Do Solar Panels Use More Energy to Manufacture than They Actually Produce?

One frequently reported statistic about solar panels is that they take more energy to produce than they actually make.

That’s disheartening to those who installed solar panels wanting to reduce their environmental impact. It’s also frustrating for those who installed solar panels and wanted to save money on their utility bills.

Is this true? Or is this another internet myth? Do solar panels really require more energy than they generate? Today, we’re going to get to the bottom of this issue.

It’s True: Making Solar Panels Requires Energy

Yes, solar panels require energy to be produced. The factory that makes the solar panels uses energy. Energy is used to transport solar panels from the factory to your city. Each component involved in the panels requires energy to produce. The raw resources in solar panels need energy to be extracted from the ground.

All of that energy debt can add up quickly. But does it really outweigh the amount of energy produced by solar panels?

Fortunately, one group of scientists got to the bottom of the issue.

Ultimately, Solar Panels Generate Way More Energy than They Use

Researchers Sally Benson and Michael Dale decided to investigate the claim that solar panels use more energy than they produce. They published their results in Environmental Science & Technology. You can view their work here.

What they found was good news for solar energy advocates: solar panels generate more energy than they use, overall, and have been doing so since at least 2010.

Before 2010, solar panels likely produced more energy than they used as well. However, researchers only focused on the period after 2010.

The two researchers attributed their findings to improvements in solar technology, the growth of the industry, and more awareness of the energy used in solar panel production. Put simply, the industry as a whole has become more efficient.

How Many Years Do You Need to Use a Solar Panel Before Its Energy is “Paid Back”?

The paper linked above focused on one specific aspect of solar energy production called “payback”. Payback refers to this: how many years does a solar panel need to operate before it’s produced more energy than was originally used in its production?

Researchers found that it takes just 1 to 4 years for solar panels to “even out” or “pay back” their energy debt. When you consider the fact that panels are designed to last 20 to 25 years, on average, you can see why that’s an impressive rating.

Do Solar Panels Use Energy to Produce Energy?

For whatever reason, some people believe that solar panels consume more energy than they use. In other words, they believe that solar panels convert sunlight into electricity, but they burn more energy through this process than they actually produce.

That’s not true at all.

In reality, solar panels are capable of generating energy without using any energy. That’s why solar panels are attractive for people who live “off the grid”. They can hook up a solar panel, then start producing energy exclusively from the sunlight that hits their home.

Solar panels don’t require any energy to produce energy. After the “payback” phase is over, the solar panel produces energy without consuming energy. In other words, after 1 to 4 years, your solar panel has a purely net positive impact on the environment.

Why Solar Panels Are More Efficient Today

Solar panels no longer require more energy to produce than they produce on their own. That’s because:

  • Raw material processing is more efficient
  • Solar panels are more efficient at converting sunlight into electricity
  • Solar panel production techniques have improved
  • Solar panel costs have dropped, in terms of both price and resources required
  • Transportation has become more efficient, and transportation costs have dropped
  • Overall, the industry as a whole has become significantly more efficient.

Myth Busted: Solar Panels Do Not Require More Energy Than They Produce

The internet and myths go together hand-in-hand. That’s why it’s not surprising to see a myth like the one above get repeated so often.

Thanks to the study by Sally Benson and Michael Dale, we have conclusive evidence that solar panels produce more energy than they consume – and solar panels have been working that way since 2010.

It’s possible that before 2010, in the early days of solar panel technology, certain solar panels required more energy to be produced than they ever produced themselves. However, for most of the past decade, this hasn’t been the case: solar panels have a net positive impact on the environment. We’ve gone past the tipping point, and today’s solar panels are more efficient than ever before.

Today, solar panels are scheduled to last 20 to 25 years. Most research shows that the panels have “paid back” their energy debt after just 1 to 4 years of use. As solar technology continues to grow, the number of years required to pay back energy debt should drop even further.

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  1. SolarFest.org Dave says:

    Where does the statement “solar panels are scheduled to last 20 to 25 years” come from? Is that a general statement or is there a source for that information?

    I ask because I have read of panels made in the late 1970’s (i.e., with ancient solar technology) that were operating at over 90% output in 2010. Hopefully, the newer panels will perform even better. Furthermore, good panels have warranties of 25 years – and warranties are usually somewhat conservative – so that the manufacturer is not on the hook to pay out claims.

    Perhaps when you wrote that panels are “scheduled’ to last 20-25 years, you were referring to their warranties….which seems like a strange way to word it.

    Please clarify. Thank you!

    1. My Name Is says:

      Everyone uses the 20-25 year lifespan as that is the effective warranty for most panels. Most manufacturers also guarantee that at 20 years a panel will produce 80% of its stated power. Considering the manufacturer will have allowed for margin of error etc. and that a panel has no moving wearable parts, to hear panels produced in the 1970s still at 90% capacity is completely viable. In my humble opinion the only thing that will really wear out a panel is UV degradation, and the materials used to make a panel are fairly resistant to that, and damage from debris such as hail. As newer panels with better manufacturing processes head over the 20 year mark I can see warranties extending. Then again most manufacturers will want you to keep buying new products, so maybe not, but that’s just the cynic in me!

  2. Bama Bill says:

    Has anyone included the energy to produce the storage batteries? And replacing them at least every few years? Then there is the problem with recycling the used solar panel when I isn’t producing enough. I’m a retired analyst, and look at the “Total System”. NOT, just the solar panel.
    So how about starting with mining the materials thru recycling the panel after 20 years?

  3. peter says:

    how will the future disposal costs factor into the net energy gain?

  4. Robert Juul Petersen says:

    1. For the energy produced how long would it likely take to pay for a panel?
    2. What is the estimated cost of disposing of a worn out panel?

  5. Rick Donaldson says:

    Strictly speaking, this isn’t true. Law of conservation of mass and energy. You DO need energy to produce energy. The SUN is an energy producer and light from the sun is required for solar panels to produce an output.

    Also, production of storage batteries, inverter systems and copper wire used to tie it all together weren’t taken into account.

    quote:
    In reality, solar panels are capable of generating energy without using any energy. That’s why solar panels are attractive for people who live “off the grid”. They can hook up a solar panel, then start producing energy exclusively from the sunlight that hits their home.

    Solar panels don’t require any energy to produce energy. After the “payback” phase is over, the solar panel produces energy without consuming energy. In other words, after 1 to 4 years, your solar panel has a purely net positive impact on the environment.

  6. Johnny Bynum says:

    If solar panels produce more energy than they produce, why aren’t they setup to produce the power to manufacture more of them instead of “outside” power?