Why I am a double atheist

28 11 2017

For years and years – at least 15 – I argued with Dave Kimble over his notion that solar energy production was growing far too fast to be sustainable, let alone reduce greenhouse emissions.  I eventually had to relent and agree with him, he had a keener eye for numbers than me, and he was way better with spreadsheets!

The whole green technology thing has become a religion. I know, I used to have the faith too….. but now, as you might know if you’ve been ‘here’ long enough, I neither believe in god nor green tech!

This article – to which you will have to go to for the references – landed in my newsfeed…….  and lo and behold, it says exactly the same thing Dave was saying all those years ago…….:

How Sustainable is PV solar power?

How sustainable is pv solar power

Picture: Jonathan Potts.

It’s generally assumed that it only takes a few years before solar panels have generated as much energy as it took to make them, resulting in very low greenhouse gas emissions compared to conventional grid electricity.

However, a more critical analysis shows that the cumulative energy and CO2 balance of the industry is negative, meaning that solar PV has actually increased energy use and greenhouse gas emissions instead of lowering them.

The problem is that we use and produce solar panels in the wrong places. By carefully selecting the location of both manufacturing and installation, the potential of solar power could be huge.

There’s nothing but good news about solar energy these days. The average global price of PV panels has plummeted by more than 75% since 2008, and this trend is expected to continue in the coming years, though at a lower rate. [1-2] According to the 2015 solar outlook by investment bank Deutsche Bank, solar systems will be at grid parity in up to 80% of the global market by the end of 2017, meaning that PV electricity will be cost-effective compared to electricity from the grid. [3-4]

Lower costs have spurred an increase in solar PV installments. According to the Renewables 2014 Global Status Report, a record of more than 39 gigawatt (GW) of solar PV capacity was added in 2013, which brings total (peak) capacity worldwide to 139 GW at the end of 2013. While this is not even enough to generate 1% of global electricity demand, the growth is impressive. Almost half of all PV capacity in operation today was added in the past two years (2012-2013). [5] In 2014, an estimated 45 GW was added, bringing the total to 184 GW. [6] [4].

Solar PV total global capacitySolar PV total global capacity, 2004-2013. Source: Renewables 2014 Global Status Report.

Meanwhile, solar cells are becoming more energy efficient, and the same goes for the technology used to manufacture them. For example, the polysilicon content in solar cells — the most energy-intensive component — has come down to 5.5-6.0 grams per watt peak (g/wp), a number that will further decrease to 4.5-5.0 g/wp in 2017. [2] Both trends have a positive effect on the sustainability of solar PV systems. According to the latest life cycle analyses, which measure the environmental impact of solar panels from production to decommission, greenhouse gas emissions have come down to around 30 grams of CO2-equivalents per kilwatt-hour of electricity generated (gCO2e/kWh), compared to 40-50 grams of CO2-equivalents ten years ago. [7-11] [12]

According to these numbers, electricity generated by photovoltaic systems is 15 times less carbon-intensive than electricity generated by a natural gas plant (450 gCO2e/kWh), and at least 30 times less carbon-intensive than electricity generated by a coal plant (+1,000 gCO2e/kWh). The most-cited energy payback times (EPBT) for solar PV systems are between one and two years. It seems that photovoltaic power, around since the 1970s, is finally ready to take over the role of fossil fuels.

BUT the bit that caught my eye was this…..:

A life cycle analysis that takes into account the growth rate of solar PV is called a “dynamic” life cycle analysis, as opposed to a “static” LCA, which looks only at an individual solar PV system. The two factors that determine the outcome of a dynamic life cycle analysis are the growth rate on the one hand, and the embodied energy and carbon of the PV system on the other hand. If the growth rate or the embodied energy or carbon increases, so does the “erosion” or “cannibalization” of the energy and CO2 savings made due to the production of newly installed capacity. [16]

For the deployment of solar PV systems to grow while remaining net greenhouse gas mitigators, they must grow at a rate slower than the inverse of their CO2 payback time. [19] For example, if the average energy and CO2 payback times of a solar PV system are four years and the industry grows at a rate of 25%, no net energy is produced and no greenhouse gas emissions are offset. [19] If the growth rate is higher than 25%, the aggregate of solar PV systems actually becomes a net CO2 and energy sink. In this scenario, the industry expands so fast that the energy savings and GHG emissions prevented by solar PV systems are negated to fabricate the next wave of solar PV systems. [20]

Which is precisely what Dave Kimble was saying more than ten years ago.  To see his charts and download his spreadsheet, go to this post.

