The inconvenient truth about solar panels is that they require energy from fossil fuels to make them and transport them before they start producing clean energy. So, while the energy generated by solar panels is helping to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, solar panels still carry a fossil fuel debt that can only be paid off when the clean energy produced is greater than the dirty energy consumed in their creation.
Well, get ready to break out the champagne. A new study says that thanks to the growing solar power capacity around the world, solar power has reached the break even point. The debt has been repaid. The study from the Netherlands, published in Nature Communications, says that the power generated by solar photovoltaic panels over the last 40 years has offset the polluting energy used to produce them.
By the researchers' calculations, for every doubling of global solar power capacity, the energy used to produce them fell by 12-13 percent and greenhouse gas emissions fell by 17-24 percent, depending on what material was used. Solar capacity has grown roughly 45 percent a year since 1975, reaching 230 gigawatts (GW) in 2015. By the end of 2016, there could be 300 GW installed.
Solar power capacity has grown rapidly in recent years thanks to falling prices. The study shows about a 20 percent drop in cost for every doubling in capacity since 1975 with one Watt-peak unit costing $80 in 1976 compared to only $0.64-$0.67 today.
The researchers believe the break even point was likely hit about five years ago for both energy consumed and emissions meaning, at this point, global solar energy is having a net positive impact and will continue to increase that positive impact going forward. This feels like a major cause for celebration.
If you're a homeowner with solar panels, the researchers say that individual solar panels repay their fossil fuel debt several times over during their average 30-year lifespan.