How sustainable is PV power?

SUBHEAD: Manufacture and energy storage limit the maximum sustainable growth rate of the solar PV industry.

By Kris De Decker on 26 April 2015 for Low Tech Magazine -

Image above: Solar-voltaic electric panels at dusk. From original article.

Solar photovoltaic (PV) systems generate "free" electricity from sunlight, but manufacturing them is an energy-intensive process.

It's generally assumed that it only takes a few years before solar panels have generated as much energy as it took to make them, resulting in very low greenhouse gas emissions compared to conventional grid electricity.

However, the studies upon which this assumption is based are written by a handful of researchers who arguably have a positive bias towards solar PV. A more critical analysis shows that the cumulative energy and CO2 balance of the industry is negative, meaning that solar PV has actually increased energy use and greenhouse gas emissions instead of lowering them.

This doesn't mean that the technology is useless. It's just that our approach is wrong. By carefully selecting the location of the manufacturing and the installation of solar panels, the potential of solar power could be huge. We have to rethink the way we use and produce solar energy systems on a global scale.

There's nothing but good news about solar energy these days. The average global price of PV panels has plummeted by more than 75% since 2008, and this trend is expected to continue in the coming years, though at a lower rate. [1-2]

According to the 2015 solar outlook by investment bank Deutsche Bank, solar systems will be at grid parity in up to 80% of the global market by the end of 2017, meaning that PV electricity will be cost-effective compared to electricity from the grid. [3-4]

Lower costs have spurred an increase in solar PV installments. According to the Renewables 2014 Global Status Report, a record of more than 39 gigawatt (GW) of solar PV capacity was added in 2013, which brings total (peak) capacity worldwide to 139 GW at the end of 2013. While this is not even enough to generate 1% of global electricity demand, the growth is impressive. Almost half of all PV capacity in operation today was added in the past two years (2012-2013). [5] In 2014, an estimated 45 GW was added, bringing the total to 184 GW. [6] [4].

Solar PV total global capacitySolar PV total global capacity, 2004-2013. Source: Renewables 2014 Global Status Report.

Meanwhile, solar cells are becoming more energy efficient, and the same goes for the technology used to manufacture them. For example, the polysilicon content in solar cells -- the most energy-intensive component -- has come down to 5.5-6.0 grams per watt peak (g/wp), a number that will further decrease to 4.5-5.0 g/wp in 2017. [2]

 Both trends have a positive effect on the sustainability of solar PV systems. According to the latest life cycle analyses, which measure the environmental impact of solar panels from production to decommission, greenhouse gas emissions have come down to around 30 grams of CO2-equivalents per kilwatt-hour of electricity generated (gCO2e/kWh), compared to 40-50 grams of CO2-equivalents ten years ago. [7-11] [12]

According to these numbers, electricity generated by photovoltaic systems is 15 times less carbon-intensive than electricity generated by a natural gas plant (450 gCO2e/kWh), and at least 30 times less carbon-intensive than electricity generated by a coal plant (+1,000 gCO2e/kWh). The most-cited energy payback times (EPBT) for solar PV systems are between one and two years. It seems that photovoltaic power, around since the 1970s, is finally ready to take over the role of fossil fuels.

Manufacturing has Moved to China
Unfortunately, a critical review of the PV solar industry paints a very different picture. Many commenters attribute the plummeting cost of solar PV to more efficient manufacturing processes and scale economies. However, if we look at the graph below, we see that the decline in costs accelerates sharply from 2009 onwards. 

This acceleration has nothing to do with more efficient manufacturing processes or a technological breakthrough. Instead, it's the consequence of moving almost the entire PV manufacturing industry from western countries to Asian countries, where labour and energy are cheaper and where environmental restrictions are more loose.

Less than 10 years ago, almost all solar panels were produced in Europe, Japan, and the USA. In 2013, Asia accounted for 87% of global production (up from 85% in 2012), with China producing 67% of the world total (62% in 2012). Europe's share continued to fall, to 9% in 2013 (11% in 2012), while Japan's share remained at 5% and the US share was only 2.6%. [5]

Price of silicon solar cells wikipedia
Compared to Europe, Japan and the USA, the electric grid in China is about twice as carbon-intensive and about 50% less energy efficient. [13-15

Because the manufacture of solar PV cells relies heavily on the use of electricity (for more than 95%) [16], this means that in spite of the lower prices and the increasing efficiency, the production of solar cells has become more energy-intensive, resulting in longer energy payback times and higher greenhouse gas emissions. 

The geographical shift in manufacturing has made almost all life cycle analyses of solar PV panels obsolete, because they are based on a scenario of domestic manufacturing, either in Europe or in the United States.

