Analysis Shows Solar Modules Cause More Greenhouse Gas Emissions Than Modern Coal Power Plants!

It turns out that because of the emissions of extraordinarily potent greenhouse gases NF3 and SF6 and energy during the manufacture of solar modules, solar energy ends up being worse for the climate than burning coal (assuming the global warming hypothesis is valid).

A Swiss engineer has made a thorough analysis of the greenhouse gas emissions caused by the manufacture, transport and operation of solar panels. His conclusion:

Solar energy in Germany is climate killer no. 1!”

Ferrucio Ferroni writes here how China is the number 1 manufacturer of solar panels globally and that the production of solar panels there requires immense amounts of electricity, which in China is mainly produced by coal power plants. Moreover the manufacture of solar panels also involves substantial amounts of potent greenhouse gases that leak out into the atmosphere.

The result Ferroni writes:

The comparison on CO2 emissions of a modern coal power plant and that of a PV system shows that per kilowatt-hour of power produced, PV systems damage the climate more. This statement is true if the hypothesis of the IPCC is correct to start with.”

Ferroni writes that it is accepted as fact the coal power plants emit carbon dioxide. But what is little known is that PV systems also lead to the emission of considerable quantities greenhouse gases – not during their operation, but during their manufacture.

Ferroni writes that when calculating the climate impacts of PV systems per unit, it is first necessary to account for the energy used in their manufacture in China, which involves the processing of solar silizium. Silizium processing involves considerable amounts of chemicals and raw materials. Also the manufacture of peripheral systems and their subsequent transport of materials to Europe and North America and their modest outputs in many northern locations have to be taken into account.

In comparison, modern steam power plants using clean-coal-technology now reach an efficiency of 52%, which means they emit 846 grams of CO2 per kWh when powered with stone coal (heat value: 30 MJ/kg). Moreover, nowadays highly efficient filters keep dust emissions to a minimum.

Producing 1 square meter requires 300 kg of coal

The manufacture of the silizium for the panels is immensely energy-intensive. According to Prof. Jian Shuisheng of the Jiatong-University in Peking, one square meter of solar module production requires more than 300 kg of coal, which leads to more than 1100 kg of CO2 emissions.

Also the production in China of peripheral systems for PV systems, like frequency converters, batteries, copper cable, switches, instruments etc., require fossil energy. According to literature this is estimated to be an additional 13%. Thus so far the emission for one square meter of solar module now adds up to 1243 kg CO2.

Potent gases needed for manufacturing solar modules

According to Ferroni, the other huge drawback presented by PV systems are the nasty chemicals and industrial gases used for their manufacture. The production of solar panels in China entails nitrogen trifluoride (NF3) and sulfur hexafluoride (SF6), which are extremely potent heat-trapping gases that leak out during the process. NF3 has a greenhouse gas potency that is 16,600 times greater than CO2; SF6 is 23,900 times more potent. Reports show that these gases emitted annually into the atmosphere from the manufacture of solar panels is equivalent to over 70 million tonnes of CO2 in terms of greenhouse effect. In 2010 over 17.5 GW of rated capacity of solar cells were installed. Thus the emissions per square meter of solar panels comes out to be 513 kg CO2 – a huge amount!

Other chemicals in the production process

The manufacture of solar cells also uses other chemicals like (HCl), silizium carbide, and silver among others. The total alleged warming potential of these chemicals comes out to be an estimated 30 kg CO2 per square meter of PV module. Oddly (likely to avoid embarrassment) the solar industry has yet to release any detailed data on the warming potential and impacts of the chemicals used in their manufacture.

Emissions-intensive transport 

Also the transport of the PV systems and modules represent a considerable source of emissions. Ferroni writes that the transport of the systems from China to Germany results in 23 kg CO2 per square meter of solar module, more than what is used to transport coal from South Africa to Europe.

In total 1809 kg of CO2 equivalent is emitted into the atmosphere per square meter of solar panel manufactured and transported.

Ferroni then calculates that over the entire lifetime of a solar panel (25 years) one square meter will produce a total 2000 kwh in Germany. But then there are losses from conversions and so the real value is closer to 1850 kWh.

Over the entire lifetime and taking all factors into account, Ferroni finds that each kwh of electricity produced by solar modules emits 978g of CO2. How does this compare to coal? Ferroni:

In comparison, a modern coal power plant emits 846 g CO2/kWh, i.e. about 13% less. As a result, under German conditions, PV modules are the no. 1 climate killers. By comparison a gas power plant is more advantageous because its CO2 emissions are about half as much: approx.: 400g CO2/kWh.”

References

1) Arnold, T., C. M. Harth, J. Muhle, A. J. Manning, P. K.Salameh, et al. “Nitrogen trifluoride global emissions estimated from updated atmospheric measurements.”  Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 110, no. 6 (February 5, 2013): pp. 2029-2034

2) www.svtc.org (Silicon Valley Toxic Coalition)

3) Technische Gesellschaft Zürich, These 8: Ökobilanz der Photovoltaik verlangt mehr Transparenz, 27. August 2013, auf www.tgz-net.ch

 

20 responses to “Analysis Shows Solar Modules Cause More Greenhouse Gas Emissions Than Modern Coal Power Plants!”

  1. DirkH

    Yeah, but they’re a great vehicle to get at billions of taxpayer money.

  2. Jeanne

    There is certainly a lot to learn about this subject.
    I love all the points you’ve made.

