In a 2-part series published at Medium, an engineer does the math (and shows his work) to determine whether solar panels ever offset the energy spent in their creation. Solar panels do create more energy over their lifetime than the amount of energy required to create them. However, in order to be truly “sustainable”, the panels must also offset the harms done in their creation and disposal, as well as enough energy to replace themselves at the end of their lifetime.
In Part 1, the author concludes not only that solar panels are not sustainable, but that they likely never will be.
“For true sustainability we really want the alternative energy equipment to mitigate the harm done to the environment in it’s original creation. … So for a Solar panel for example, we need the panel to generate enough energy that it can mitigate the harm suffered in it’s creation as well as additional energy to create replacement panel.”
The author does the math and finds:
“Lifetime of the panel is anywhere between 25 to 30 years. Sustainability debt takes 33 years to pay.* … debt repayment is longer than the life of the panel.”
According to the author, this analysis ignores additional harms that occur during the material extraction and refining processes even before the manufacturing steps begin, as well as the recycling cost of the degraded solar panel. So the sustainability debt is actually even higher than 33 years!
The author concludes:
“The inconvenient truth may be that there is no way to sustain our ever increasing hunger for energy. We must simply reduce our needs down to a level that the earth can clean up after us.”
In Part 2, the author addresses some questions about the analysis. He explains what a truly sustainable technology is:
“A neutral-technology creates no net harm to the eco-sphere, because Earth’s biological processes are well equipped to reverse any harms incurred in the lifecycle of these technologies. …
“A net-negative-technology produces net harm to the eco-sphere in its total life-cycle. What have been variously termed as externalities. All the Green technologies we have been talking about Solar, Wind etc, as well as Fossil fuels are all net-negative-technologies and hence we can never overcome the harm in their lifecycles. …
The author then concludes that so-called “renewable” technologies are not truly sustainable:
“There is no hiding from the inconvenient truth that what we are trying to sustain is our profligate way of life and not really the planet’s eco-sphere and net-negative-technologies will never sustain the eco-sphere. …
“As we’ve seen here, attempting to replace all fossil fuel use with Solar, Wind and other net-negative-technologies is pointless if we care about sustainability. We are really deluding ourselves into believing we are doing good when in fact we are not doing anything better, in fact the net additional harm of large Solar and Wind farms is high, not just from manufacturing and replacement, but also the landscape damage as evinced in the film. …
So what are we to do? The author concludes, “we need to think hard about how to reduce demand.”
Jeff Gibbs and Michael Moore’s film is available for free on YouTube.
If you’d like to read more about the film and the issues raised by it, check out my essays “Damn Dirty Humans!: ‘Planet of the Humans’ and Progressive Denial” and “Why I Am Not A ‘Doomer'”.