LCA of Solar Panels Manufactured in China
We could find only one study that investigates the manufacturing of solar panels in China, and it's very recent. In 2014, a team of researchers performed a comparative life cycle analysis between domestic and overseas manufacturing scenarios, taking into account geographic diversity by utilizing localized inventory data for processes and materials. [13]

 In the domestic manufacturing scenario, silicon PV modules (mono-si with 14% efficiency and multi-si with 13.2% efficiency) are made and installed in Spain. In the overseas manufacturing scenario, the panels are made in China and installed in Spain.

Compared to the domestic manufacturing scenario, the carbon footprint and the energy payback time are almost doubled in the overseas manufacturing scenario. The carbon footprint of the modules made in Spain (which has a cleaner grid than the average in Europe) is 37.3 and 31.8 gCO2e/kWh for mono-si and multi-si, respectively, while the energy payback times are 1.9 and 1.6 years.

However, for the modules made in China, the carbon footprint is 72.2 and 69.2 gCO2e/kWh for mono-si and multi-si, respectively, while the energy payback times are 2.4 and 2.3 years. [13]

Carbon footprints solar cells produced in china and europe
At least as important as the place of manufacturing is the place of installation. Almost all LCAs -- including the one that deals with manufacturing in China -- assume a solar insolation of 1,700 kilowatt-hour per square meter per year (kWh/m2/yr), typical of Southern Europe and the southwestern USA. If solar modules manufactured in China are installed in Germany, then the carbon footprint increases to about 120 gCO2e/kWh for both mono- and multi-si -- which makes solar PV only 3.75 times less carbon-intensive than natural gas, not 15 times.

Considering that at the end of 2014, Germany had more solar PV installed than all Southern European nations combined, and twice as much as the entire United States, this number is not a worst-case scenario. It reflects the carbon intensity of most solar PV systems installed between 2009 and 2014. More critical researchers had already anticipated these results. A 2010 study refers to the 2008 consensus figure of 50 gCO2e/kWh mentioned above, and adds that "in less sunny locations, or in carbon-intensive economies, these emissions can be up to 2-4 times higher". [17]

Taking the more recent figure of 30 gCO2e/kWh as a starting point, which reflects improvements in solar cell and manufacturing efficiency, this would be 60-120 gCO2e/kWh, which corresponds neatly with the numbers of the 2014 study.

Solar insolation in europe
Solar insolation in north america
Solar insolation in Europe and the USA. Source: SolarGIS.

These results don't include the energy required to ship the solar panels from China to Europe. Transportation is usually ignored in LCAs of solar panels that assume domestic production, which would make comparisons difficult.

Furthermore, energy requirements for transportation are very case-specific. It should also be kept in mind that these results are based on a solar PV lifespan of 30 years. This might be over-optimistic, because the relocation of manufacturing to China has been associated with a decrease in the quality of PV solar panels. [18]

Research has shown that the percentage of defective or under-performing PV cells has risen substantially in recent years, which could have a negative influence on the lifespan of the average solar panel, decreasing its sustainability.

Energy Cannibalism
Solar PV electricity remains less carbon-intensive than conventional grid electricity, even when solar cells are manufactured in China and installed in countries with relatively low solar insolation. This seems to suggest that solar PV remains a good choice no matter where the panels are produced or installed.

However, if we take into account the growth of the industry, the energy and carbon balance can quickly turn negative. That's because at high growth rates, the energy and CO2 savings made by the cumulative installed capacity of solar PV systems can be cancelled out by the energy use and CO2 emissions from the production of new installed capacity. [16] [19-20]
A life cycle analysis that takes into account the growth rate of solar PV is called a "dynamic" life cycle analysis, as opposed to a "static" LCA, which looks only at an individual solar PV system. The two factors that determine the outcome of a dynamic life cycle analysis are the growth rate on the one hand, and the embodied energy and carbon of the PV system on the other hand. If the growth rate or the embodied energy or carbon increases, so does the "erosion" or "cannibalization" of the energy and CO2 savings made due to the production of newly installed capacity. [16]

For the deployment of solar PV systems to grow while remaining net greenhouse gas mitigators, they must grow at a rate slower than the inverse of their CO2 payback time. [19]

 For example, if the average energy and CO2 payback times of a solar PV system are four years and the industry grows at a rate of 25%, no net energy is produced and no greenhouse gas emissions are offset. [19]

If the growth rate is higher than 25%, the aggregate of solar PV systems actually becomes a net CO2 and energy sink. In this scenario, the industry expands so fast that the energy savings and GHG emissions prevented by solar PV systems are negated to fabricate the next wave of solar PV systems. [20]

The CO2 Balance of Solar PV
Several studies have undertaken a dynamic life cycle analysis of renewable energy technologies. The results -- which are valid for the period between 1998 and 2008 -- are very sobering for those that have put their hopes on the carbon mitigation potential of solar PV power. A 2009 paper, which takes into account the geographical distribution of global solar PV installations, sets the maximum sustainable annual growth rate at 23%, while the actual average annual growth rate of solar PV between 1998 and 2008 was 40%. [16] [21]


