The Positive and Negative Environmental Impacts of Solar PV Technology

In this course, you will:

  • Learn about the principles behind Life Cycle Engineering and Life Cycle Assessments (LCA). Understand how LCAs are conducted and why.

  • Explore the rich history behind photovoltaic solar power technology, from its discovery in 1839 to today.

  • Discover the Planetary Boundaries - the nine factors that define the Earth's ability to sustain us. See how many we have already surpassed and what we can do to recover.

  • Learn how crystalline silicon solar modules are made, starting from the raw materials mining stage, to the testing of the assembled modules.

  • Gain an in-depth understanding of how thin-film solar modules are manufactured.

  • See an LCA applied to photovoltaic solar technology to determine its impacts on human health, freshwater, climate change, ecosystems and land use.

  • Discover how the impacts of solar PV compare to other renewable and non-renewable resource-based power plants.

  • See how scientists combined the LCA and Planetary Boundaries frameworks to optimize a national electricity grid in order to limit climate change at the minimum cost.

  • Discover if PV solar power is included in this optimized technology mix and why.

  • Learn how PV solar waste is expected to grow over the next 20 to 30 years. See how these materials can be recycled.

What you'll learn

In this course, we'll answer the following questions

  • Introduction to Climate Change

    What causes global warming?

    How can Life Cycle Engineering help in the fight against climate change?

  • Solar PV : Its Past, Present and Future

    How has solar photovoltaic technology evolved over time?

    How much of today's electricity is supplied by solar PV?

    How big a role will solar PV play in the future?

  • Life Cycle Analysis and Planetary Boundaries: The Basics

    What is a Life Cycle Analysis (LCA)?

    What are the Planetary Boundaries?

    What environmental parameters do they look at?

    How are the LCA indicators, the UN Sustainable Development Goals and the Planetary Boundaries related?

  • Solar Module Production

    How are crystalline silicon and thin-film solar modules made?

  • Life Cycle Analysis of Solar PV

    Is solar PV a green technology?

    How does it compare to other renewable and non-renewable electricity generation technologies?

  • Determining the Role of Solar PV in the Ideal Electrical Grid

    Could we create a national electricity grid that combined the different power technologies in a way that would allow us to remain within the planetary boundaries?

    How much would it cost?

    How big a role would solar PV play in this mix?

  • Recycling Solar PV Waste

    How much waste is PV solar power expected to generate over the next 30 years?

    Can this waste be recycled?

Features

  • Duration : 4 hours

    This course allows participants to earn 4 engineering PDH (professional development hours).

  • Level: Introductory

    This course is suitable for beginners in the field of solar PV. More advanced participants will benefit from this discussion of solar PV's Life Cycle Assessment and performance with respect to the Planetary Boundary framework.

  • Audience

    Engineers • Solar enthusiasts with a technical background

  • Requirements

    No prerequisites needed

  • Format: 100% online

    Start instantly and learn at your own pace • On-demand video • 2-year access from mobile phone and computer

  • Shareable Certificate: Yes

    Earn a shareable completion certificate indicating that you have earned 4 engineering PDH (Professional Development Hours).

How green is solar PV, really? 

Learn how to determine the environmental impacts of solar 

(or any technology for that matter)

in this course.


If you search "solar PV sustainability" on the internet, your browser will list a multitude of articles hailing the technology as green, clean and ready to spearhead our world into a sustainable future. However, you will also come across some articles with titles like this,


"Is Solar Energy Really Green and Sustainable?"


This begs the question, "How does one go about accessing the environmental impacts of a technology in a systematic, objective way?" We answer this question using solar PV technology as a case study.


Read more

In this 4-hour engineering course, we break down how to determine if solar PV power is sustainable or not by answering these questions:


1. How can we ensure that our human activities do not surpass the planet's ability to sustain us?


2. How can we use Life Cycle Assessments to determine the environmental impacts of a technology?


3. How can we determine if the environmental impacts of a technology are low enough to allow us to exploit it without pushing the Earth beyond its limits?


4. How are solar modules manufactured?


5. How do the environmental impacts of solar PV compare with other electricity-producing technologies?



Here's a summary of some key points.


How can we ensure that our human activities do not surpass the planet's ability to sustain us?


In 2009, Johan Rockström led a group of 28 internationally renowned scientists to propose nine Planetary Boundaries. These are limits for Earth system processes within which humanity can continue to develop and thrive for generations to come. 


