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Photovoltaic progressing rapidly in environmental indicators
Photovoltaic (PV) technologies are progressing rapidly in boosting efficiency
and bringing manufacturing costs down; simultaneously, their environmental
indicators are also improving.
A recent lifecycle assessment (LCA) of PV technologies based on data of rooftop
installations under Southern European insolation (incident solar radiation)
of 1 700 kWh/m2/y found an energy payback time (EPBT
) of 1.7, 2.2, 2.7 and 1.1 years respectively for ribbon-silicon, multicrystalline
silicon. monocrystalline silicon, and thin-film CdTe (cadium tellurium) systems
. (EPBT is the time it takes for the device to generate as much energy
as had gone into producing it, see  Which
Renewables? SiS 39).The EPBT of the CdTe PV was much smaller
than the other systems although its electrical-conversion efficiency was the
lowest at 9 percent, compared with 11.5 percent for ribbon, 13.2 percent for
multicrystalline, and 14 percent for monocrystalline silicon.
A follow-up study updated the LCA and presented the ‘cradle-to-gate’
emissions of GHG and heavy metals of the same four commercial PV systems based
on the most recent data (2004-2006) . These are largely indirect emissions
associated with the use of fossil fuels in the lifecycle of the PVs. Direct
emissions of heavy metals from mining and smelting are also included, whereas
liquid and solid wastes are for the most part being recycled, and so were
not considered in the study. The choice of electricity and fuel sources is
important in determining the total emissions.
For silicon PV, the data from 11 commercial European and US PV
module manufacturing companies were supplemented by numbers from the literature.
Each module assembly typically consists of 72 0.125 m x 0.125m solar cells
with silver contacts ini front and back sides. Ethylene-vinyl acetate and
glass sheets encapsulate the PV module to protect it from the elements during
operation. Crystalline silicon modules typically have aluminium frames for
additional strength and easy mounting.
The lifecycle of silicon PV modules start with the mining of quartz sand. The
silica in the quartz sand is reduced in an arc furnace to obtain metallurgical
grade silicon, which is then purified further into electronic grade or solar
grade silicon. This is done either by the Siemens process in which a reactor
with silane and hydrogen gases are heated to 1 100-1 200C for growing silicon
rods, or the modified Siemens process in which the silane and hydrogen gases
are heated to ~800 C.
Data from CdTe PV modules in commercial production were from
a manufacturing plant in Perrysburg Ohio in the United States. The typical
frameless CdTe modules are 1.2 m x 0.5 m with electricity conversion efficiency
of 9 percent (though this has increased to 10 percent by September 2007).
Cd is obtained from a waste stream of Zn smelting. Te is recovered
from the slimes produced during electrolytic copper refining. Cd is further
purified either through leaching and vacuum distillation, or through electrolytic
purification followed by melting and atomization or vacuum distillation. Te
is also further purified by the same methods. CdTe is produced finally via
The CdTe absorber layer and cadmium sulphide (CdS) window layer
are laid down by vapour transport deposition based on subliming the powders
and condensing the vapours on glass substrates. A stream of inert carrier
gas guides the sublimed dense vapour cloud to deposit the flims at 500-600
C with a growth rate of 1 micrometre per second. The interconnections and
back contacts are formed by depositing a layer of common metals followed by
series of scribing and heat treatment
Greenhouse gases and other emissions
The results of the lifecycle emissions using different databases are presented
in Figure 1. Case 1 is the current electricity mixture in Si production, CrystalClear
project and Ecoinvent database. Case 2 is the Union of the Co-ordination
of Transmission of Electricity (UCTE) grid mixture and Ecoinvent database.
Case 3 is the US grid mixture and Franklin database. The conditions used are
the Southern European average insolation of 1 700 kWh/m2/y, a performance
ratio of 0.8 and a lifetime of 30 years. The performance ratio is the real
output of energy compared with the theoretical maximum output.
Figure 2. Lifecycle emissions from silicon and CdTe PV modules.
BOS is the Balance of System (module
supports, cabling and power conditioning).
As can be seen, the CdTe PV module gives the lowest ghg emissions
at just over 20 g CO2 equivalent per kWh. It also gives the lowest
emissions of nitrogen oxides and sulphur oxides.
Heavy metal emissions
The CdTe PV can emit Cd both directly and indirectly, whereas the crystalline
Si PV would emit these only indirectly. The total direct Cd emissions from
the lifecycle of CdTe PV modules coming from mining, smelting, purification
of the element and the synthesis of CdTe are 0.015 g/GWh. The total direct
emissions of Cd during module manufacture are 0.004 g/GWh. Emissions during
accidental releases such as fires are extremely small, if any. The total direct
emissions of Cd make up 0.02 g/GWh.
Indirect Cd emissions come from the generation of electricity
used in producing all parts of the PV module, for providing heat and mechanical
energy during materials processing, for climate control of the manufacturing
plant, and for transport of materials and products. The Cd is contained in
fossil fuels burnt, a fraction of which is released into the atmosphere during
combustion. The dominant sources of such indirect Cd emissions are from coal
burnt during steel-making processes and during glass-making from the boiler
materials and from the electricity supply needed in the boiler.
The results show that CdTe PV actually prevents a significant
amount of Cd from being released to the atmosphere. Every GWh electricity
generated by CdTe PV module can prevent about 4 g of Cd emissions. The direction
emissions of Cd during the lifecycle of CdTe PV are 10 times lower than the
indirect emissions, and about 30 times lower than those indirect emissions
in the lifecycle of crystalline PVs.
There is major scope for improving the environmental indicators
while simplifying the manufacturing processes and reducing costs. For example,
thin-film modules can be manufactured by ink-jet printing techniques and flexible
metal sheets used as substrate .
- Fthenakis VM and Alsema E. Photovoltaics energy payback times, greenhouse
gas emissions and external costs: 2004-early 2005 status. Progr Photovolt:
Res Appl 2006, 14, 275-80.
- Ho MW. Which renewables? Science in Society 39 (to appear).
- Fthenakis VM, Kim HC and Alsema E. Emissions from photovoltaic
life cycles. Environ Sci Technol 2008, 42, 2168-74.