This means that the net CO2 balance of solar PV was negative for the period 1998-2008. Solar PV power was growing too fast to be sustainable, and the aggregate of solar panels actually increased GHG emissions and energy use. According to the paper, the net CO2 emissions of the solar PV industry during those 10 years accounted to 800,000 tonnes of CO2. [16] These figures take into account the fact that, as a consequence of a cleaner grid and better manufacturing processes, the production of solar PV panels becomes more energy efficient and less carbon-intensive over time.
The sustainability of solar PV has further deteriorated since 2008. On the one hand, industry growth rates have accelerated. Solar PV grew on average by 59% per year between 2008 and 2014, compared to an annual growth rate of 40% between 1998 and 2008 . [5] On the other hand, manufacturing has become more carbon-intensive. For its calculations of the CO2 balance in 2008, the study discussed above considers the carbon intensity of production worldwide to be 500 gCO2e/kWh. In 2013, with 87% of the production in Asia, this number had risen to about 950 gCO2e/kWh, which halves the maximum sustainable growth rate to about 12%.

If we also take into account the changes in geographic distribution of solar panels, with an increasing percentage installed in regions with higher solar insolation, the maximum sustainable growth rate increases to about 16%. [23-24] Although more recent research is not available, it's obvious that the CO2 emissions of the solar PV industry have further increased during the period 2009-2014. If we would consider all solar panels in the world as one large energy generating plant, it would not have generated any net energy or CO2-savings.

The Solution: Rethink the Manufacture and Use of Solar PV
Obviously, the net CO2 balance of solar PV could be improved by limiting the growth of the industry, but that would be undesirable. If we want solar PV to become important, it has to grow fast. Therefore, it's much more interesting to focus on lowering the embodied energy of solar PV power systems, which automatically results in higher sustainable growth rates. The shorter the energy and CO2 payback times, the faster the industry can grow without becoming a net producer of CO2.

Embodied energy and CO2 will gradually decrease because of technological advances such as higher solar cell efficiencies and more efficient manufacturing techniques, and also as a consequence of the recycling of solar panels, which is not yet a reality.

However, what matters most is where solar panels are manufactured, and where they are installed. The location of production and installation is a decisive factor because there are three parameters in a life cycle analysis that are location dependent: the carbon intensity of the electricity used in production, the carbon intensity of the displaced electricity mix at the place of installation, and the solar insolation in the place of installation. [16]

By carefully selecting the locations for production and installation we could improve the sustainability of solar PV power in a spectacular way. For PV modules produced in countries with low-carbon energy grids -- such as France, Norway, Canada or Belgium -- and installed in countries with high insolation and carbon-intensive grids -- such as China, India, the Middle East or Australia -- greenhouse gas emissions can be as low as 6-9 gCO2/kWh of generated electricity. [16] [20] [14-15] That's 13 to 20 times less CO2 per kWh than solar PV cells manufactured in China and installed in Germany. [25]
Sustainable growth rates of 300-460% are possible when PV modules are produced in countries with low-carbon energy grids and installed in countries with high insolation and carbon-intensive grids
This would allow sustainable growth rates of up to 300-460%, far above what's even necessary. If solar PV would grow on average at a rate of 100% per year, it would take less than 10 years to meet today's electricity's demand. If it would grow at the 16% maximum sustainable growth rate we calculated above, meeting today's electricity demand would take until 2045 -- with no net CO2 savings. By that time, according to the forecasts, total global electricity demand will have more than doubled. [26]

Of course, producing and installing solar panels in the right places implies international cooperation and a sound economic system, none of which exist. Manufacturing solar panels in Europe or the USA would also make them more expensive again, while many countries with the right conditions for solar don't have the money to install them in large amounts.

An alternative solution is using on-site generation from renewables to meet a greater proportion of the electricity demand of PV manufacturing facilities -- which can also happen in a country with a carbon-intensive grid. For example, if the electricity for the manufacturing of solar cells would be supplied by other solar cells, then the greenhouse emissions of solar PV systems could be reduced by 50-70%, depending on where they are produced (Europe or the USA). [7] In China, this decrease in CO2 emissions would even be greater.

In yet another scenario, we could dedicate nuclear plants exclusively to the manufacture of solar cells. Because nuclear is less carbon-intensive than PV solar, this sounds like the fastest, cheapest and easiest way to start producing a massive amount of solar cells without raising energy use and greenhouse emissions.

But don't underestimate the task ahead. A 1 GW nuclear power plant can produce about 11 million square metres of solar panels per year, which corresponds to 1.66 GWp of solar power (based on the often cited average number of 150 w/m2). We would have needed 24 nuclear plants -- or 1 in 20 atomic plants worldwide -- working full-time to produce the solar panels manufactured in 2013. [27]

What About Storage?
Why does the production of solar PV requires so much energy? Because the low power density -- several orders of magnitude below fossil fuels -- and the intermittency of solar power require a much larger energy infrastructure than fossil fuels do.

