Focus Markets

27.09.2021

The environmental impact of photovoltaic modules: the Chinese pollute 40% more than the European ones

A study by the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems ISE shows that modules produced in China produce much more CO2 emissions than those made in Europe

From a study carried out by the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems ISE, which analysed and compared silicon photovoltaic modules produced in Europe, Germany and China, It has emerged that those made in Europe produce 40% less carbon dioxide than those produced in China, while those made in Germany produce 30% less emissions than the Chinese competition.

But if solar energy has always been recognized as a clean energy source, which allows you to produce electricity without polluting, where do the carbon emissions that are mentioned in the study come from?

Although these emissions are still very low compared to those that are produced when electricity is generated from lignite, research shows that photovoltaic solar energy is responsible for the generation of CO2 emissions during the LCA (Life Cycle Assessment) of the modules, that is in the life cycle of these products, mainly in the phases of production, transport and disposal of these devices. From the results obtained, we can therefore say that in China the production phases of photovoltaic modules in silicon pollute much more than what happens in production sites in Europe and Germany.

By analyzing the LCA of silicon photovoltaic modules produced in these three areas, it was concluded that the difference between the CO2 emissions generated for the construction of photovoltaic modules in China and in Europe and Germany is caused mainly by the different energy mixes of the countries; the share of energy required during the production phase of modules is the factor that most influence the carbon footprint, with a percentage ranging from 50 to 63%, while transport affects less than you can expect (in the case of Chinese modules represents about 3%)

But, if you look at the annual world data on the performance of the photovoltaic sector, you notice how, despite the conclusions reached by the researchers of the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems ISE,  China continues to dominate this market.

"Due to significantly lower CO2 emissions during production and the further strong increase in demand for more climate-friendly photovoltaic modules worldwide, it is now important to establish the PV production chain in Europ, quickly and with great commitment", said Prof. Andreas Bett, Director of the Fraunhofer ISE Institute, commenting on the results of the research, which also showed that in recent years the carbon footprint of photovoltaic modules has improved by about 80%, mainly due to improvements in silicon performance and in the production processes of modules.

Another important discovery made in the course of the research of the Institute was that of the lower environmental impact of photovoltaic modules with glass-glass structure compared to those with backsheet films, regardless of where they are produced. It is not so much the backsheet that causes more pollution, but the aluminum frame that this type of photovoltaic modules requires, as it involves the steel industry, known for being one of the most energy-intensive.

The photovoltaic modules with glass-glass structure, in addition to requiring less emissions in the production phases, last longer and have an annual degradation slower than those with backsheet and aluminum frame. The only problem is that, to date, only a small part of the producers in the sector opt for the most sustainable modules.