If I install a solar panel does it mean I’m green?

If I install a solar panel does it mean I’m green?

14 February 2019
EnergyTransition Green Photovoltaic SolarPanel
Read the article

Solar energy : Impact of the environment

Ever since the French physicist Edmond Becquerel discovered the photovoltaic effect in 1838, it has been possible to generate electricity from sunlight. The potential this brings is particularly interesting in today’s society because of global warming. However, although photovoltaic solar panels do produce zero-carbon electricity from an inexhaustible energy source, the ecological impacts of making the panels and their end-of-life decommissioning should not be underestimated. Read on to find out more and where we go from here.

The electricity produced in France is mainly produced by nuclear energy, hydropower and fossil fuels (coal, oil, gas, etc.). Nuclear energy involves the treatment of waste, while fossil production involves greenhouse gases. By choosing photovoltaic systems, one could think of a solar installation cleaner and more respectful of the environment. However, this would be without taking into account the ins and outs of this mode of energy production.

Ah, the sun! Not only is it the origin of life on Earth, the sunlight is also capable of supplying clean electricity to Humankind. We would only need to capture 0.01% of the sun’s power to be able to bypass all other forms of energy. It’s undoubtedly this potential that’s encouraging researchers, industrialists and environmentally-committed individuals to produce such a form of electricity that doesn’t harm the planet.

The booming photovoltaic (PV) market reflects this aim. Estimated at 300 GW at end-2016, the world’s total installed PV capacity has grown significantly since then, representing over 500 GW today. Although later than in other countries and on a smaller scale, France has also seen a sharp rise in solar panel installations since 2017. Between June 2017 and June 2018, France’s grid-connected PV capacity jumped 59% to 8,533 MW, and the objective is to triple the figure to between 18,200 and 20,200 MW by 2023.

In June 2018, Sébastien Lecornu – the former Secretary of State in France’s Ministry of Ecology –announced a plan called “Place au soleil” which, among other things, is aimed at encouraging the self-consumption of solar electricity for households and businesses. The idea is to avoid clogging the grid and to fully leverage the energy potential of rooftops, which the ADEME (the French Environment and Energy Management Agency) estimates at 360,000 hectares, with a PV capacity of 350 GW.

Energy solar industry : Manufacturing mainly based in Asia, with high CO2 emissions 

So, all of this seems to say that installing solar system is a good idea. But even setting aside the intermittency problems of solar power generation and the fact that the panels’ yields are still limited, we mustn’t forget the ecological issues related to the boom in the global photovoltaic energy market.

To fully grasp this, we need to ask two questions: how and where are solar electric panels made?

The solar panels made today use crystalline technologies (currently the most popular) and thin-film PV technologies. The main raw material used for crystalline panels is silicon – the second most abundant raw material on Earth after oxygen – and the other components are aluminium, copper and silver. The manufacture of thin-film panels is more problematic, as it requires indium and gallium, two rare-earth elements that the European Union has classified as critical raw materials. But these panels currently account for less than 10% of the market. Although it has been strongly encouraged by state subsidies, it is important to take into account the scandals of massive impact on atmosphere of silicon powder (raw material of the photovoltaic cell) and the pollution due to refining operations.

Extracting and purifying silicon are therefore key processes. Currently, most of the silicon blocks used to make the panels are produced in Asia and assembly is mainly carried out in China, strongly encouraged by government subsidies and where scandals of massive releases of silicon powder raw material from photovoltaic cells into the atmosphere and pollution due to silicon refining operations have been revealed in recent years.

To make these blocks, the silicon needs to be purified. Although it’s the second most abundant raw material on Earth after oxygen (making up 25.7% of the Earth’s crust), it doesn’t exist in a pure state which means it isn’t directly usable. And to make it usable requires energy. In Asia, and particularly in China, the energy used for the purification comes from coal-fired power stations, which emit very high levels of CO2. “A panel made in China and installed in Europe will take two or three years to offset the CO2 emissions related to its manufacture”, explain Dominique Louis and Jean-Louis Ricaud in their book “2050: A Carbon-Free France”. The authors go on to say that, “Based on a Smart Green Scans study cited by the ADEME in 2016, the carbon footprint of photovoltaic electricity in France is 55 grams of CO2 per kilowatt hour. This value was calculated based on the 2011 international market for the components of solar panels, the location and conditions of their manufacture, and the market shares of the different technologies used for their modules”.

This means that the challenge today is for Europe to gain, or regain, a major position in the PV value chain. In France, for example, only 3% of the country’s installed solar panels are made in Europe.

This is one of the raisons d’être of the Ile-de-France Photovoltaic Institute (IPVF) based in Saclay, Greater Paris, which was inaugurated on 18 December 2018. The idea behind the IPVF is for industrial and public-sector partners to come together with a view to developing and commercialising high-yield, long-life and low-cost solar cells where environmental standards are more stringent, to compete with the all-powerful Chinese market and improve the environmental impact of the photovoltaic industry.

Clean Energy : What should we do with end-of-life solar panels ?