The 9 Planetary Boundaries

 

Back to questions


How can we use Life Cycle Assessments to determine the environmental impacts of a technology?


LCA is a technique used to determine the environmental impacts associated with all stages of a product's life, starting from the raw materials extraction stage, continuing through the stages of materials processing, manufacturing, distribution, operation, repair, maintenance, and finally ending at the disposal, or the recycling stage.


This figure shows the life cycle stages included in the LCA method. The inputs refer to the materials and energy consumed during each life cycle stage, and the outputs represent emissions, such as greenhouse gases, heavy metals, SOx, NOx, etc.


The LCA Flowsheet


The LCA considers the material and energy inputs to all stages of solar modules production and the processes used to manufacture what is known as the balance of system components, also known as BoS.


BoS refers to all of the elements associated with the PV system, other than the solar modules themselves. The LCA then would also consider the energy and the raw materials used to produce these components, such as the copper used to make the cables.


This data is then used to calculate the values of the LCA indicators which ultimately determine how the technology influences Human Health, Ecosystems, Resources and Climate Change.

Relating the LCA to Impacts


Back to questions


How can we determine if the environmental impacts of a technology are low enough to allow us to exploit it without pushing the Earth beyond its limits?


The LCA can be linked to 5 main sustainable development goals, commonly known as SDGs, namely:

SDG 3, Human Health and Well-being.

SDG 6, Clean Water and Sanitation.

SDG 13, Climate Action.

SDG 14, Life Below Water, and

SDG 15, Life on Land.


The LCA indicators can also be related to the Planetary Boundaries as shown below.


Relating the LCA indicators to the SDGs and Planetary Boundaries


If we are studying a technology that is to be implemented on a national level, such as a national electrical grid, for example, the Planetary Boundaries may be scaled to define the limits the country must respect in order to ensure that its strategy will remain within the safe operating zone of the Earth.


However, we cannot do this to access the impact of a specific smaller-scale process or product on the Earth. The LCA helps to calculate what the impacts are but does not provide guidance on whether or not these are too high or sufficiently low with respect to the "Earth System".


This is where a new approach called Planetary Accounting comes in. Once fully developed, Planetary Accounting will link the Planetary Boundaries to quotas we can act on. They will consist of ten global budgets, including those for carbon, nitrogen, water, and forest land, divided amongst the world's population in measurable units.


This way, nations, cities, businesses, and even individuals will be able to understand what their impact looks like.


Planetary Accounting



Back to questions


How are solar modules manufactured?

In this course, we take a deep dive into the manufacturing processes of both crystalline silicon and thin-film solar modules.


The manufacturing process of crystalline silicon modules occurs in three stages: the Wafer Stage, the Cell Stage and the Module Stage.  This is true for both monocrystalline silicon and multicrystalline silicon solar PVs, however, as you can imagine, the crystallization step differs greatly for these two technologies. The figure below summarizes the overall manufacturing process. In the course, we discuss each step shown here in great detail. 


Crystalline Silicon Solar Module Manufacturing Process


 

The production of thin-film solar modules is very different. It is essentially comprised of alternating thin-film deposition and scribing steps. Scribing means separating the continuous semiconductor film that was deposited in a previous step into separate solar cells connected in series. In this course, we discuss the manufacturing processes of the two most popular thin-film PV technologies, namely, cadmium telluride (CdTe) and copper indium gallium selenide (CIGS) solar cells. The general process flow is shown below.


 

Thin-film Solar Module Manufacturing Process



Back to questions


How do the environmental impacts of solar PV compare with other electricity-producing technologies?

The chart below shows the normalized LCA scores for various electricity generation technologies. The score for each LCA indicator is weighted according to the spread of its impact, its reversibility, and its effect on its respective planetary boundaries. In this way, lesser weight is given to eutrophication and toxicity effects, while more weight is attributed to climate change. The lower the score, the cleaner the technology.


Normalized and Weighted LCA Scores for Various Electricity Generating Technologies

 

We see that thin-film PV is the 4th cleanest technology, after efficient hydro, nuclear, and tower CSP.  We can also see that wind power falls just after thin films and is about two times cleaner than multi-crystalline PV. 


However, our analysis does not stop here. We realize that it isn't enough to determine which technologies have the so-called "best LCA scores."  Once an LCA allows us to identify the cleanest technologies, the question becomes, "Are their environmental impacts low enough to allow humanity to stay within the Earth's ability to sustain us?"


We must also realize that the energy resources needed to power the technologies shown in the chart are not evenly distributed across the Earth. Cost is also an issue that must be considered.


