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 “payback” 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 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. 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. Steve says:

      Good summary & thanks! The other cost that is not mentioned is cost of waste produced in the manufacture of the solar panels. We hear about mines making big $ for 20-50 yrs, then they go bankrupt & the waste mine trailings sit on the surface & pollute the ground water etc. That’s no cost? Who pays for the massive clean up & damaged local ecosystem? We don’t we just say yuck it’s an eyesore. Look at Love Canal. Stay away…. the chemical waste byproducts are burnt into thin air? Or shall we dump them in the ocean? So what is the true overall cost? And what about the useless spent batteries do they have polluted water that gets poured down the drain? The overall environmental costs, when considered are massive & I have seen them costed.

  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?

    1. Robert Bernal says:

      Good point. I believe Tesla’s battery cells require about 100 watt hours to make a single watt hour of capacity. Being that they’ll last for thousands of cycles, it’s actually self sustainable. If the overall EROEI wasn’t like greater than 5 or so, it seems we’d have to use nuclear to make solar and battery, instead of remaining fossil fuels.

  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?

    1. wes says:

      3. What are the environmental costs of manufacturing the solar cells in the panels?
      4. What are the costs for the needed battery storage? see other posts
      Based on the lack of responses to the more critical questions presented here, it looks like this is a comment forum only to present the more positive view of solar panels. AT this point, the benefit to fight climate change is the stronger incentive than economic, for solar panels.

  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.

    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?

    1. Daedra says:

      We don’t have the infrastructure yet, but it’s on it’s way, wind and solar are most likely going to be industry energy sources.

    2. Ryan says:

      I think we’re still long way from having the equipment and infrastructure to do that. Think electric powered heavy mining equipment, cargo ships, etc. large trucks should be a reality soon, but I gather there are a lot if challenges with arrays big enough to run a factory. It does seem like today’s solar may be more like a bandaid than a cure. Perhaps it can get us by until we come up with something exponentially better- orbital panels will wireless energy transfer, cold fusion, or ?? But I’m afraid we really have to learn to use less, or be forced to.

    3. wes says:

      That would be a great milestone for solar panels: a manufacturer of solar cells and solar panels, that uses only solar power.

  7. Bryan says:

    Does this include the Aluminium frames wire and all other componentry including wire termination equipment inverters etc, not just the cell production???

  8. Dr Ralph Atherton says:

    From studies I was very peripherally involved in many years ago for the British Government where we were asked to do energy accounting for large scale solar energy farms, it was found that the energy inputs into solar energy exceeded the outputs because of the major energy inputs involved in connecting the outputs of electricity to the National Grid. Has this factor been addressed recently, as energy accounting is incomplete if this factor is not taken into account.

  9. Scott Bradford says:

    Hi, I’m leaning towards getting some panels installed and the question I have is.Does the environmental impact of a panel include disposal of the panel?
    I’ve heard they extremely difficult to recycle.

  10. John says:

    The article fails to include consideration of resources needed for disposal, batteries or backup systems, infrastructure/installation.

    Analysis I’ve seen that conclude that the net benefit is not near so great (or even upside down) include this. the ones that claim it is upside down I think count all the energy costs for having to put/have in place backup systems or infrastructure. (I’m not sure that is fully justified either and maybe at least some should be count as sunk energy cost)

    I’m sure there is room for debate about what to include or not include.
    But I think this article is overoptimistic. perhaps intentionaly

  11. Bruce Dunlop says:

    The “energy neutral” time should be advertised on every panel sold. It is a key matrix if carbon neutrality is the reason you are installing them.

  12. Ken says:

    The paper does not take into consideration of 48kw of electricity per week per employee for their daily commute with an electric vehicle and the energy consumption of mining raw ore and transportation.