which has a notoriously high melting point.

If you’re considering solar and you’ve been put off by this claim, now you’ve got some science to counter it: solar panels are definitely the right choice if you want a net energy gain. You may have other issues to consider before installing them, and you’ll definitely want to discuss those with a solar contractor, but you can at least rest assured that the net impact of your solar panels on the environment will be positive, not negative.

So if you’re developing a green house, don’t be afraid to put solar back on the table. Especially if you live somewhere with lots of sun and mild winters, it could be a great choice for you.

Katie Marks writes for Networx.com.

(Photo: Peter Blanchard, Flickr.)

105 comments

Ruth R.
Ruth R.3 months ago

Thank you for sharing the article.

Chris G.
.7 months ago

You create sense out of the foremost complex topics.cheapest 3kw system in Perth

Son Y.
Son Y.11 months ago

I'm glad solar panel production is improving all the time! But I agree that more factors should be considered, as I saw in these articles.

From this:
The ugly side of solar panels
http://www.lowtechmagazine.com/2008/03/the-ugly-side-o.html

to these:
How Sustainable is PV Solar Power?
http://www.lowtechmagazine.com/2015/04/how-sustainable-is-pv-solar-power.html

How Sustainable is Stored Sunlight?
http://www.lowtechmagazine.com/2015/05/sustainability-off-grid-solar-power.html

But, I like these articles the best:
The bright future of solar thermal powered factories (SOLAR. FACTORIES. How can that NOT be cool?)
http://www.lowtechmagazine.com/2011/07/solar-powered-factories.html

If We Insulate Our Houses, Why Not Our Cooking Pots? (ok, not strictly speaking solar panel-related, but energy related)
http://www.lowtechmagazine.com/2014/07/cooking-pot-insulation-key-to-sustainable-cooking.html

Here's to more sustainable living!

Christine Jones
Christine J.about a year ago

Best thing I ever did was get solar panels. I thought maybe I'd end up having electricity bills in winter and credit in summer, and they'd balance each other out, but it's even better. I'm in credit all year round and can feed back to the grid.

Beth O'Brien
Beth O'Brien1 years ago

1979: Jimmy Carter installed solar panels at the White House. 1986: Reagan removed solar panels from the White House. 2013: Obama installed solar panels at the White House. Enough said?!

Ganaisha Calvin
Ganaisha Calvin2 years ago

interesting

Carrie-Anne Brown

thanks for sharing :)

Lesllie F.
Leslie F.2 years ago

If solar panels used more energy than they produce, then Arizona Power Services wouldn't currently be squabbling in court about paying solar-panel users who generate enough electricity to not only supply their own homes/businesses/farms/etc. but a surplus to feed back into the power lines. The citizens are demanding that APS pay them for the power they've generated, and APS is insisting that the citizens pay it for the use of its lines. Having seen this game played before, I'd say the end is a foregone conclusion. I'll be putting up my own solar panels as soon as it's decided how much APS will have to pay its "suppliers".

Mari s
Mari 's2 years ago

Are Cd's better than cassette tapes? If you answered yes just think about how we got there. _Think_ Advance!!! Money, research, time, Advance! SUPPORT CLEAN ENERGY ONLY! Energy that does not pollute our earth and water.

Christine W.
Christine W.2 years ago

Thanks for sharing.