  3. Rick Chapman

    This article refers to a Swiss researchers’ paper; I would like to read this paper, because I find this comment that Solar panels, which once produced having residual energy production for their lifetime, produc more CO2 than Coal, which is residually mined for in order to produce more energy. I call BS

  4. JohnB

    I went to the web site SVTC – they said about solar : Even panels that are not as common …, such as cadmium telluride panels or emerging thin film technologies that utilize untested nanomaterials, can pose a threat to the environment and workers during the manufacturing and recycling stage – I believe these uncommon panels are what the article is referring to – don’t get me wrong, I’m anti-solar and anti-wind, but the article reminds me of CLIMATE ALARMISM and needs to be toned down just a bit a center on the economics of the issue – the ECONOMICS (driven by efficiency) would require the use of the unusual panels which create the issues described

  5. the "green illlusions" book

    An engineer at Cal Berkeley [http://berkeley.academia.edu/OzzieZehner] published a book a couple of years ago called “Green Illusions” which also says this.

    It mentions a third chemical C2F6 as well. The search function on Amazon for ‘Nf3′ gets to the part about this.

    Funny thing is, apparently Zehner is a lukewarmist who says stuff like “we have a consumption crisis”. So he is not one of those biased, uh, skeptics:)

  6. Alfonso

    To be fair, should not the comparison with emissions of modern steam power plants (alleged to be 846 grams of CO2 per kWh) take into account also the CO2 emitted during the construction transport etc. of their components and not only during operation?.

    I do not speak german and therefore I cannot evaluate the contents of the original article. Does Ferroni a fair comparison between the 2 systems or not?

    I´m very skeptic of CAGW, and of the expensive solutions being implemented…but when comparing we should do it point by point and then add up. It’s only fair if we do not want to follow the rotten path of skewed comparisons made by advocates.

    1. DirkH

      If an energy producing contraption needs substantial subsidies to even find buyers, something must be wrong with its claimed energy production vs. the energy needed to produce it.

      Or in other words: Nobody in the entire world even proposes building the famed “Solar Breeder” where a solar cell factory uses exclusively the solar cells it produces to power the production of more solar cells. Why?

    2. Graeme No.3

      Alfonso:
      A very good point, but my information is that black coal stations in the UK average 760 grams of CO2 per kWh when operating, and newer more efficient stations get this figure down to 700. There may be room for the construction costs in the differential.

      Also coal fired stations last for 50 years (or more) whereas renewables don’t. It would be interesting to see an accounting for the emissions from the 2-3000 tonnes of concrete used as the base for a typical wind turbine.

      1. DirkH

        The concrete foundation lasts forever. You can put up another tower after 20 years.

  7. Greg

    I attended a venture captial information seminar a few years ago related to solar companies in Canada. An engineering professor from a local school was there, and he was a long time specialist in development of semiconductor materials. He stated that the energy required to produce the silicon semiconductor material in a solar panel could not be matched by the total produced by the panel while in service for at least 20 years, even under ideal conditions. The solar company representative said, who cares, the government is subsidizing your cost.

  8. Jimbo

    Check this out.

    Guardian – 25 March 2014
    Climate change will make UK weather too wet and too dry, says Met Office
    The UK’s weather will become both too wet and too dry – and also too cold and too hot – as climate change increases the frequency of extreme events, the Met Office has warned in a new report.
    http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/mar/25/climate-change-uk-weather-wet-dry-met-office

    1. DirkH

      Covering all the bases. Smart cookies.

  9. Ian L. McQueen

    Please change “silizium” to “silicon”, the English equivalent of the German word.

    Ian

  10. L Michael Hohmann

    Let’s look at a few facts to get this into proportion: During 2010, the global energy costs of some major materials were: Steel 35.8 EJ; Cement 13.2 EJ; Paper 10.0 EJ; Plastics 21.2 EJ. Just these four together total 80.2 EJ [exaJoule] of energy. This compares to the total world energy use for the production of silicon wafers of 0.18EJ, which is equal to only 0.2% of these four materials alone. Why should anyone think that even the total elimination of silicon wafers should have any impact on the environment in the face of all other material production energy costs making for a civilized world? Apart from the fact that silicon wavers are the only material that will eventually also produce energy from an ubiquitous free and safe source?
    [cf. Vaclav Smil: Making the Modern World, John Wiley & Sons Ltd, 2014]

  11. John F. Hultquist

    Prof. Hohmann throws out a bunch of numbers that, without context, are lacking in usefulness. I will note that steel, cement, paper, and plastics are all very useful. Modern society relies on these things. Silicon wafers for solar power – not much good to anyone. Well, unless you are one of the folks harvesting subsidies.

    1. DirkH

      John; the analysis above is for the cloudy weather of Germany with 800 sun hours per year. The result would be very different assuming South Californias 2400 sun hours per year.

    2. L Michael Hohmann

      No ‘Prof’ here, just a ‘Pundit’. If it helps, there are few slides of one of my lectures published as Civic Energy, available free at http://www.lulu.com/spotlight/CleanEnergyPundit,
      with plenty of pictures illustrating useful uses of solar PV.

      1. Greg

        The point is that these other materials have a use. Solar wafers are used in something that is pointless. If something produces 100 units of energy over its expected life time, but requires 150 units of energy to manufacture, it is pointless.

  12. DirkH

    Want to have a dangerous, complicated, exhausting job with little pay? Then wind power is the shovel ready project for you!
    German report about the thriving wind power service job sector and the things these people have to master. Like abseiling wounded, and lifting them up 100m to the helipad on top an offshore wind thingy.
    http://www.abendblatt.de/wirtschaft/article126192741/Windkraft-Nachwuchs-dringend-gesucht.html?wtmc=google.editorspick&google_editors_picks=true

  13. lemiere jacques

    it is very true in france wher electricity is nuclear with low CO2 emission…