The Solar Panel Myth That Just Won’t Die – Energy Payback

Solar panel myth - energy payback

Zombie image – dustinthewind

Just when you think it’s finally dead and buried, the myth of solar power system energy payback arises like a zombie from a B-grade horror movie.

The myth goes something like this:

“The energy that goes into making a solar panel is more than that panel will produce over its lifetime.”

Just because something is repeated time and again, it doesn’t make it true – and that certainly holds in this situation. The energy payback time of solar power has been very short for a very long time.

Solar Power System Energy Payback In Australia

For example, in the magazine ReNew: Technology for a Sustainable Future, issue No. 109 (October–December 2009), the results of a life cycle assessment (LCA) for a complete grid connected solar power system were published.

It looked at various issues including:

  • mining of the raw materials
  • processing
  • production
  • transport
  • product use

.. of full systems manufactured in Germany and installed in each Australian capital city.

The study found it only takes between 1.7 years (Perth and Darwin) and 2.3 years (Hobart) for solar systems to pay back the energy consumed during their life cycle. 10 years have passed since that piece was published and since then, solar manufacturers have made further inroads in energy efficiency and material usage as it’s in their financial interests to do so.

Going back even further, the energy payback time for solar panels was still very short. A National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) factsheet put energy payback estimates for rooftop PV systems at 1 – 4 years, and that was based on studies published between 1991 and 2000.

More recently, Germany’s Fraunhofer ISE stated the energy payback time of PV systems was around 2.5 years in Northern Europe and 1.5 years or less in Southern Europe, depending on the technology installed. It noted the material usage for solar cells had dropped from around 16 grams per watt to approximately 4 grams per watt as a result of increased efficiencies, thinner wafers and wires along with larger ingots.

Given a good quality solar power system should last 30 years and even with a solar inverter changeover during that period, the energy payback alone makes installing solar panels more than worthwhile. Add to that benefits including electricity bill savings providing rapid financial payback and it’s a truly wonderful way to approach electricity generation – and it’s a power you can take into your own hands.

About Michael Bloch

Michael caught the solar power bug after purchasing components to cobble together a small off-grid PV system in 2008. He's been reporting on Australian and international solar energy news ever since.

Comments

  1. Ronald Brakels says

    One thing I’ll mention is when the the Fraunhofer Institute looked at Southern European solar they were looking at solar that generated less electricity than it would anywhere in Australia. This includes Hobart.

    • Neil Anderson says

      I have been told Fire Brigades are reluctant to attempt to use water to extinguish a fire in a house with Solar Panels on the roof is this correct ?

      • Ronald Brakels says

        Hi Neil,

        With about one-third of detached homes having solar now and water being the main method used to put out fires, there would be an awful of housed burnt down if water wasn’t used on homes with PV.

        This is an old rumour that goes back a long time. Almost 10 years ago in 2011 the SA fire fighting services put out a letter saying it wasn’t true. I can’t find that letter online, but I did find this document from 2013 that shows they are trained to deal with the risks solar entails, just as they are trained to deal with the risks of normal grid AC current:

        UPDATE: The link I provided didn’t work but I hoping you can trust me when I say fire fighters are definitely onto this.

        • Hi,

          Not as long as posted link, but relevant:

          AccessDeniedRequest has expired9002020-02-17T02:53:04Z2020-02-17T19:13:11Z9ABA4CBE850E6DDDgeRdwk3/rnDqh3SPPaTUxTPkK+o/iMe6BjLEMzkPZ16X6xmssA2NNmvAcuPIH28gHP9JtZx3nCE=

          Result of clicking the link.

          dRdoS7

          • Ronald Brakels says

            Ooops! Thanks for pointing that out. I’ve learned that when a link comes to 20 miles long it’s probably worth checking that it works.

    • John Thompson says

      It may only take 1.7years to pay the energy cost but in my situation it will take 8.5 years to pay back the capital cost and at 88YO it’s a no brainer

  2. Hi Michael, While solar panels are great things there is one aspect you may not have factored in , the solar panel degrading curve over time, this may add a year or so to the energy payback time.

    • Ronald Brakels says

      Hi Alan, Ronald here.

      Since solar panels degradation is slow and their energy payback time is now likely to be under one year in Australia, degradation would only add days to the payback period. But the Fraunhofer Institute report would have taken degradation into account as they looked at the output of panels in the field.

    • I suppose it depends on your panels.
      Mine are 5 years old (plus a few months now).
      The week after installation the system maxed out at 3305 Watts peak. Its a 3Kw system.
      Last November (2019) it returned a peak power output of 3302 watts.
      Not bad. 10% over its rating, and after 5 years, basically the same.

  3. Wayne Allsopp says

    I can’t believe people are still not believing in the science behind solar power and also in how it can help save our planet from carbon emissions used in to generate electricity.

  4. Based on the newly released updated rules regarding solar installs, who can, who can’t, I wish we had a system more in line with the USA.

    I would rather install it all myself and just have a sparky in to do the 240 AC side if I was doing a large system.

    Mostly to start with I was looking at multiple small systems on animal shelters for DC lighting and the ability to connect an AC inverter if I needed for a power tool etc.

    But we are just over governed and it just makes it all too costly and difficult to bother. I will end up selling everything and changing countries to be able to live the way I want to live in retirement.

  5. Peter E Gillespie says

    Wow. Such a cherry picking article. Leave aside the review sites didn’t look in to disposal cost (something environmentally aware people care for) but also Springs 3p year old studies for cost data. Paat process have been hugely subsidised and remain so for some. Please factor or in

  6. If you are going to subject a solar panel system to life-cycle analysis like you propose in this article you need to apply like for like with fossil fuels, gas renewables and nuclear power. You need to apply all carbon and energy costs to construction, transport of fuels and running of coal fired power stations, nuclear plants, etc. These will far exceed solar domestic and industry generators from the start, including life long carbon and energy cost. Your argument now is limp at best.

  7. Why do they have to look so ugly on a house.We have the science that can generate the solar energy from film on a window ect.I will never go solar until they make it less of an eyesore. I some how think solar energy companies are holding out on us.

  8. My power usage is predominantly in the early morning and the evening like a lot of households where people work all day. Given my geography the installation will be inefficient so it seems this article is a bit misleading. I have tried to get solar installed with a payback of 5 years and have not been able to achieve this target. This aside, Perth is mentioned and I believe they use coal for baseload generation so it can’t be ramped up and down easily so in many cases you still burn coal regardless.

    • Ronald Brakels says

      Hi Paul

      Energy payback is how long it takes solar panels to produce as much energy as was used in making them. It’s different from the time required for economic payback which is longer.

      While coal power stations don’t like to shut down, generally all the electricity they generate is used. If there is too much competition they will shut down for good as has happened to over 20% of Australia’s coal generating capacity since 2012.

    • Kangaroo Jack says

      Hi Paul I live in the Queensland outback and we have a 6kva system of 22 panels.

      Can you please explain for people like me what “baseload” power is.

      Many thanks

      • Daniel Debreceny says

        Hi Kangaro Jack,
        Baseload power is the term that the generaotr industry invented to describe the minimum operating level that their inflexible coal generators could go, before they would need to shut them down.

        When you shut down a coal generator, it can take many hours to start them again.

        The industry and conservative politicians have endeavered to persuade consumers that “baseload” is a real thing, to maintain established consumer behaviour of overnight consumption and artificially manufacture a case for new “baseload” power (read as “coal”) generation, however, with the reduction in costs for consumer home solar in conjunction with solar export limits, it is generally cheaper for people to operate their “off-peak” devices during periods when their solar export is capped from solar power that would otherwise be wasted/limited.

        For this reason, most of the industry has moved away from discussion of baseload power and have moved to dispathcable power like grid Batteries, Pumped Hydro or gas turbines, which have microsecond / sub-minutes / minutes reaction times respectively.

        • Kangaroo Jack says

          So unlike the belief of our erected representatives, it doesn’t mean the absolute minimum power needed to support the grid? For example to kick off an aluminium smelter?

          Well goodness me.

  9. Like every piece of “informative advice” its good to know who generated it, or has a vested interest in the information provided. This Fraunhofer rubbish is propaganda.
    Once you commit to solar, you become a slave. Solar is the new Coal.

    • Ronald Brakels says

      Gerrard, are you saying solar is as bad as coal? Because that’s not possible. If you look at the price per watt for solar panels at the factory gate and how much electrical energy they will generate over their lifetime, the cost per watt is only enough to buy about one seventh as much coal. So even if all the money spent of solar panels went into buying coal they would still only produce about one seventh the pollution and greenhouse gas emissions as coal generation. As money spent on paying solar panels doesn’t all go into buying coal it’s clearly going to be much better than that.

    • Gerrard,
      You state:
      “Like every piece of “informative advice” its [sic] good to know who generated it, or has a vested interest in the information provided.”

      Who’s “Gerrard”? Is that part of your real name, or a pseudonym? Do you have a “vested interest”, Gerrard? Care to share?

      You finish with:
      “Once you commit to solar, you become a slave. Solar is the new Coal.”

      What’s your solution then, Gerrard? Remain a “slave” to coal then, and human civilization collapses in a few decades time due to escalating dangerous climate change, eh Gerrard?
      See: https://www.pnas.org/content/pnas/115/33/8252.full.pdf
      Also: http://www.climatecodered.org/2020/02/a-climate-reality-update-at-2020.html

      Or perhaps you are suggesting eschewing all modern technologies, Gerrard? No more internet for you then, Gerrard? Pharmaceuticals that perhaps keeps you alive and comfortable are gone, Gerrard? Perhaps you are advocating we live in caves and have short, brutal lives, ravaged by disease and famine, and squabbling over limited resources, like in the pre-industrial age, Gerrard? You first!

      Nothing happens without energy. No energy means no food and no civilization. Unaffordable energy means life becomes unaffordable.

      It seems to me you haven’t thought through the logic and implications of what you tapped away on the keyboard, eh Gerrard?

  10. Could it be possible that solar panels and wind turbines cause climate change in the areas that they are built..articules are circulating about heat islands caused by enormous solar farms such in California, these huge heat islands are picked up by the Santa Ana winds drifting into the valleys drying out vegetation causing massive fuel loads for fires
    Science is and always will be experimental

    • Ronald Brakels says

      Everything humans build affects the local climate in some way, whether it’s homes and factories, roads, or fields of rye as high as an elephant’s eye. But note solar farms can be cooler than surrounding land because a portion of the sunlight energy striking them is converted into electrical energy and sent elsewhere. Whether they’ll be hotter or cooler than the surrounding land depends on what that land is like. Either way it’s going to be a big improvement over coal or gas generation as they produce a lot of waste heat per kilowatt-hour generated.

  11. This is 10 years old and now panels are made in Chine with a greatly increased failure rating which of course changes the equation once again. Panels that used to last over 10 years are now failing in a couple.

    • Ronald Brakels says

      It all depends on the panel. Some really crap ones will fall apart after 2-3 years but there are now plenty of reliable panels being produced at low cost in China and other countries. To help steer people away from crap panels we have a graphic showing all those we recommend in our Solar 101 Guide:

      https://www.solarquotes.com.au/solar101.html

      If a panel isn’t among the ones we recommend it doesn’t mean it’s crap. It may simply be we don’t have enough information to form an opinion one way or the other.

  12. bruce mcloughlin says

    Subsidising panels does not change the energy or materials in the panel except by increasing inovation rates therefor decreasing energy inuts per watt

  13. Disposal is a major headache especially I am told of the poor quality of the massive influx of cheap Chinese solar related products ,with much shorter lifespans than European.

    Little is recyclable in most products I am told.

    A friend lost all his panels to hail,are there hail resistant units out there ?

    A recent hailstorm in Canberra smashed EVERY Window in hundreds of cars !

    My father was working on renewables 60 years ago….he would have loved current trends.

    • Ronald Brakels says

      Unfortunately, while panels like Winaico’s have good wind resistance, I don’t know any that are especially resistant to hail. While all normal panels are resistant to normal sized hail it’s probably too expensive to make panels resistant to rare fist sized hail. One the bright side, I’ve only been exposed to panel smashing hail once in my life.

  14. ERNEST HINCKLEY says

    Do solar roof panels pass heat in to the roof spaces. My home seems to have got hotter since i had 24 panels installed

    • Ronald Brakels says

      Hi Ernest

      Solar panels should have the opposite effect and help keep your home cool. I go into why they do in this article, if you’re interested:

      https://www.solarquotes.com.au/blog/solar-air-conditioning-vs-heat-reflective-paint/

      If you have a roof space fan it might be worth checking if it has failed. If you don’t have a roof space fan to blow out hot air it can be worth getting one. You can now get solar powered ones that don’t need any wiring, but if you live where it gets cold in winter it can be worthwhile to get one with a thermostat that shuts down when the temperature is low.