In this course, we explore these topics by answering the following questions.

  • Does there exist a mix of power technologies that would allow us to remain within the planetary boundaries?
  • How much would it cost?
  • How big a role would solar PV play in this mix?


Back to questions

 




Video Lesson Sample

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Curriculum

  • 3

    Solar PV : Its Past, Present and Future

    • Outline

    • Solar PV : Its Past, Present and Future (18 min)

    • Exercise

  • 4

    Life Cycle Analysis and Planetary Boundaries: The Basics

    • Outline

    • Life Cycle Analysis & Planetary Boundaries: The Basics (20 min)

    • Exercise

  • 5

    Silicon PV Module Production

    • Outline

    • Silicon PV Module Production (24 min)

    • Exercise

    • In the news (3 min)

  • 6

    Thin Film PV Module Production

    • Outline

    • Thin Film PV Module Production (34 min)

    • Exercise

    • Innovation (17 min)

  • 7

    Life Cycle Analysis of Solar PV

    • Outline

    • LCA of Solar PV (26 min)

    • Exercise

    • Controversy (7 min)

  • 8

    Determining the Role of Solar PV in the Ideal Electrical Grid

    • Outline

    • Determining the Role of Solar PV in the Ideal Electrical Grid (12 min)

    • Exercise

    • China's Power Move (17 min)

  • 9

    Recycling Solar PV Waste

    • Outline

    • Recycling Solar PV Waste (10 min)

    • Exercise

  • 10

    Get Your Certificate

    • Instructions

    • Test (10 questions)

  • 11

    Feedback

    • Survey (3 questions)

Shareable Certificate

Instantly download your certificate when you complete this course. It will state that you've earned 4 professional development hours (4 PDH). 


Share your course completion certificate directly from your student dashboard by:

1. Posting directly to social media:  Linkedin, Facebook and Twitter

2. Sharing its link

3. Downloading it as a PDF


Professional Development Certificate

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Instructor

Chemical Engineer

Marianne Salama, Eng., MBA

Marianne is the president and founder of iPolytek, a company whose mission is to provide training on the latest developments in engineering and relate these innovations to the most pressing issues of our time: climate change, water quality, air quality, and sustainability.

Marianne is a chemical engineer with over 18 years of experience in the field of air and water treatment using ozone. She is a graduate of McGill University (B.Eng.) and holds a Masters in Business Administration (MBA) from the John Molson School of Business. A member of the Order of Engineers of Quebec (OIQ) and the International Society of Sustainability Professionals, Marianne writes about a variety of subjects, including environmental technologies, renewable resources, and the energy transition.

" For me, engineering is about making the world a better place: one idea, one design, one project at a time. "

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Are you an approved professional development course provider in Canada?

    Approval is not required. Canadian engineering boards do not approve, recommend or endorse any professional development course providers or courses.

  • Are you an approved professional development course provider in the USA?

    Approval is not required except in the following states: Florida, New York, New Jersey, North Carolina, Maryland, and Indiana.

    iPolytek has not yet sought to be approved in these states. Therefore, engineers from these state should not use our courses to accumulate professional development hours. If you are from one of these states and would like to take our courses in the future, let us know.

  • How long do I have to complete the course once I have purchased it?

    You have 2 years to complete this course. We will email you 30 days before your enrollment expires.

  • What is your refund policy?

    Due to the digital nature of our courses, we do not issue refunds. We encourage you to preview our courses and download the course notes for free before purchasing.

    ATTENTION ENGINEERS FROM FL, NY, NJ, NC, MD, IN:

    The engineering boards of Florida, New York, New Jersey, North Carolina, Maryland, and Indiana require pre-approval of professional development course providers.

    iPolytek has not yet sought to be approved in these states. Therefore, engineers from these state cannot use our courses to accumulate professional development hours.

Professional Development

This course has been written to meet the professional development requirements defined by the orders of engineers of the following Canadian provinces and territories and the engineering boards of the following US states. These governing bodies do not require pre-approval of courses or course providers. For more information on the continuing education requirements set forth by your order or board, please click on your province or state below. 


CANADA:

AL, BC, MB, NB, NL, NS, NT & NU, ON, PE, QC, SK, YT


USA:

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* These states do not have a professional development policy at this time.


It remains the engineer’s responsibility to determine whether an activity meets the guidelines set by their licensing body. It is also the engineer's responsibility to maintain and submit records of professional development activities to their engineering board.

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