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Green at last

Solar panels are finally generating more energy than they use

You want an inconvenient truth? Here’s one: Despite the exponential growth of solar energy over the past 13 years, the global production of photovoltaic panels has consumed more electricity than the panels themselves generate, according to a new Stanford University study.

As recently as 2008, the photovoltaic (PV) industry used 75% more energy than it generated (paywall), found the paper published in the journal Environmental Science and Geology.

Such figures, of course, could prove highly problematic for an industry whose existence is predicated on reducing greenhouse gas emissions by supplying carbon-free electricity.

Now for the good news. There’s more than a 50% chance that the industry reached a tipping point last year and is now producing more electricity than it consumes. By 2020, it should have paid back all the power it consumed since 2000, according to the analysis conducted by Stanford researchers Michael Dale and Sally Benson. “Developing new technologies with lower energy requirements will allow us to grow the industry at a faster rate,” Benson said in statement.

The solar industry’s energy deficit was a natural consequence of the rapid expansion of photovoltaic power in the first decade of the 21st century. Installed worldwide solar capacity grew on an average of 40% a year, expanding from 1,200 megawatts in 2000 to 22,900 megawatts in 2010.

By 2012, the cumulative amount of electricity generated by those hundreds of millions of solar panels probably began outstripping the energy embedded in their production. As long as the panels continue to function for their 25-year-life span, that energy surplus will continue to accumulate.

Whew.

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