It's important to realize that the intermittency of solar power is not taken into account in our analysis. Solar power is not always available, which means that we need a backup-source of power or a storage system to jump in when the need is there.

This component is usually not considered in LCAs of solar PV, even though it has a large influence on the sustainability of solar power.

Storage is no longer an academic question because several manufacturers -- most notably Tesla -- are pushing lithium-ion battery storage as an alternative for a grid-connected solar PV system.
Lithium-ion batteries are more compact and technically superior to the lead-acid batteries commonly used in off-grid solar systems. Furthermore, the disincentivation of  grid-connected solar systems in a growing number of countries makes off-grid systems more attractive.

In the next article, we investigate the sustainability of a PV-system with a lithium-ion battery. Meanwhile, enjoy the sun and stay tuned.

Sustainabilty of Stored Sunlight 

By Kris De Decker on 3 May 2015 for Low Tech Magazine -

One of the constraints of solar power is that it is not always available: it is dependent on daylight hours and clear skies. In order to fill these gaps, a storage solution or a backup infrastructure of fossil fuel power plants is required -- a factor that is often ignored when scientists investigate the sustainability of PV systems.

Whether or not to include storage is no longer just an academic question. Driven by better battery technology and the disincentivization of grid-connected solar panels, off-grid solar is about to make a comeback. How sustainable is a solar PV system if energy storage is taken into account?

In the previous article, we have seen that many life cycle analyses (LCAs) of solar PV systems have a positive bias. Most LCAs base their studies on the manufacturing of solar cells in Europe or the USA. However, most panels are now produced in China, where the electric grid is about twice as carbon-intensive and about 50% less energy efficient. [1] Likewise, most LCAs investigate solar PV systems in regions with a solar insolation typical of the Mediterranean region, while the majority of solar panels have been installed in places with only half as much sunshine. 

As a consequence, the embodied greenhouse gas emissions of a kWh of electricity generated by solar PV is two to four times higher than most LCAs indicate. Instead of the oft-cited 30-50 grams of CO2-equivalents per kilowatt-hour of generated electricity (gCO2e/kWh), we calculated that the typical solar PV system installed between 2008 and 2014 produces close to 120 gCO2e/kWh. This makes solar PV only four times less carbon-intensive than conventional grid electricity in most western countries.

However, even this result is overly optimistic. In the previous article, we didn't take into account "one of the potentially largest missing components" [2] of the usual life cycle analysis of PV systems: the embodied energy of the infrastructure that deals with the intermittency of solar power. Solar insolation varies throughout the day and throughout the season, and of course solar energy is not available after sunset. 

Off-grid Solar Power is Back
Until the end of the 1990s, most solar installations were off-grid systems. Excess power during the day was stored in an on-site bank of lead-acid batteries for use during the night and on cloudy days. Today, almost all solar systems are grid-connected. These installations use the grid as if it was a battery, "storing" excess energy during the day for use at night and on cloudy days.

Obviously, this strategy requires a backup of fossil fuel or nuclear power plants that step in when the supply of solar energy is low or nonexistent. To make a fair comparison with conventional grid electricity, including electricity generated by biomass, this "hidden" part of the solar PV system should also be taken into account. However, every single life cycle analyse of a solar PV ignores it. [3, 2].

Until now, whether or not to include backup power or storage systems was mainly an academic question. This might change soon, because off-grid solar is about to make a comeback. Several manufacturers have presented storage systems based on lithium-ion batteries, the technology that also powers our gadgets and electric cars. [4, 5, 6, 7] Lithium-ion batteries are a superior technology compared to the lead-acid batteries commonly used in off-grid solar PV systems: they last longer, are more compact, more efficient, easier to maintain, and comparatively more sustainable.
Battery storage price projections

Lithium-ion batteries are more expensive than lead-acid batteries, but Morgan Stanley's 2014 report on solar energy predicts that the price of storage will come down to $125-$150 per kWh by 2020. [8] According to the report, this would make solar PV plus battery storage commercially viable in some European countries (Germany, Italy, Portugal, Spain) and across most of the United States. Morgan Stanley expects a lot from electric vehicle manufacturer Tesla, who announced a home storage system for solar power a few days ago (costing $350 per kWh). [9] Tesla is building a factory in Arizona that will produce as many lithium-ion batteries as there are currently produced by all manufacturers in the world, introducing economies of scale that can push costs further down.
Other factors also come into play when it comes to home storage for PV power. Solar panels have become so much cheaper in recent years that government subsidies and tax credits for grid-connected systems have come under pressure. In many countries, owners of a grid-connected solar PV system have received a fixed price for the surplus electricity they provide to the grid, without having to pay fixed grid rates. These so-called "net metering rules" or "feed-in rates" were recently abolished in several European countries, and are now under pressure in some US states. In its report, Morgan Stanley predicts that, in the coming years, net metering rules and solar tax credits will disappear altogether. [8]
A 5 kWh lithium-ion battery pack from Powertech Systems.