For an energy system to be truly green, its whole life cycle has to be taken into account, including recycling the raw materials contained in the equipment used for its production. Although their life spans have increased from 20 years in the past to 30 or 40 years today, and will undoubtedly reach 50 years or more in the future, whatever happens solar panels will always have to be processed at the end of their lives. The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) estimates that waste from solar panels could exceed 5 million tonnes by 2050. We therefore need to think about recycling, especially as the first panels commissioned in the 1990s are arriving at the end of their performance capacities.

In Europe, fortunately this issue has been anticipated. The European WEEE Directive – which was adopted in 2012 – requires manufacturers of solar panels to pre-finance the collection and recycling of end-of-life panels across the 28 EU member states.

In France, PV Cycle has been named the government-approved organization in charge of the collection and recycling of solar panels. According to this company, 100% of silicon crystalline models can be recycled. But to do this requires special infrastructure.

On this point, France is on the right track. PV Cycle France has launched its first invitation to tender for processing and recycling solar panel waste, which was won by Veolia. And in the summer of 2018, Veolia opened its first solar panel recycling plant, at Rousset in the south of France. This plant is the first infrastructure of its kind in the world and will enable 95% of solar panel waste to be recycled. But it will need to be copied elsewhere in France and the rest of the world in order to manage the recycling requirements expected in the near future.

In an article posted on The Conversation, the Kedge Business School professors, Anicia Jaegler and Joerg S. Hofstetter, concluded that “The solar power sector needs to step up its efforts to work on all aspects of the life cycle of solar panels, rather than just focusing on performance. Eco-design to facilitate recycling has become a necessity”.

Share :

THIS ARTICLE IS PART OF THE FILE :
Energy Transition

Something to say ?

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

Assystem

in collaboration with Silex Id

Our vacancies
#INCREDIBLENGINEERS

Learn more

Related articles

Electric cars and energy transition – is there a glitch?

At the end of 2018, only 200,000 electric and hybrid vehicles were registered in France out of a total automobile fleet of around 40 million. But questions are now being asked due to recent sharp incr...

Power from the people

Energy transition: politicians talk about it and ecologists dream of it. But for us citizens, are we supposed to just watch and wait? Now’s the time to move into action and many start-ups have underst...

Energy transition: the good and bad role models

When we hear about energy transition in the media, it’s often difficult to distinguish between what’s true and what’s false and to understand which changes can have a real impact on reduci...

What place will nuclear have in the energy mix by 2040?

Global warming: The fight against climate change The debates prior to the French government drawing up its multi-annual energy programme are now in full swing and both pro- and anti-nuclear energy lob...

Electricity – the energy of the 21st century

Between now and at least 2050, the combination of high population growth, strong economic development, increased demand for foodstuffs, equipment and transport, and a boom in all forms of automation a...

Nuclear power: a crucial component of a carbon-free mix

Scenarios drawn up by Negawatt and the French Environment and Energy Management Agency (ADEME) estimate that by 2050 all of France’s electricity needs can be covered by renewables. However, thes...

Calling on engineers to combat global warming!

Combatting global warming requires citizens to rethink their lifestyles, businesses to alter their industrial processes, and politicians to set an example and pass legislation that encourages eco-frie...

Oasis Eco Resort - Dubai finally wakes up to ecology ?

2017 was the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development, but what did it change? Several initiatives were launched, for example by Air France which announced the creation of a dedicated...

Spotlight on innovations for renewable energies

Within the energy transition process currently taking place, renewable energies have been identified as one of the main drivers of transformation. For example, in February 2018, renewables (excluding ...

"I've been offered the opportunity to move on to several positions"

Between France and the UK, Nicholas Morris is currently experiencing the daily challenge of developing Assystem’s business around the British EPR project, Hinkley Point C. “FascinatingR...

Will we still need engineers in the future?

The question is not as strange as it might seem. Given the phenomenal growth of digital technology, robotics and artificial intelligence, where does this leave the engineers of tomorrow? How will they...

No, I'm not a superhero

For ordinary people, when we talk about engineers, is the image of Steve Job, inventor of the first Macintosh and founder of a now trillionaire company, or Elon Musk, imagining alone the car new gener...

So what exactly is an engineer?

Engineer /ɛndʒɪˈnɪə/, derived from the Middle English “engineour” and from the Old French “engigneor” – a designer and constructor of fortifications and weapons. > A person ...

Commute, work, sleep ... Inside an engineer's head during a banal day

Builders of bridges or power plants, application developers, designers, project managers … But what exactly do all these engineers do? Between meetings, exchanges with the client, team managemen...

When I grow up, I want to be an engineer!

Engineering schools are still as popular as ever. Why? Do we really know what an engineer is? Their backgrounds? Their daily lives? To answer this, we met up with three of them to find out more about ...

NASA’s taking nuclear energy into space

The conquest of space is more than ever at the centre of public attention, with projects like SpaceX and The Stealth Space Company, but who better than NASA to fulfil this dream that has existed for t...