His conclusions are that “We have been living in an era of expanding energy availability, but Peak Oil and the constraints of Global Warming mean we are entering a new era of energy scarcity. In the past, you could always get the energy you wanted by simply paying for it. From here on, we are going to have to be very careful about how we allocate energy, because not only is it going to be very expensive, it will mean that someone else will have to do without. For the first time, ERoEI is going to be critically important to what we choose to do. If this factor is ignored, we will end up spending our fossil energy on making solar energy, which only makes Global Warming worse in the short to medium term.”




26 responses

28 11 2017

“Why I am a double atheist”

Or, in other words an “Antitheist”?

From the late great Hitchens – “I’m not even an atheist so much as I am an antitheist; I not only maintain that all religions are versions of the same untruth, but I hold that the influence of churches (MY NOTE: including the Churches of Progress, Green Energy, et al…), and the effect of religious belief, is positively harmful.”

Man I miss me a good hitchslap!

28 11 2017

Its getting to the stage now where it takes only 1-2 years to for a solar PV panel to generate its total embodied energy, for a lifetime of 20-30 years of generation.
Also Solar PV electricity is being used to manufacture new panels.
So 1 panel could provide the energy to produce and install 10 new panels.
This means the possibility of virtually unlimited growth of solar PV without the need for external energy sources, such as fossil fuels.

28 11 2017

Really Jeff……. you have a source for this? BTW, because the peripherals of a PV system last less long than the actual PVs, it makes their ERoEI NEGATIVE……. I have seen people throw away an entire solar system because they had to upgrade, and NONE of the new stuff was compatible with the new.


28 11 2017

“The Fraunhofer report of 2014, based on data collected between 2010 and 2013, concludes that, depending on the type of panel used and the solar irradiation where installed, that the embodied energy in the panels can be produced by them in two-to-four years. The report also extrapolates that soon the time would drop to one-to-two years, because of panel, manufacturing, and installation efficiencies. The report was done in Europe, using Sicily and Germany as the measured sites. The report shows an irradiation map for Europe, but comparable irradiation maps for the US are available.

With PV panels’ service life expected to be 30 years, the panels’ lifetime energy output should be 10 to 20 times the energy cost to provide them. This is true for panels on your roof, but even more so if bought from a large solar farm, as the energy cost to build them is lower.”

28 11 2017

“There is some debate about what should go in to the accounting of energy inputs to produce panels, but certainly the cost to mine the materials, run the factories, ship the panels to the end user should (and are) included. The energy cost of maintaining the installers could be added in as well, though their energy cost is fixed and maybe should not be charged to the panels.”

28 11 2017

Or to formulate it more succinctly, you absolutely have to pay back EVERYTHING, including maintenance, exploration for new minerals or interests on financed installations with solar input. Everything.

In fact, it seems to be so simple that a child could comprehend this! (But adults don’t, because money grows on trees, apparently.)

Something else to ponder: What if peak fossil fuels happens as predicted. Are the hordes going to salvage or even save solar installations or do the vandals just destroy everything – and render yet another unsustainable production useless?

28 11 2017

I have always been a skeptic. I have yet to see a proper cost benefit analysis which for example includes the doubling up of energy use for the renewable sector added to the continuing FF sector. I have always looked at the CMO data for the reality. CMO= Cubic Mile of Oil. Currently this is about 3 CMO of oil and energy equivalent consumption per annum. Take just 1 CMO and the electricity production to match it would require 200 dams each the size of China’s 3 gorges dam. If economic growth at 3.5 % PA continues then in 20 years we would need ANOTHER 200 such dams. The whole thing makes zero sense. It’s nothing more than wishful thinking.