Utility companies are fighting the incentivisation of PV power succesfully with the argument that solar customers make use of the grid but don't pay for it, raising the costs for non-solar customers. [10] The irony is that the disincentivization of grid-connected solar panels makes off-grid systems more attractive, and that utilities might be chasing away their customers. 

If a grid-connected solar customer has to pay fixed grid fees and doesn't receive a good price for his or her excess power, it might become more financially savvy to install a bank of batteries. The more customers do this, the higher the costs will become for the remaining consumers, encouraging more people to adopt off-grid systems. [11]

Lead-Acid Battery Storage
Being totally independent of the grid might sound attractive to many, but how sustainable is a solar PV system when battery storage is taken into account? Because a life cycle analysis of an off-grid solar system with lithium-ion batteries has not yet been done, we made one ourselves, based on some LCAs of stand-alone solar PV systems with lead-acid battery storage.

One of the most complete studies to date is a 2009 LCA of a 4.2 kW off-grid system in Murcia, Spain. The 35 m2 PV solar array is mounted on a building rooftop and supplies a programmed lighting system with a daily constant load pattern of 13.8 kWh. 

The solar panels are connected to 24 open lead-acid batteries with a storage capacity of 110.4 kWh, offering three days of autonomy. [12] The study found an energy payback time of 9.08 years and specific greenhouse gas emissions of 131 gCO2e/kWh, which makes the system twice as energy efficient and 2.5 times less carbon-intensive than conventional grid electricity in Spain (337 gCO2/kWh). Manufacturing the batteries accounts for 45% of the embodied CO2, and 49% of the life cycle energy use of the solar system.
This doesn't sound too bad, but unfortunately the researchers made some pretty optimistic assumptions. First of all, the results are valid for a solar insolation of 1,932 kWh/m2/yr -- Murcia is one of the sunniest places in Spain. At lower solar insolation, more solar panels would be needed to produce as much electricity, so the embodied energy of the total system will increase. [13]. If we assume a solar insolation of 1,700 kWh/m2/yr, the average in Southern Europe, GHG emissions would increase to 139 gCO2e/kWh. If we assume a solar insolation of 1,000 kWh/m2/yr, the average in Germany, emissions amount to 174 gCO2/kWh.

Battery Lifespan
Secondly, the researchers assume the lifespan of the lead-acid batteries to be 10 years. For the solar panels, they assume a lifetime of 20 years, which means that they included double the amount of batteries in the life cycle analysis. A lifespan of ten years is very optimistic for a lead-acid battery -- a fact that the scientists admit. [12] Most other LCA's looking at off-grid systems assume a battery life of 3 or 5 years [14, 15]. However, the lifetime of a lead-acid battery depends strongly on use and maintenance. Because of the low load of the system under discussion, a battery lifespan of 10 years is not completely unrealistic.

On the other hand, if the batteries are used for higher loads -- for example, in a common household -- their lifetime would shorten considerably. Because almost 50% of embodied CO2 and life cycle energy use of a PV solar system is due to the batteries alone, the expected lifespan of the 2.4 ton battery pack has a profound effect on the sustainability of the system.

Lead acid battery storage
A lead-acid battery system. SuperiorSolar.

If we assume a battery lifespan of 5 instead of 10 years, and keep the other parameters the same, the GHG emissions increase to 198 and 233 gCO2e/kWh for a solar insolation of 1,700 and 1,000 kWh/m2/yr, respectively. In grid-connected solar PV systems, assuming a longer life expectancy for the solar panels improves the sustainability of the system: the embodied energy and CO2 can be spread over a longer period of time. With off-grid systems, this effect is countered by the need for one or more replacements of the batteries.

If we increase the life expectancy of the solar panels from 20 to 30 years, and keep the battery lifespan at 10 years, CO2e emissions per kWh remain more or less the same. However, if we assume a battery lifespan of only 5 years and extend the lifespan of the solar panels to 30 years, GHG emissions would increase to 206 gCO2e/kWh for a solar insolation of 1,700 kWh/m2/yr, and decrease to 232 gCO2e/kWh for a solar insolation of 1,000 kWh/m2/yr.

Made in China
Thirdly, the researchers assume that all components -- PV cells, batteries, electronics -- are made in Spain, while we have seen in the previous article that manufacturing of solar PV systems has moved to China. Spain's electricity grid is 2.7 times less carbon-intensive (337 gCO2/kWh) than China's electric infrastructure (900 gCO2e/kWh), which means that the GHG emissions of all components of our system can be multiplied by 2.7.

