Thin-film cadmium telluride panels could have a carbon cost advantage of $0.02 to $0.04 per watt compared to traditional polysilicon, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory said in a carbon, embedded energy and energy payback analysis.

Generally, when evaluating solar panels, traditional metrics such as efficiency, cost, level of cost of electricity and reliability are used as the main benchmarks. As the global economy transitions to renewable energy sources, reducing carbon emissions must remain in focus as a major goal of sustainable development.

Researchers at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) have maintained this focus, and recently published a new work Art Joule which takes solar module evaluation to a new level. The research focused on “embodied” energy and carbon, which is the sunk energy and carbon emissions associated with the production of a PV module. The team also estimated energy payback periods, or the amount of time it takes for a solar cell to produce the same amount of energy that was used to produce it.

“Green technology is great, but as we work to expand it to an incredible scale, it makes sense to look at what can be done to minimize the impact,” said Samantha Reese, senior engineer and analyst at NREL’s Center for Strategic Energy Analysis.

In the report, the team evaluated two main types of solar cells: crystalline silicon and cadmium telluride (CdTe). “We combined life cycle analysis with materials science to explain the emissions results for each technology and examine the implications of future advances. We want to use these results to identify areas where more research is needed,” Rees said.

The report shows that applying a cost to carbon could result in a $0.02/W to $0.04/W advantage for CdTe over traditional silicon cells.

Looking at the current carbon performance of the grid in solar-producing countries, the researchers found that a cleaner grid in certain regions can lead to half the emissions of other regions that use dirtier technologies like coal, to feed the network. And while silicon-based solar cells currently dominate the market, new thin-film photovoltaic technologies such as CdTe and perovskite provide another path to halving carbon intensity.

Image: NREL

“If we are to meet the decarbonization targets set by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a sixth of the remaining carbon budget could be used to produce PV modules,” said NREL researcher Matthew Rees. “That’s a huge amount of production that needs to be done to replace the energy sources that are used today.”

Maxeon Solar Technologies recently announced the milestone exceeding the energy payback period by 100 times over the 40-year life cycle of the Maxeon 3 series solar panels and the energy payback period in just 47.5 days.

“One of the strengths of the photovoltaic system is positive feedback,” said Nancy Hegel, director of the NREL Materials Science Center. “As we clean up the grid—specifically, by adding more PV to the grid—the production of the PV system will become cleaner, which in turn will make the PV system an even better product.”

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