28 11 2017
Jonathan Maddox

That’s material consumption growth, not economic growth. People frequently pay thousands of dollars, or even on rare occasions millions, for paintings whose material content cost less than $50.

Material consumption growth will come to an end, perforce. The “economy” measured by figures like GDP is largely *immaterial*.

28 11 2017

Well, yes, but material consumption is more important than the economy, even though they are closely related. Building 200 dams would give a huge lift to the economy but in material resources it cannot be done. So the cost doesn’t matter as it is not feasible.

14 12 2017
Jonathan Maddox

Why pick “200 dams”? And why say it can’t be done? We are doing a lot of other less useful things right now with far greater material costs.

28 11 2017

The biggest weakness in the current solar photovoltaic systems as currently imagined are the batteries. Unless we can manage a huge cultural shift to only use electricity in any reasonable quantity during the day then this will be the weak link. Transmission is the next weakest link, due to inevitable losses (no room temperature superconductors on the horizon) and the enormous resources needed to maintain the infrastructure. A solar photovoltaic future might work where small localised villages or factories use their personal solar panels to run machinery during the day. Industrial manufacturing, refrigeration and telecommunications remain viable in this model as long as we don’t insist on frying an egg on an electric stove at midnight.

28 11 2017
Chris Harries

At a more reductionist level, one reason Australia is able to camouflage these maths is that we don’t do manufacturing of solar panels or wind turbines. Virtually all of that is done elsewhere and so the front-end energy to produce and transport, from an Australian perspective, is zero. That’s why we can come up with silly terminology, such as carbon neutral this or that city or enterprise or whatever.

Regarding total energy payback periods, any person can cherry pick the payback period that suits their perspective. So that’s what people tend to do in this debating arena. Two ways to arrive at a real result.

1) Go to there research done by credible and neutral academic people. On the ERoEI front the best there seems to be Prof Charles Hall and his associates. He doesn’t come up with a negative figure for payback, but his estimates are low compared to the adventurous claims put forward by the technology proponents.

2) The other way is to use Jared Diamond’s scientific approach. Where there is a spread of data put forward by proponents and protagonists in any situation the truth always tends to be somewhere between the most extreme figures cited. (As his example he used the much debated length of time Aborigines have been living in Australia).

Using the second method we arrive again at a fairly conservative figure for estimated energy payback times that is not too different to the Hall studies. (This is about energy, not about other, scarcer resources that may be even more critical.)

28 11 2017

But…but…but…..when fossil fuels run out you’ve now got to make solar panels in a factory powered by solar panels. You’ve got to mine and process the raw materials using machinery powered by solar panels. You’ve got to transport them to the site, install and maintain them using equipment powered by solar panels. And you’ve got to have a sustainable supply of raw materials, or be able to recycle those in dead solar panels back into new ones. Same goes for wind turbines.

Another use of the word ‘sustainable’ without understanding it’s real meaning (not referring to you, Mike 🙂 )

28 11 2017
Jonathan Maddox

Take heart. The actual recent annual growth rate of PV deployment is not 25%, it’s something over 40%. The actual energy payback time of current PV equipment is just a few *months*, not four years … well below “the inverse of the growth rate”. And that is not the same thing as the “CO₂ payback time” (which is not something commonly measured or assessed, or even specifically discussed).

There is a false equivalence drawn from energy payback time to CO₂ payback time. A very large fraction of the energy going into producing PV is electric. The less CO₂-intensive the electricity is, and the more the currently fossil-driven stages of the manufacturing process move to cleaner electricity, the shorter that “CO₂ payback time” will be.

Deploying PV at an ever-increasing rate is without doubt a virtuous circle, not a vicious one.

28 11 2017

A few months Jonathan….? WHERE did you get that idea….. Pedro Prieto I’m sure would disagree.

