How sustainable is a current solar PV panel? What does its lifecycle consist of?

Asked by DJ
College Park, MD

Is the use of solar panels truly sustainable? What are the extraction, production, distribution, and disposal processes of solar panels? I feel it is necessary to take these processes into account, especially if this is the direction we are moving and more homes are using PV panels.


David Lavender

Answered by David Lavender

Marine City, MI

David Lavender Architect PC

May 5, 2010

Although I am an advocate of the use of PV, particularly with the government and utility incentives that may be available, the "sustainability" is in doubt. Why? Because although PV panels reduce electrical energy produced by coal, they're not very efficient (about 15% conversion).

Generally, an array that can fit on half a garage (about 4 kW) will produce enough electrical energy for the average house, and warranties are about 25 years. Nobody's owned the current PV products for 25 years so they might last longer, say 40 years, but who knows if performance deteriorates over time.

Regardless, the continued gains in efficiencies and reductions in manufacturing cost will make current PV panels obsolete in 5 to 10 years. When the current PV panels are replaced, where will they go? As a monstrous hybrid (difficult if not impossible to recycle into their original materials), they can only be reused (donated to low-income economies) or trashed. So it all depends on whether your definition of "sustainable" includes just today, or tomorrow.

Tagged In: lca, solar panels

Do you have a question about greening your home? GreenHomeGuide invites you to Ask A Pro. Let our network of experienced green building professionals – architects, designers, contractors, electricians, energy experts, landscapers, tile & stone specialists, and more – help you find the right solution.