While thinking of ways to reduce our carbon footprint, the use of solar energy comes primarily to our minds. But the question is whether solar energy is completely clean. The making of solar panels requires oil, water, and energy. However, a crucial question arises: does the process contribute more to environmental pollution than it saves? To delve into this, let’s find out how much oil, water, and energy it takes to make a solar panel.
Are Solar Panels Made with Oil?
The answer to this question cannot be simple as oil is not directly used in the manufacturing of solar panels but still is used in the allied process without which the production is nearly impossible.
Solar panel manufacturing is an energy-intensive process which means it requires a high amount of heat and electricity. This is generally provided by fossil fuels such as coal, petroleum, and natural gas. The inputs that are required in the production process must be transported from mines to manufacturing sites, this also becomes a reason for the use of oil.
So, at first, it is considered that solar panels are not made with oil, but the truth is there is a requirement for oil in manufacturing solar panels.
How Much Oil Does It Take to Make a Solar Panel?
As we have seen, manufacturing a solar panel is a complex process and involves many steps where oil is used. It becomes difficult to know exactly how much oil is used in production. The reason for this is the difference in the working of manufacturing sites.
To generate the world’s current solar electricity output, which is approximately 87 TWh/day, it takes around 17 million barrels of oil per day. Given the world’s daily oil production of around 85 million barrels, it would take roughly three years to manufacture enough solar panels to match current global solar electricity generation.
How is Oil Used to Make Solar Panels?
Oil has various applications in the manufacturing process in every sector and so is in the making of solar panels. Oil is majorly used in the transportation of raw materials, intermediary goods, and finished products. Along with this, sometimes oil is also used for the generation of electricity and heat for manufacturing.
Let us refer to some examples for a better understanding.
- Suppose factory A is far from the mining site and thus uses trucks that run on oil to bring raw materials for manufacturing. Here, oil is used in transportation vehicles.
- Suppose the factory is powered by a diesel generator that uses primarily oil to produce electricity.
In the above two cases, there is considerably more usage of oil indirectly in the manufacturing of solar panels.
Now let us look at it from different perspectives.
- Factory B is closely situated in the mines and is powered majorly by hydropower, solar, and wind energy. This means not much oil is used in transportation, although some are still used as materials need to be transferred to the factory.
- But if transportation is done using electric vehicles, then we can consider that no oil is burnt.
Either wise, we see that oil is used in manufacturing processes, but the amount depends largely on the distance of factories from the site of raw materials. It also is affected by the type of power used by the factories. Thus, it is very difficult to find out exactly how much oil it takes to make a solar panel.
Another use of oil is to form plastic polymer which is a petrochemical product used as backsheets providing backing to photovoltaic cells. According to a 2009 research, cellulose required for these backsheets in monocrystalline panels, can be derived from rags. It is basically a form of recycled garment and hosiery waste.
Also, take a look at the 24 Most Common Solar Panel Problems With Solutions.
Which Oil is Used to Make Solar Panels?
Photovoltaics, responsible for converting sunlight into energy, are commonly placed between layers of copolymers. These copolymers frequently utilize ethylene, a petrochemical derived from oil and natural gas, as one of their essential components.
Another one is petroleum which is majorly used in the production of solar panels, especially for transportation purposes.
Can Solar Panels Be Made Without Oil?
Solar panel components made without oil seem difficult, but they are possible. Oil is used majorly in transportation, which can be substituted by the use of electric vehicles and shifting the manufacturing unit to areas in proximity to the mining of raw materials.
Thus the generation of heat and electricity for processing can be done by renewable sources instead of fossil fuels.
How Polluting is Solar Panel Manufacturing?
The lifecycle of photovoltaics, from production to usage, results in approximately 40-50 g CO2eq/kWh of greenhouse gas emissions. Remarkably, a significant portion, around 60 to 70%, can be attributed solely to the manufacturing of the solar panels themselves, amounting to approximately 28 g CO2eq/kWh of carbon emissions.
Take a look at our blog How do I Know How Much Electricity My Solar Panels are Generating?
How Much Water Does It Take to Make a Solar Panel?
The manufacturing of semiconductors is a highly water-intensive process. Producing a wafer of semiconductors, measuring approximately one foot in width and covering about 0.75 square feet, consumes a staggering 2,200 gallons of water. It is worth noting that a standard solar power installation requires multiple square feet of semiconductors.
A large semiconductor factory uses about 5 million gallons of water per day, which is equal to 1.75 billion gallons per year. It is important to find ways to improve the manufacturing process to reduce water consumption. Many research facilities are working in this direction to improve the manufacturing process to reduce water consumption in making solar panels.
However, in the upcoming years, water usage in the fabrication of semiconductors and other components is expected to decrease in the construction of solar panels. Scientists are also developing techniques to minimize electricity consumption during the manufacturing process, guaranteeing that these panels are exceptionally energy-efficient right from the start.
The use of water in making a solar panel also depends upon the region where it is produced, the climate of that region, and the technique used by the manufacturer. The usage of water can be approximated to 20 gallons per megawatt hour. The other requirement for water is for the following purposes:
- Heat and electricity generation: For the making of photovoltaic cells with renewable energy sources, steam is needed to run the turbines to generate electricity. Thus, water is consumed for the same.
- Cooling purpose: When such a heat-intensive process is taking place there is a requirement for cooling down the equipment involved, thus water is utilized for cooling purposes.
Also See: How Much Energy to Make a Solar Panel?
How Much Energy Does It Take to Make a Solar Panel?
Constructing a crystalline silicon solar panel requires silicon that is derived from the sand comprised of silicon dioxide, also known as silica.
In order for silicon dioxide to be utilized in a solar panel, it must undergo a transformation of refining silicon into high-purity metallurgical grade silicon (MGS). This procedure consumes a considerable amount of energy: crafting just 1 kilogram of metallurgical grade silicon demands approximately 14-16 kWh of power, equivalent to operating your home oven for a total of seven hours.
The energy that is used in making solar panels depends upon the existing level of technology and the method used to make it. Energy is required at every step in making the solar panel from making the silicon for photovoltaic cells which includes generating electricity providing heat, and also transportation. All the processes require energy hence a single figure determining how much energy it takes to make a solar panel is not possible.
Cross-Reference: How Are Solar Panels Made?
Although the manufacturing of solar panels consumes oil and heat produced from fossil fuels, they produce more clean energy than what it consumes. Moreover, as the renewable energy sector advances in the future, this reliance on fossil fuels can be minimized, making solar energy a completely clean sector.