28 11 2017
28 11 2017

Wow…….. but not even the manufacturers agree with that…

Energy payback time and improvements in production technology
Due to improving production technologies the energy payback time has been decreasing constantly since the introduction of PV systems in the energy market.[78] In 2000 the energy payback time of PV systems was estimated as 8 to 11 years[79] and in 2006 this was estimated to be 1.5 to 3.5 years for crystalline silicon silicon PV systems[72] and 1–1.5 years for thin film technologies (S. Europe).[72] These figures fell to 0.75–3.5 years in 2013, with an average of about 2 years for crystalline silicon PV and CIS systems.

I find it hard to believe they would have improved that much, because now the silicon wafers use less energy than the glass and aluminium frames do……. and they haven’t improved. The dearest part of sticking panels on roofs now are the mounting racks, all made of aluminium. I wonder if they are counted? And as Pedro Prieto has calculated, they rarely last as long as they are supposed to, and worse, the peripherals rarely last beyond their warranties. Once the inverters are dead, the new panels are no longer compatible with the new technology, and they can end up thrown away! I personally know someone who had to do that after ten years of ownership in a stand alone system……. Their son in law has all the panels stacked in a shed gathering dust while he works out what to do with them….


29 11 2017
Jonathan Maddox

Mike, the EPBT range for a “PV system” (not unmounted cells) in 2013, from your source and pasted in your comment, is “0.73-3.5 years with an average of about 2 years”. That’s four years ago, and the learning curve never stopped.

The frame (glass and aluminium) currently represents maybe 10-15% of the embedded energy of a polycrystalline silicon solar PV system: less than the inverter and far less than the cells themselves. That proportion is increasing as the energy demand for silicon production decreases with reduced silicon volume, reduced waste in silicon handling, reduced purity requirements for silicon, and improved techniques for silicon preparation.

A shining example of near-term progress is the switch from the Siemens process (using silane gas deposition) for silicon purification to lower-energy metallurgical processes such as that developed by 6N Silicon, now Silicor Materials.


They’re building a factory in Iceland. It won’t use any fossil fuels.


If improvements continue at this rate, eventually the frame will indeed become a dominant component of the embedded energy of a solar PV system. That’s a few years away yet; by that time the energy payback time might be as little as three months, and the CO₂ payback time even shorter.

1 12 2017

Goody……… Iceland to the recue. They will take over all of China’s coal fired manufacturing you think…?

1 12 2017

That Iceland website……. what amazing marketing! As an ex professional photographer who worked in the advertising industry, I can smell an expensive ad agency a mile away…..

28 11 2017
Eva Alfredsson

Is there not a misstake in the text: “net CO2 and energy sink” should be “net CO2 and energy source”?

28 11 2017
Charmian Larke

today’s Daily Telegraph quotes from Shell that their new EV chargers in the UK will charge in 5-10 minutes, so the time for charging is reducing rapidly.

29 11 2017

AND where’s the power coming from? WHERE are all the resources to do this coming from? AND how long before we run out of Lithium before everyone goes broke for investing in a stupid technology with no future……..? WORSE…….. how long before we run out of food to feed the people running this stupid show…?

29 11 2017

Lithium batteries are recyclable.
All the lithium can be extracted and reused.
Though at the moment it does not make any economic sense to recycle the batteries.
And the average lithium cost associated with Li-ion battery production is less than 3% of the production cost.
And recycled lithium is as much as five times the cost of lithium produced from the least costly brine based process.
But if there is ever a supply shortage the Lithium could easily be recycled.

1 12 2017

The reason Lithium batteries are not recycled, is because it’s HARD….. There’s actually very little Li in a Li battery, and that’s part of the problem, isolating it out of the rest of the battery. Worse, the likes of Tesla don’t seem to have thought of making it easy to do. Check out what’s inside a module…

30 11 2017

I’d love to see answers to the questions Mike put one comment above
@ Charmian lake
As you seem to be good in the cornucopian numbers refer to them, please

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: