Solar panel manufacturing is greener in Europe than China, study says

May 29, 2014
A new study by Argonne and Northwestern scientists reported that solar panels manufactured in China are likely to use more energy to make and have a larger carbon footprint than those made in Europe. Credit: Renee Carlson/Argonne National Laboratory.

Solar panels made in China have a higher overall carbon footprint and are likely to use substantially more energy during manufacturing than those made in Europe, said a new study from Northwestern University and the U.S. Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory. The report compared energy and greenhouse gas emissions that go into the manufacturing process of solar panels in Europe and China.

"We estimated that a solar panel's is about twice as high when made in China and used in Europe, compared to those locally made and used in Europe," said Fengqi You, assistant professor of chemical and biological engineering at Northwestern and corresponding author on the paper.

"While it might be an economically attractive option to move solar panel manufacturing from Europe to China, it is actually less sustainable from the life cycle energy and environmental perspective—especially under the motivation of using for a more sustainable future," he said.

The team performed a type of systematic evaluation called analysis to come up with these hard data. Life cycle analysis tallies up all the energy used to make a product—energy to mine raw materials, fuel to transport the materials and products, electricity to power the processing factory, and so forth. This provides a more accurate picture of the overall energy consumed and produced and the environmental impact of making and using a solar panel.

Assuming that a solar panel is made of silicon—by far the most common solar panel material—and is installed in sunny southern Europe, a solar panel made in China would take about 20 to 30 percent longer to produce enough energy to cancel out the energy used to make it. The carbon footprint is about twice as high.

The chart shows the number of years that a solar panel must operate in order to generate enough electricity to "pay back" the energy used to make the panel. Because there are fewer energy regulations in China, panels made there use more energy, according to the study. The colors in the bars represent contributions from the different stages of making a solar panel (e.g., 'Si feedstock' represents the carbon emitted during mining and processing of raw silicon to make the panel). Credit: Fengqi You et. al.

The biggest reason is that China has fewer environmental and efficiency standards for its factories and plants and generates more electricity from coal and other non-renewable sources, the authors said.

"It takes a lot of energy to extract and process solar-grade silicon, and in China, that energy tends to come from dirtier and less efficient energy sources than it does in Europe," said Argonne scientist and co-author Seth Darling. "This gap will likely close over time as China strengthens environmental regulations."

The study did not include the energy cost of transporting a solar panel to its final destination. Transportation would magnify the difference even further if it—like 60 percent of all solar installations in 2012—went up in Germany or Italy, Darling said.

The team also compared the numbers for different types of silicon solar panels. Single-crystal solar panels are better at harvesting energy than other types, but take the longest to "pay back" the energy used to manufacture them because the process is more energy-intensive. Multicrystalline panels came next, followed by ribbon silicon panels, which are easiest to manufacture but least efficient—however, their payback time was fastest.

To encourage more sustainable production of solar cells, the authors suggest a break-even carbon tariff. "This would be based on the carbon footprint and efficiency difference between manufacturing regions, and would be a better market- and science-based solution than a solar panel tariff," said Dajun Yue, a Northwestern graduate student in You's research group and lead author on the paper.

"The break-even carbon tariff we calculated, which is at the range of €105-129 per ton of carbon dioxide, depending on the possible carbon tax to be imposed by these two regions in the near term, is close to the reported CO2 capture and sequestration cost," You said.

Explore further: Solar energy prospects are bright for Scotland, experts say

More information: The paper, "Domestic and overseas manufacturing scenarios of silicon-based photovoltaics: Life cycle energy and environmental comparative analysis," is available online and will be printed in the July issue of the journal Solar Energy.

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User comments : 18

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Caliban
3.5 / 5 (2) May 29, 2014
Cheap usually implies inefficient, polluting manufacturing. And I think that these researchers have only shone a light on something that we already either knew or suspected.
It should be of particularly notable to all my American brethren as an object lesson in economics.
javjav
5 / 5 (3) May 29, 2014
The carbon footprint should be obligatory to appear in big letters in the solar panel and also in all its publicity. Consumers have to be properly informed about this problem, and additional taxes have to be applied to solar panels made with a high carbon footprint. All this is solvable with adequate laws.
rockwolf1000
5 / 5 (2) May 30, 2014
The carbon footprint should be obligatory to appear in big letters in the solar panel and also in all its publicity. Consumers have to be properly informed about this problem, and additional taxes have to be applied to solar panels made with a high carbon footprint. All this is solvable with adequate laws.


Agreed. It should apply to a range of other products as well, such as hybrid vehicles.
Modernmystic
1 / 5 (2) May 30, 2014
Cheap usually implies inefficient, polluting manufacturing. And I think that these researchers have only shone a light on something that we already either knew or suspected.
It should be of particularly notable to all my American brethren as an object lesson in economics.


Agreed. Communism and socialism (China) are inferior systems to freer markets....
Caliban
4 / 5 (1) May 30, 2014
Cheap usually implies inefficient, polluting manufacturing. And I think that these researchers [...]or suspected.
It should be of particularly notable to all my American brethren as an object lesson in economics.

Agreed. Communism and socialism (China) are inferior systems to freer markets....


"...Communism and socialism (China) are" less well-regulated systems than American and European frei "markets...."

Fixed it for you, mm --now the statement accurately depicts reality.

Modernmystic
1 / 5 (1) Jun 02, 2014
Cheap usually implies inefficient, polluting manufacturing. And I think that these researchers [...]or suspected.
It should be of particularly notable to all my American brethren as an object lesson in economics.

Agreed. Communism and socialism (China) are inferior systems to freer markets....


"...Communism and socialism (China) are" less well-regulated systems than American and European frei "markets...."

Fixed it for you, mm --now the statement accurately depicts reality.



The Chinese government doesn't have more control over its economy than America? Really? Can you show evidence of that?
Caliban
5 / 5 (1) Jun 03, 2014
Agreed. Communism and socialism (China) are inferior systems to freer markets....

"...Communism and socialism (China) are" less well-regulated systems than American and European frei "markets...."

Fixed it for you, mm --now the statement accurately depicts reality.

The Chinese government doesn't have more control over its economy than America? Really? Can you show evidence of that?


Ah, so --forgive me, modernmystic, sir, for making the error of thinking that you were able to understand the context of my comment.

My mistake.

Here --let me spell it out for you:

The Chinese are a very highly regulated society and economy. However, it is an unfortunate fact that their regulation of labor exerts downward pressure on wages and benefits, ie, "cheap labor", and regulation of industry is lax in terms of restriction of environmental pollution and overall human health.

This makes China a very inexpensive alternative to Western manufacturing.

AKA, FreiMarket.

Ist klar?

Modernmystic
1 / 5 (2) Jun 03, 2014
It's as clear as mud Caliban, sorry.

Have your cake or eat it. Either a heavily regulated economy is generally better or generally worse. Now I understand there is a point of diminishing returns on a more free or a less free market, but don't shine me on with "heavy regulation is bad there but good here" nonsense. I'm not buying any.

We CLEARLY see that heavy regulation of economy isn't a good thing. Just like we can see a market that operates without a sufficient legal framework is not a good thing.
Caliban
5 / 5 (1) Jun 03, 2014
It's as clear as mud Caliban, sorry..


As expected, it's all willful disunderstanding on your part, mm.

Your precious freimarket cake -as presently constituted- could not function independently from
such selectively regulated trading and manufacturing partners, ie, China, India, specifically, and SE Asia/3rd world in general.

Eat that.

Modernmystic
1 / 5 (1) Jun 04, 2014
It's as clear as mud Caliban, sorry..


As expected, it's all willful disunderstanding on your part, mm.

Your precious freimarket cake -as presently constituted- could not function independently from
such selectively regulated trading and manufacturing partners, ie, China, India, specifically, and SE Asia/3rd world in general.

Eat that.


Forgetting for the moment that has nothing to do with your previous point I'd like you to provide evidence of that assertion. Capitalism inherited poverty, it didn't create it and doesn't need it.
Caliban
5 / 5 (1) Jun 05, 2014
It's as clear as mud Caliban, sorry..

As expected, it's all willful disunderstanding on your part, mm.

Your precious freimarket cake -as presently constituted- could not function independently from
such selectively regulated trading and manufacturing partners, ie, China, India, specifically, and SE Asia/3rd world in general.

Eat that.

Forgetting for the moment that has nothing to do with your previous point I'd like you to provide evidence of that assertion. Capitalism inherited poverty, it didn't create it and doesn't need it.


Forgetting, for the moment, that you are too stupid to pour piss out of your boot, that is exactly the point which was being addressed, as you expressed a personal desire for clarification.

Capitalism may not have invented poverty back in the hoary, prehuman past, but it sure as f**k has come to both define it, create it, and perpetuate it in the here and now, and it is an essential component of the supply/demand/profit Capitalist paradigm.
Modernmystic
1 / 5 (1) Jun 05, 2014
that is exactly the point which was being addressed, as you expressed a personal desire for clarification.


Not at all. Your first point appeared to be that the western world's less regulated and controlled markets were superior to China's.

When I agreed, you then seemed to be saying that they are less regulated.

When I pointed out that is ludicrous you then seemed to be saying that well they are more regulated, but just not well regulated...that's a guess because by now the initial point has been obfuscated by several diversions by you. A common tactic by those who engage in intellectually dishonest debate.

but it sure as f**k has come to both define it, create it, and perpetuate it in the here and now, and it is an essential component of the supply/demand/profit Capitalist paradigm.


It actually cures poverty, it creates so much wealth even countries that don't practice it benefit from it, and existed when EVERY wage market was low at its inception. Try again.
Modernmystic
1 / 5 (1) Jun 05, 2014
Also, I understand that this is a very emotional topic for you, but if you can't manage to pull yourself up a bit and be more mature, reasoned, respectful, and honest in your replies I see no point in continuing.

Thanks!
Caliban
not rated yet Jun 05, 2014
that is exactly the point which was being addressed, as you expressed a personal desire for clarification.

Not at all. Your first point appeared to be that the western world's less regulated and controlled markets were superior to China's.


Uh, no. Just the opposite. Putting words in my mouth won't cure your reading comprehension deficit.

When I agreed, you then seemed to be saying that they are less regulated.


When you claimed you didn't understand, I clarified it for you. We were never in agreement.

When I pointed out that is ludicrous you then seemed to be saying that well they are more regulated, but just not well regulated...that's a guess because by now the initial point has been obfuscated by several diversions by you.


Nah-- that would be you.

A common tactic by those who engage in intellectually dishonest debate.


Again --all you, mmmmmm.

Pretty amusing to watch you squirm like this. Not the first time.

Prolly won't be the last.

Modernmystic
1 / 5 (1) Jun 05, 2014
Then by all means clarify your initial position. I truly apologize if I was mistaken about what you said.
Caliban
not rated yet Jun 05, 2014
Then by all means clarify your initial position. I truly apologize if I was mistaken about what you said.


I already did so. Read away.
Modernmystic
1 / 5 (1) Jun 06, 2014
Cheap usually implies inefficient, polluting manufacturing. And I think that these researchers have only shone a light on something that we already either knew or suspected.
It should be of particularly notable to all my American brethren as an object lesson in economics.


I read away, and what this sounds like to me is that you think that cheap goods gotten from China are inefficient and polluting. Since we don't have cheap goods here in America (we buy those from China, don't we) what lesson is it we're to learn here?

It's anything but clear what you mean here.
Caliban
not rated yet Jun 06, 2014
Cheap usually implies inefficient, polluting manufacturing. And I think that these researchers have only shone a light on something that we already either knew or suspected.
It should be of particularly notable to all my American brethren as an object lesson in economics.


I read away, and what this sounds like to me is that you think that cheap goods gotten from China are inefficient and polluting. Since we don't have cheap goods here in America (we buy those from China, don't we) what lesson is it we're to learn here?

It's anything but clear what you mean here.


Your willful disunderstanding is the only thing preventing you from acheiving clarity in this regard --as in many others.

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