    • Ernest, it actually has a cooling effect as the rays are hitting the panels and being converted into electricity rather than hitting your roofing material.

      This year has been much hotter and I’m fairly certain there has been many ‘hottest day ever’ records, so this is likely what you are experiencing…

  15. Kelvin Jones says

    Around eighteen months is a ling time and the multiples of of energy gain of solar panels is extremly low compared to turbine generated power which pays back thousands of times in a 50 year life.

    There is a huge mistake being perpetrated by the renewable industry that cost of fossil fuel and the calculation on how ithe energy is contained within is used. Fossil fuel is as free as solar or wind. It is in fact historically capatured sunlight congealed and compressed by geological forces. It has an extremly high energy density compared to do d and solar. However it is not delivered free.

    It is only the energy expended to extract and transport fossil of fuel to the turbine and the efficiency of the turbine that determines the energy gain of a fossil fuel system.

    Wind and solar start with very low energy densities and very low conversion rates plus serious intermittentency. Fossil fuel is its own battery.

    In nuclear the energy density is extremly high.

    Whilst renewables with a little help from gas will power low a energy use society for an industrial society it is a nightmare.

    The energy gain factor of fossil fuel totally out performs renewables.

    • Daniel Debreceny says

      .. also … fossil fuels are subsidised by the medical & agricultural industries, and the general population.

      Respiratory illnesses, heart disease, brain cancer, diabetes have all been attributed to nanofine particles that are emitted by fossil fuels.
      The carbon dioxide emitted by burning fossil fuels, and fugitive methane gas released by gas industry fracking, have been extensively proven to increase atmospheric temperatures, resulting in drougths and generally hotter,drier conditions conducive to increased flammability … hence massive uncontrolled fires.

    • Geoff Miell says

      Kelvin Jones,
      You state:
      “Around eighteen months is a ling [sic] time and the multiples of of [sic] energy gain of solar panels is extremly [sic] low compared to turbine generated power which pays back thousands of times in a 50 year life.”

      “Thousands of times” payback, eh, Kelvin? Where’s your evidence, Kelvin? I don’t see any links to credible references to support your apparently BS claims and opinions.

      You then state:
      “There is a huge mistake being perpetrated by the renewable industry that cost of fossil fuel and the calculation on how ithe [sic] energy is contained within is used.”

      Are you suggesting the CSIRO/AEMO have it all wrong in their “GenCost 2018” and “GenCost 2019-20 Draft for Review”, Kelvin? And “Lazard’s Levelized Cost of Energy Analysis – Version 13.0” is all wrong too, Kelvin? Where’s your evidence, Kelvin?
      See: https://publications.csiro.au/rpr/pub?pid=csiro:EP189502
      See: https://www.aemo.com.au/-/media/Files/Electricity/NEM/Planning_and_Forecasting/Inputs-Assumptions-Methodologies/2019/CSIRO-GenCost2019-20_DraftforReview.pdf
      See: https://www.lazard.com/perspective/lcoe2019

      You also state:
      “It is only the energy expended to extract and transport fossil of fuel [sic] to the turbine and the efficiency of the turbine that determines the energy gain of a fossil fuel system.”

      There’s a bit more to it than that, Kelvin, for example:
      • Energy is required to be expended to look for and find energy (or any) resources. If you don’t know where they are, then you can’t extract/utilise them – a simple but fundamental concern;
      • Expending energy to find, extract, process and transport fossil fuels (or any mineral resources) must also include some energy inputs for support industries providing equipment for finding, extraction, processing and transport, construction and maintenance of roadways, railways, ports, conveyors and pipelines, and the training of personnel. Roads, railways, ports, trucks, trains, aircraft, conveyors, pipelines, process equipment/technologies and trained personnel, etc. don’t just magically appear out of nowhere, and require some form of energy to bring them into being and sustain them!

      These aspects proportionately factor into calculations for Energy Return on Energy Invested (ERoEI), aka Energy Return on Investment (ERoI), for any energy resource.
      See: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0301421513003856

      Fossil (i.e. coal, natural gas, petroleum oil) and nuclear (i.e. uranium, thorium) fuels are FINITE energy resources. As high-grade, easier-to-extract, cheaper fossil and nuclear fuels are progressively depleted, the energy and monetary costs to extract remaining resources will continue to increase and the ERoIs for these energy resources will inevitably progressively decline. Eventually, the ERoIs will decline below a level that can adequately sustain our current level of civilization.

