Embodied Energy and Solar Cells

By Devon Holst, Member-at-Large for the GCI

Embodied energy is the sum of all energy consumed in the production of goods and services. Knowing the amount of energy something ‘embodies’ is useful when assessing the environmental impact of comparable goods and services as well as assessing the utility of technologies that produce or save energy. If a device intended to save energy embodies more energy than it will save over the entirety of its use, the product is considered to be unfavourable. A net energy loss would be the result of its application.

It is important to consider the embodied energy of renewable energy technologies to ensure there is a net energy gain. I am going to follow the production process of silicon solar cells as an example of how energy can be embodied into a product. To be effective, the embodied energy of a solar cell must be less than the total energy it produces. There are many processing steps needed to assemble a solar cell where the embodied energy should be kept to a minimum. Some of the largest sources of embodied energy in silicon solar cells are described below.

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Silicon Processing (Additional embodied energy: 460 kWh/kg)

Carbothermic reduction of quartz sand (silicon dioxide) is used to produce metallurgical grade silicon. This process consumes 20 kWh/kg of metallurgical grade silicon produced. Metallurgical grade silicon must then be further refined to electronic grade silicon through a reaction with hydrochloric acid at 300 oC followed by treatment with hydrogen gas at 1100 oC. This process consumes 100 kWh/kg of electronic grade silicon. This silicon is then melted at 1400 oC and crystallized, consuming 290 kWh/kg of silicon single crystal. This form of silicon is suitable for use in a solar cell. After accounting for losses of material during each step, these processes embody 460 kWh of energy into each kg of silicon single crystal.1

Solar Cell Production (Additional embodied energy: 120 kWh/m2)

The single crystal of silicon is sliced into wafers with a multiwire saw resulting in a 40% to 50% loss as dust. Following this, a sequence of high temperature diffusion, oxidation, deposition, and annealing steps are performed. This adds 120 kWh/m2 ­­­of embodied energy to the solar cell.1

Module Assembly (Additional embodied energy: 190 kWh/m2)

A module consisting of a glass front panel, an encapsulant, the solar cell, copper ribbon, a foil back cover, and an aluminum channel is then assembled. 190 kWh/m2 of embodied energy is added during assembly.1

Support Structure (Additional embodied energy: 200 – 500 kWh/m2)

The module is then typically installed in a field or on a rooftop. In a field, the module needs to be supported by concrete, cement, and steel. Construction and materials add 500 kWh/m2 of embodied energy. Rooftops have an existing support structure reducing the embodied energy of this aspect to 200 kWh/m2.1

Miscellaneous Components

Beyond the former sources of embodied energy there are many other components in an operational solar cell. An inverter, wiring, and a battery are a few examples of these components. Depending on the components needed, this will add a variable amount of embodied energy.1

Devon_blog2Emerging technologies such as perovskites and organic solar cells often have much lower embodied energies than their silicon counterparts. Material processing methods and the amount of material necessary to produce a solar cell are a couple of the major factors that account for the difference in embodied energy of these technologies.1,2 There are, however, many other factors that make a solar cell viable for large scale energy production which when considered in aggregate currently favour silicon solar cells. It is likely that multiple solar energy technologies will thrive in the future as each has unique characteristics making one more applicable to a given situation than another.1,3

The energy payback time of a given solar cell is calculated by dividing embodied energy by energy output per unit time. This is the amount of time a solar cell must operate before it generates the same amount of energy as its embodied energy. Silicon solar cells have a 1.65 to 4.12 year energy payback time, while some organic solar cells and perovskites have energy payback times of less than half a year.4,5

Embodied energy is part of an even broader picture. A picture that captures the energy used to recycle or dispose of something and the energy associated with environmental impacts incurred through goods and services in any way. The picture is complex, but a deep understanding of it is necessary in order to make decisions that are conscious of the future.

I wonder how much energy I embody…

References:

1) Nawaz, I.; Tiwari, G. N., Embodied energy analysis of photovoltaic (PV) system based on macro- and micro-level. Energy Policy 2006, 34 (17), 3144-3152.

2) Anctil, A.; Babbitt, C. W.; Raffaelle, R. P.; Landi, B. J., Cumulative energy demand for small molecule and polymer photovoltaics. Progress in Photovoltaics: Research and Applications 2013, 21 (7), 1541-1554.

3) Snaith, H. J., Perovskites: The Emergence of a New Era for Low-Cost, High-Efficiency Solar Cells. The Journal of Physical Chemistry Letters 2013, 4 (21), 3623-3630.

4) Espinosa, N.; Hosel, M.; Angmo, D.; Krebs, F. C., Solar cells with one-day energy payback for the factories of the future. Energy & Environmental Science 2012, 5 (1), 5117-5132.

5) Gong, J.; Darling, S. B.; You, F., Perovskite photovoltaics: life-cycle assessment of energy and environmental impacts. Energy & Environmental Science 2015, 8 (7), 1953-1968.

Image Sources:

  1. Solar panels (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:SolarparkTh%C3%BCngen-020.jpg)
  2. Embodied energy (http://www.paveshare.org/library/embodied-energy)
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