This results in specific carbon emissions of 353 and 471 gCO2e/kWh for a solar insolation of 1,700 and 1,000 kWh/m2/yr, respectively, which is higher than the carbon-intensity of the Spanish grid. Considering a battery lifespan of 5 instead of 10 years, emissions would rise to 513 and 631 gCO2e/kWh for a solar insolation of 1,700 and 1,000 kWh/m2/yr, respectively.
Although there are some assumptions by the researchers that are less optimistic -- such as a battery recycling rate of only 50% instead of the more commonly assumed +90% -- it's obvious that an off-grid system with lead-acid batteries is not sustainable, and definitely not when the components are manufactured in China. That doesn't make off-grid solar with lead-acid batteries pointless: compared to a diesel generator, a solar PV system with lead-acid batteries is often the better choice, which makes it a good solution for remote areas without access to the power grid. As an alternative for the centralized electricity infrastructure in western countries, however, it makes little sense.

Lithium-ion Battery Storage System
When we replace the lead-acid batteries by lithium-ion batteries, the sustainability of a stand-alone solar PV system improves considerably. At first glance this may seem counter-productive, because it takes more energy to produce 1 kWh of  lithium-ion battery storage than it takes to manufacure 1 kWh of lead-acid battery storage. According to the latest LCA's, aimed at electric vehicle storage, the making of a lithium-ion battery requires between 1.4 and 1.87 MJ/wh, [16, 17, 18] while the energy requirements for the manufacture of a lead-acid battery are between 0.87 and 1.19 MJ/Wh. [18, 12]

Bosch energy storage system lithium-ion6.6 kWh Energy management and lithium-ion storage solution in one. Bosch Power Tec.

Despite this, the higher overall performance of the lithium-ion battery means that considerably less storage is required. For a prolonged lifetime, lead-acid batteries demand a limited "Depth of Discharge" (DoD). If a lead-acid battery is fully discharged (DoD of 100%) its lifespan becomes very short (300 to 800 cycles, or roughly one to two years, depending on battery chemistry).

he lifespan increases to between 400 and 1,000 cycles (1-3 years, assuming 365 cycles per year) at a DoD of 80%, and to between 900 and 2,000 cycles (2.5-5.5 years) at a DoD of 33%. [18]. This means that, in order to get a decent lifespan, a lead-acid battery system should be oversized. For example, three times more battery capacity is needed at a DoD of 33%, because two thirds of the battery capacity cannot be used.

Although the lifespan of a lithium-ion battery also decreases when the depth of discharge increases, this effect is less pronounced than with its lead-acid counterpart. A lithium-ion battery lasts 3,000 to 5,000 cycles (8-14 years) at a DoD of 100%, 5,000 to 7,000 cycles (14-19 years) at a DoD of 80%, and 7,000 to 10,000 cycles (19-27 years) at a DoD of 33%. [18]

As a consequence, lithium-ion storage usually has a DoD of 80%, while lead-acid storage usually has a DoD of 33 or 50%. In the LCA of the Spanish off-grid system discussed above, the assumption of three days of autonomy implies that 41 kWh of storage is required (3 x 13.8 kWh per day). Because the DoD is 33%, total storage capacity should be multiplied by three, which results in 123 kWh of batteries. If we would replace these by lithium-ion batteries with a DoD of 80%, only 50 kWh of storage is needed, or 2.5 times less.

6 x Less Batteries Needed
For utmost accuracy, we should mention that the lifespan of a battery isn't necessarily limited by the cycle life. When batteries are used in applications with shallow cycling, their service life will normally be limited by float life. In this case, the difference between lead-acid and lithium-ion is less pronounced: at no-cycling (float charge), lithium-ion lasts 14-16 years and lead-acid 8-12 years.

Battery life will be limited by either the life cycle or the float service life, depending on which condition will be achieved first. [18] Nevertheless, if we focus on off-grid systems for households, the assumption of deep daily cycling better reflects reality, although there will be periods of float charge, for example during holidays.
If we also factor in the lifespan of the batteries, the advantage of lithium-ion becomes even larger. Assuming a lifespan of 20 years for the solar PV system and a DoD of 80%, the lithium-ion batteries will last as long as the PV panels. On the other hand, the lead-acid batteries have to be replaced at least 2-4 times over a period of 20 years. This further widens the gap in energy use for manufacturing when comparing lead-acid and lithium-ion batteries. [18]

 In the original LCA, a total storage capacity of about 240 kWh is needed over a lifespan of 20 years. On the other hand, the cycle life of the lithium-ion battery is 19-27 years, meaning that no replacement may be needed. Consequently, the total storage capacity to be manufactured over the complete lifetime of the system is 6 times lower for lithium-ion than for lead-acid. [19]

E3DC lithium-ion battery system. Picture: Thomas Salzmann.

If we take the most optimistic values for energy during manufacturing, being 0.87 MJ/Wh for lead-acid and 1.4 MJ/Wh for lithium-ion, and multiply them by total battery capacity over a lifetime of 20 years (248,000 Wh for lead-acid and 42,000 Wh for lithium-ion), this results in an embodied energy of 60 MWh for lead-acid (the value in the original LCA) and only 16.5 MWh for lithium. In conclusion, energy requirements for the manufacturing of the batteries is 3.6 times lower for lithium-ion than for lead-acid.

