“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.”

via LOW-TECH MAGAZINE: How Sustainable is PV Solar Power?.