      You end with:
      “The energy gain factor of fossil fuel totally out performs renewables.”

      If that were true, Kelvin, I’d suggest as FINITE fossil and nuclear fuels become DEPLETED and ERoIs diminish, then human civilization will become energy starved and regress towards a pre-industrial age.

      Evidence I see suggests a post- ‘peak oil’ world, as well as a post- ‘peak gas’ world, will both likely arrive in the 2020s – that doesn’t mean oil and gas supplies cease overnight – it means if demand doesn’t fall in concert, then there won’t be enough oil and gas supply to go around. If humanity can’t make renewables work, and soon to rapidly transition off oil and gas dependency, then human civilization will become energy starved, decline rapidly and collapse.
      See my Submissions (#215 & 215a) at: https://www.parliament.nsw.gov.au/committees/inquiries/Pages/inquiry-details.aspx?pk=2542#tab-submissions

      And then there’re the consequences of continued human-induced GHG emissions at the current trajectory rendering significant parts of planet Earth uninhabitable by 2100. That also means civilization collapse (perhaps beginning as early as 2050) if humanity can’t rapidly reduce its GHG emissions. Look at the disruption from the 2019-20 bushfire emergency – that’s a prelude for inevitably worse environmental emergencies in in the coming decades.
      See my comment: https://www.solarquotes.com.au/blog/canavan-coal-renewables-mb1400/#comment-620454

      In this age of information, ignorance is a choice. Don’t be like this guy, Kelvin?
      See: https://media.gettyimages.com/photos/head-in-the-sand-picture-id157507641?s=612×612

  16. Why is there so many anti-solar people here?!?
    If you don’t want solar panels (either because you think they’re ugly, or you’re 88 years old, or anti-China, or you think they’re going to make lots of landfill at EOL), just don’t get them!!! Don’t tell other people how to live their lives, and please don’t come on to a very pro-solar site with your lies and nonsense.
    I have had solar for two years, my power bill has gone from $400 to <$90 per quarter, even though I now use the air con more and charge my electric car from home. The panels will pay for themselves soon enough, I might even get more shortly.
    You nay-sayers can go jump.
    /rant.

    • Daniel Debreceny says

      My bill went from $320 / quarter to minus $100 per quarter, even with the addition of 100% greenpower for imported grid power.

      My expensive system only generates about 2/3 of most peoples unshaded solar systems of the same size.

      • Nice! Well done mate. I have a fair bit of shading, unfortunately. The price I pay for living on the south side of a peaceful little hill.
        Still, not spending money on dirty coal, and knowing the world is just a tiny bit cleaner for my kids, is totally worth it!

  17. Crikey Ronald, you really put the cat among the pigeons with this article!! There are some real numpties posting comments today.

    Re Energy Payback < Economic Payback. I concur this is likely, since energy inputs only account for a part of the cost of the panels.

    You wont catch me hugging trees any time soon, but my scrooge-like character dictated we had to install panels when we built our house… 6 years ago. 3kW seemed reasonable back then. I calculated the economic payback at that time to be 6-7 years hear in NE Victoria. This for a household of two adults and two kids, out at work/school during the week. The only changes I made was to set the dishwasher, washing machine and a/c on timers to turn on during the day. My best monthly bill yet: $7.

    These days you could buy a system twice the size for the money we paid and on that basis I would expect an economic return in around 3 years. So again, I concur with energy payback likely being 1 year or less.

  18. Andrew Zmegac says

    Solar panels upon a roof increase the insulation of the roof/ceiling space , thus slightly reducing your air conditioning cost.

  19. Trump has taught supporters of Polluting Fossil Industries… that “Fake News”….. WORKS…. as most people don’t have time to figure it out…. themselves ….

    ANY WELL FUNDED FAKE NEWS…. soon becomes the Truth. Hitler knew this very well… and the rest is…. history….

    So guys…. look within yourselves to figure it all out.. BY YOURSELF… then you will have no doubts.

    Whenever you look at your needs…. and come to (personal) conclusion … just multiply it by 2-7 Billion (on a family/petson basis)…. to get the GLOBAL IMPACT ON ALL OF US… AND OUR ONLY REAL HOME…. EARTH.

    It is as easy as A..B..C..D.. or 1..2
    .3… etc…

  20. No mention that the same silicon gets used to make integrated curcuits. Raising the price for every IC a little bit.

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