Another advantage of lithium-ion batteries is that they have a higher efficiency than lead-acid batteries: 85-95% for lithium-ion, compared to 70-85% for lead-acid. Because losses in the battery must be compensated with higher energy input, a higher battery efficiency results in a smaller PV array, lowering the energy requirements to manufacture the solar cells. In the original LCA, 4.2 kW of solar panels (35 m2) are needed to produce 13.8 kWh per day.

If we assume the lead-acid batteries to be 77% efficient, and the lithium-ion batteries to be 90% efficient, the choice for lithium-ion would resize the solar PV array from 4.2 kW to 3.55 kW. We now have all the data to calculate the greenhouse gas emissions per kWh of electricity produced by an off-grid solar PV system using lithium-ion batteries.

GHG Emissions of the Off-grid System with Lithium-ion Batteries
In the original LCA, the batteries and the solar panels (including frames and supports) account for 59 and 62 gCO2e/kWh, respectively. The rest of the components add another 10 gCO2e/kWh, resulting in a total of 131 gCO2e/kWh. If we switch to lithium-ion battery storage, the greenhouse gas emissions for the batteries come down from 59 to 20 gCO2e/kWh.

Because of the higher efficiency of the lithium-ion batteries, the greenhouse gas emissions for the solar panels come down from 62 to 55 gCO2e/kWh. This brings the total greenhouse gas emissions of the off-grid system using lithium-ion batteries to 85 gCO2e/kWh, compared to 131 gCO2e/kWh for a similar system with lead-acid storage.

While this result is an improvement, it's dependent on the assumptions of the researchers; most notably, a solar insolation of 1,932 kWh/m2/yr, and that all manufacturing of components occurs in Spain. If we adjust the value for a solar insolation of 1,700 kWh/m2/yr in order to compare with the other results, total GHG emissions become 92.5 gCO2e/kWh (assuming battery capacity remains the same).

If we correct for a solar insolation of 1,000 kWh/m2/yr, the average in Germany, GHG emissions become 123.5 gCO2e/kWh. Furthermore, if we assume that the solar panels (but not the batteries or the other components) are manufactured in China, which is most likely the case, GHG emissions rise to 155 and 217 gCO2e/kWh for a solar insolation of 1,700 and 1,000 kWh/m2/yr, respectively.

Testing a lithium-ion battery. Picture: A123 Systems.

In conclusion, lithium-ion battery storage makes off-grid solar PV less carbon-intensive than conventional grid electricity in most western countries, even if the manufacturing of solar panels in China is taken into account. However, the advantage is rather small, which effects the speed at which solar PV systems can be deployed in a sustainable way.

In the previous article, we have seen that the energy and CO2 savings made by the cumulative installed capacity of solar PV systems are cancelled out to some extent by the energy use and CO2 emissions from the production of new installed capacity. For the deployment of solar systems to grow while remaining net greenhouse gas mitigators, they must grow at a rate slower than the inverse of their CO2 payback time. [20, 21, 22]
For solar panels manufactured in China and installed in countries like Germany, the maximum sustainable growth rate is only 16-23% (depending on solar insolation), roughly 3 times lower than the actual annual growth of the industry between 2008 and 2014. If we also take lithium-ion battery storage into account, the maximum sustainable growth rate comes down to 4-14%.

In other words, including energy storage further limits the maximum sustainable growth rate of the solar PV industry.

On the other hand, if we would produce solar panels in countries with very clean electricity grids (France, Canada, etc.) and install them in countries with carbon-intensive grids and high solar insolation (China, Australia, etc.), even off-grid systems with lithium-ion batteries would have GHG emissions of only 26-29 gCO2/kWh, which would allow solar PV to grow sustainably by almost 60% per year. This result is remarkable and shows the importance of location if we want solar PV to be a solution instead of a problem. Of course, whether or not there's enough lithium available to deploy battery storage on a large scale, is another question.

Battery Production Powered by Renewable Energy?
Another way to improve the sustainability of battery storage is to produce the batteries using renewable energy. For example, Tesla announced that its "GigaFactory", which will produce lithium-ion batteries for vehicles and home storage, will be powered by renewable energy. [23, 24]

To support their claim, Tesla published an illustration of the factory with the roof covered in solar panels and a few dozen windmills in the distance.

However, the final manufacturing process in the factory consumes only a small portion of the total energy cost of the entire production cycle -- much more energy is used during material extraction (mining). It's stated that the GigaFactory will produce 50 GWh of battery capacity per year by 2020.

Because the making of 1 kWh of lithium-ion battery storage requires 400 kWh of energy [16, 17, 18], producing 50 GWh of batteries would require 20,000 GWh of energy per year.

