Energy is needed for all types of process, even when making the components of an environmentally- friendly electricity generation system such as a solar panel. So, if it takes energy to make energy, when considering the values of a product, it is always worth assessing what has gone into it and its contribution to the harmful gases that lead to climate change and measuring the actual ecological impact made of the manufacturing process.
What is a Carbon Footprint?
The term carbon footprint is now regularly seen and discussed across all types of media when discussing the impact an activity has on the environment. What this actually means however, is often falsely used and misunderstood. So, what is a carbon footprint? Image walking along wet sand, and the footprints left behind vary in depth and size according to how hard you put each foot down, i.e., the impact of each step. When referring to issues such as climate change, the term carbon footprint is similar in that it refers to the full environmental impact of the activity in question, where carbon is a concise and relateable way of referring to all the harmful greenhouse gas emissions that are released during manufacturing, and the word footprint is a metaphor for the total traceable imprint left behind by the action in question.
Why is a Carbon Footprint important to the solar industry?
Solar is one of the key technologies for producing clean energy in the whole renewable energy sector, but for an industry seen as central to cutting the burning of carbon fuels across the globe, it would be illogical for the energy consumed in manufacturing to have a high environmental impact rendering the use of a solar panel potentially more damaging than it should be. By cutting their carbon footprints to minimal levels, solar companies can extol the environmentally-friendly virtues of their product and help to reduce global warming and climate change, meaning that the overall benefit of clean solar energy is felt by everyone across the world.
Where are the harmful greenhouse gases produced in the manufacturing of a solar panel?
Energy is needed to make a solar panel. This energy is used to run machines for the extraction of silicon, the purification and handling of the raw material, the melting and cutting into useable wafers, cells and the combination and transformation into a final solar panel. In fact, around 80% of the energy usage in a standard silicon production chain comes at the early silicon handling stage where it is heated to over 1500°C over a period of time in order to purify it.3 The crucial matter here however is how this initial energy is generated. For example, a factory in a region with a primarily coal-based electricity mix will burn more carbon and release more greenhouse gases than an area that uses more natural gas or renewables in its energy mix. To summarize, the higher the carbon content of the primary energy, the higher the carbon footprint.
How high is REC’s carbon footprint?
Over its entire production history REC has made rigorous efforts to keep its environmental impact and carbon footprint low. Indeed, REC’s has shown great success in achieving a low carbon footprint. This can mainly be attributed to its low carbon energy mix in the silicon production process. The silicon used by REC comes from its subsidiary company REC Solar Norway (previously known as Elkem Solar), which extracts and produces its silicon in Norway. Among all International Energy Agency member countries, Norway has the fifth-lowest share of fossil fuels and the second highest share of renewable energy sources. Large hydropower resources enable Norway to have low levels of fossil fuel consumption, where roughly 96% of Norway’s electricity comes from hydroelectric sources.4 Furthermore, in its silicon production, REC Solar Norway uses a proprietary process that has reduced the energy usage in the purification stage to 11 kWh/kg; well below that used in the standard Siemens production process which consumes up to 200 kWh/kg.5 With such an energy eThcient production process, and with the predominance of hydroelectric in Norway’s energy mix, the burning of fossil fuels and the release of harmful greenhouse gases can be reduced to close to zero.
The most recent study into REC’s energy usage and carbon footprint was carried out by Deloitte & Touche Enterprise Risk Services Pte. Ltd. South East Asia in 2016 and looked at the production of a 285 Wp REC TwinPeak module using ISO/DIS 14067. Included in the analysis was raw material extraction, transportation, manufacturing and facilities, on site emissions and both on-site and off-site waste treatment. The report assessed a full carbon footprint throughout the complete production process of only 385 kg CO2e/kWp – a value critically reviewed and certified by LCA consultants in Denmark. If this value is divided by the amount of years the panel is in service for, for example the duration of the 25-year performance warranty offered by REC, the carbon footprint comes down to a value of 15 kg CO2e/kWp per year of use. Similarly, if a moderate annual energy production of 1 kWh/Wp is assumed, and this value taken over the same 25 years, then the carbon footprint of an REC module is only 15.4 g CO2e/kWh
How the carbon footprint of solar compares to other energy generation processes:
The carbon footprint value that REC can demonstrate leads the way in the solar photovoltaic industry, as well as versus fossil fuel based energy sources as shown in the following graph. As the different carbon footprints of the various energy generation sources can be compared, it is clear that solar PV in general has a much lower carbon footprint than fossil fuel burning sources. What is more, the clean primary energy mix in Norway makes it possible for REC to achieve a carbon footprint well below the values shown by fossil fuel burning energy sources and likewise, well below that of the standard solar industry values.
What difference does a low carbon footprint make?
Being able to demonstrate a low carbon footprint gives REC an ecological advantage over its competitors as shown in the graph above. Environmentally-minded customers are able to use this data and base their buying choice on which module makes the biggest contribution to a greener world. Equally, the consideration of a product’s carbon footprint is becoming an ever more important consideration in purchasing decisions. Indeed, in France, the ability to provide a low carbon footprint value is one of the critical areas in which a ‘score’ is given to tender applications. REC’s carbon footprint has been researched by Greenscans from the Netherlands, validated by ADEME, the French Environment and Energy Agency, and certified by Certisolis, an accredited and independent French institute.
Through being able to demonstrate a class-leading carbon footprint and by having one of the lowest overall impacts on the environment in the industry, REC has once again shown its leadership in the solar module production process. As the entire energy sector has a key role to play in reducing the amount of harmful gases released into the atmosphere, such advancements with low environmental impact are the solution to creating a better world for future generations. Of course, as the growth of solar power deployment continues alongside other renewables, the industry will see carbon footprints continue to fall and the impact of the manufacturing process head towards being a truly ecological method of energy generation.
This Article is Provided by REC Group
Views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the editors or publishers.
This Article was published in September Issue of Climate Samurai