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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