Tesla gigafactory

If we assume an average solar insolation of 2,000 kWh/m2/yr and a solar PV efficiency of 15%, one m2 of solar panels would generate at most 295 kWh per year. This means that it would take 6,800 hectares (ha) of solar panels to run the complete production process of the batteries on solar power, while the solar panels on the roof cover an area of only 1 to 40 ha (there is some controversy over the actual surface area of the factory under construction). Tesla's claim, though potentially factually accurate, is an obvious example of greenwashing -- and everyone seems to buy it.

There are other ways to improve the sustainability of solar PV when storage is taken into account. Most of these solutions require that solar systems remain connected to the grid, even if they have a (more limited) local storage system. In this scenario, chemical batteries could help to balance the grid system, acting as peak-shaving and load-shifting devices. The electric grid has to be sized to meet peak demand, and battery storage could mean that less power plants are needed for that.

Decentralized, grid-connected energy storage could also increase the share of renewables that the electricity infrastructure can handle. Of course, this "smart grid" approach should also be subjected to a life cycle analysis, including all electronic components.

Sources & Notes:
[1] Domestic and overseas manufacturing scenarios of silicon-based photovoltaics: life cycle energy and environmental comparative analysis. Dajun Yue, Fengqi You, Seth B. Darling, in Solar Energy, May 2014
[2] Energy Payback for Energy Systems Ensembles During Growth (PDF), Timothy Gutowski, Stanley Gershwin and Tonio Bounassisi, IEEE, International Symposium on Sustainable Systems and Technologies, Washington D.C., May 16-19, 2010
[3] "Current State of Development of Electricity-Generating Technologies: A Literature Review", Manfred Lenzen, Energies, Volume 3, Issue 3, 2010.
[4] "Storage is the new solar: will batteries and PV create an unstoppable hybrid force?", Stephen Lacey, Greentechmedia, 2015
[5] "Report: Solar Paired with Storage is a 'Real, Near and Present' Threat to Utilities", Stephen Lacey, greentechmedia, 2014
[6] "Australia to pilot new power plan", Gregg Borschmann, ABC, May 2014
[7] "SolarCity Launches Energy Storage for Business Using Tesla Battery Packs", Eric Wesoff, greentechmedia, December 2013
[8] "Solar Power & Energy Storage: Policy Factors vs. Improving Economics" (PDF), Morgan Stanley Blue Paper, July 28, 2014
[9] "Tesla announces home battery system", Slashdot, May 1, 2015
[10] "Utilities wage campaign against rooftop solar", Joby Warrick, The Washington Post, March 2015
[11] "Disruptive Challenges: Financial Implications and Strategic Responses to a Changing Retail Electric Business" (PDF), Peter Kind, Energy Infrastructure Advocates, Edison Electric Institute, January 2013
[12] "Life cycle assessment study of a 4.2kWp stand-alone photovoltaic system", R. GarcĂ­a, in "solar energy", september 2009.
[13] You could argue that you also need more battery storage, because there is a bigger chance of cloudy days. However, we assume battery capacity to remain the same.
[14] "Optimal Sizing and Life Cycle Assessment of Residential Photovoltaic Energy Systems With Battery Storage", A. Celik, in "Progress in Photovoltaics: Research and Applications", 2008.
[15] "Energy pay-back time of photovoltaic energy systems: present status and prospects", E.A. Alsema, in "Proceedings of the 2nd World Conference and Exhibition on photovoltaics solar energy conversion", July 1998.
[16] "Towards greener and more sustainable batteries for electrical energy storage", D. Larcher and J.M. Tarascon, Nature Chemistry, November 2014
[17] "Application of Life-Cycle Assessment to Nanoscale Technology: Lithium-ion Batteries for Electric Vehicles" (PDF), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), 2013
[18] "Energy Analysis of Batteries in Photovoltaic systems. Part one (Performance and energy requirements)" (PDF) and "Part two (Energy Return Factors and Overall Battery Efficiencies)" (PDF). Energy Conversion and Management 46, 2005.
[19] The lifespan of the lithium-ion battery will probably be closer to 14-16 years (float charge lifespan) because of the shallow cycling assumption in the original LCA. However, since the assumed lifespan of 10 years for the lead-acid batteries is very optimistic, and because deep cycling is more common for household off-grid systems, we assume that no replacement of lithium-ion batteries is needed.
[20] "The climate change mitigation potential of the solar PV industry: a life cycle perspective", Greg Briner, 2009
[21] "Optimizing Greenhouse Gas Mitigation Strategies to Suppress Energy Cannibalism" (PDF). J.M. Pearce. 2nd Climate Change Technology Conference, May 12-15, 2009, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada.
[22] "Towards Real Energy Economics: Energy Policy Driven by Life-Cycle Carbon Emission", R. Kenny, C. Law, J.M. Pearce, Energy Policy 38, pp. 1969-1978, 2010
[23] "Construction of Tesla's $5B solar-powered Gigafactory in Nevada is progressing nicely", Michael Graham Richard, Treehugger 2014
[24] "Tesla's $5bn Gigafactory looks even cooler than expected, will create 22,000 jobs", Michael Graham Richard, Treehugger 2015


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