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New Research: Solar Panels Less Green Than You Think

Ben Webster, The Times

More than a billion solar panels have been installed around the world but they may so far have failed to reduce overall emissions, a study has found.

Panel production is so energy intensive that the global solar industry could still be paying off its “carbon debt”.

Researchers looked at the full lifecycle of solar panels, including the emissions resulting from their production and the renewable electricity they produce.

They found that the panels installed since the mid-1970s were likely to be producing a net reduction in emissions by 2011 — but that in the worst-case scenario, they might not do so until 2018.

The solar industry has been “a temporary net emitter of greenhouse gas emissions”, the study by Utrecht University concluded.

The cumulative capacity of solar photovoltaic panels installed around the world has grown from less than 1 megawatt in 1975 to more than 270,000 megawatts. Britain has more than 10,000 megawatts of solar capacity. More than 800,000 homes have rooftop solar PV panels and there are hundreds of solar farms.

By comparison Drax, Britain’s biggest power station, has a capacity of 4,000 megawatts but, unlike solar, can produce at all times.

Global solar power capacity grew by an average of 45 per cent a year until 2014 but has dropped to about 20 per cent annually, according to Wilfried van Sark, one of the authors of the study in the journal Nature Communications.

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