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Solar power won’t pay off energy debt from fossil fuels until 2020

Solar energy production still outweighs 'real' benefit, but technology is improving

solar power won't pay for itself until 2020It could be seven years before the world’s solar photovoltaic (PV) panels contribute any ‘real’ energy to the globe, according to a new report.

Research carried out by Stanford University shows that it will be 2015 at the earliest, but probably 2020, by the time the amount of fossil fuel that was used to construct the many solar farms across the planet is counteracted by the amount saved through solar PV panels.

Report co-author Michael Dale, a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford’s Global Climate & Energy Project (GCEP), says that the situation has gradually improved from five years ago, when solar panels were consuming around 75% more energy than they produced.

This improvement is set to continue increasing in the years ahead as solar panels are increasingly relied upon and more efficient ways of installing and using them are established, but this may not be for another seven years, Mr Dale says.

Positive strides

“This analysis shows that the industry is making positive strides. Despite its fantastically fast growth rate, PV is producing – or just about to start producing – a net energy benefit to society,” he added.

According to the expert, the significant amount of energy that is harnessed to construct solar panels is partly due to the process of melting silica rock, which can only occur at 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit and uses electricity derived from power plants burning fossil fuels.

In order to be considered successful, solar PV panels need to pay back every ounce of energy that goes into producing and maintaining them, Mr Dale says, which will mean establishing more durable panels, better ways of converting sunlight and enhanced production processes.

Another option is to situate more solar farms in countries that can better harness the sun, the expert suggests.

“At the moment, Germany makes up about 40% of the installed market, but sunshine in Germany isn’t that great. So, from a system perspective, it may be better to deploy PV systems where there is more sunshine.

At the current rate of growth, around 10% of the planet’s electricity could be derived from solar panels, says Sally Benson, director of GCEP and study co-author.

She concluded: “Developing new technologies with lower energy requirements will allow us to grow the industry at a faster rate.”

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