Shocker: Solar panel manufacturing creates potent GHG's

My 100KW solar panel project at a local school when I was a trustee - all for nothing now?

My 100KW solar panel project at a local school when I was a trustee - all for nothing now?

I used to be really big on solar energy, putting panels on my house as well as a local school when I was on the school board. But that may all be for naught. There’s a new boogeyman in the world of global warming: Nitrogen Trifluoride

NF3 molecule

On Lubos Motls The Reference Frame he has as pointed out that a greenhouse gas emitted during the production of solar panels and HDTVs, nitrogen trifluoride (NF3) that is used for cleaning the electronics, is about 17,000 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

The concentration of NF3 in the atmosphere was artificially increased by a factor of 20 during the last two decades. The measurements of the concentration surpassed the previous estimates by a factor of five.

According to the Scripps Institute; ” the present 5,400 tons in the atmosphere…is on the rise at 11 percent per year” – that will stay there for 700+ years – creates the equivalent warming of all Finland’s CO2 emissions.

According to Lubos, given the fact that the solar panels produce about the same percentage of the global energy as Finland, it is reasonable to guess that the state-of-the-art solar panels that would replace fossil fuels would cause a comparable amount of warming per Joule as fossil fuels.

So let’s just say – everything causes global warming, and leave it at that.

For reference, I’ve listed some other common industrial gases below:

Global Warming Potentials Of Gases

(100 Year Time Horizon)

GAS GWP

========================

Carbon dioxide (CO2) 1

Methane (CH4) 23

Nitrous oxide (N2O) 296

Hydrofluorocarbons

HFC-23 12,000

HFC-125 3,400

HFC-134a 1,300

HFC-143a 4,300

HFC-152a 120

HFC-227ea 3,500

HFC-43-10mee 1,500

Fully Fluorinated Gases

SF6 22,200

CF4 5,700

C2F6 11,900

C4F10 8,600

C6F14 9,000

The concept of the global warming potential (GWP) was developed to compare the ability of each greenhouse gas to trap heat in the atmosphere relative to another gas. In this case, CO2 is the reference gas. Methane, for example, has a GWP of 23 over a 100-year period. This means that on a kilogram for kilogram basis, methane is 23 times more potent than CO2 over a 100-year period.

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D. Quist

I have a question, that I have yet to find an answer for. What is the GWP for water vapor? Every time I see a list, it is omitted. I should be on this list I think.
Thanks.

D. Quist

Sorry, it should say “It should be on this list I think”.

mark wagner

D’oh.

paminator

The power utilities are trying to keep a low profile on SF6. This wondrous gas is a fantastic dielectric insulating material, as well as an excellent arc quencher in high voltage circuit breakers. It is found in tens of thousands of HV circuit breakers all over the world, as well as HV potential transformers and gas-insulated buswork. Some of the smallest HV substations in the world are completely insulated with SF6. When people started to realize SF6 was a greenhouse gas extraordinaire around 1995, some producers backed out of the business of selling SF6, resulting in a run-up in price by a factor of ten in a few years.

DAV

RE : Shocker: Solar panel manufacturing creates potent GHG’s
Ummm … isn’t that OK since they are offset by being in the green business? Ya know, like Al with his house and his jet and his Carbon Credit business?

P. Hager

The processes that use these chemicals produce more than just solar cells. I would guess that LCD displays and HDTVs far exceeds the production of solar cells.
Assuming we can double the solar cell capacity in less than 7 years (which would see a doubling of the gases at 11% growth), there will be a net savings in the warming potential. Assuming that solar cells account for no more than half of the total emissions, this could be a significant savings.
Solar cells offer the potential of reduced greenhouse emissions, but the issue of storing the energy produced for use when the sun is not out and the pollution involved in manufacturing that storage capacity is really the bigger issue.

Robert Austin

Can anyone explain to me how NF3 can be 17,000 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than CO2? Oh yah, now I get it. Since the effect of CO2 is so infinitesimally small, 17,000 X nothing is still nothing.

iceFree

I still have the same T.V. I bought 20 year ago, does that make me NF3 neutral?
I guess we are going to have to set-up an NF3 offset trading scheme.
So we will “feel better”

Leon Brozyna

TANSTAAFL
Everything we do involves risk/gain. In our modern society, this is often viewed as cost/benefit.
This post is an example of how we trade one by-product (CO2) for another (NF3). In this case, I imagine that this is a poor trade-off in that NF3 resides in the atmosphere far longer than CO2. In my case, I’ve made a trade-off in replacing high usage incandescent light bulbs with CFLs, knowing as I do that they contain trace mercury.
In any case, the problem I have with so called alternative energy is that the cost is understated due to government (taxpayer) subsidies. Would anyone willingly adopt windmills or solar panels if they had to pay the entire costs themselves? I have my doubts. Only until alternative energy can beat other energy sources on a real cost/benefit basis will they become viable.

Kum Dollison

Yeah, and if this stuff keeps growing at the Present Rate it’ll be up to One Part per TRILLION in 50 Years.

Wow ,i didn’t know that they emit that much CO2.Something should be done.

Mike Bryant

OK… That does it then, we must return to the stone age. Except no fires.

arnold
Rick Sharp

Looks like if we get rid of Finland we can keep using this stuff.

I was worried until I saw “… creates the equivalent warming of all Finland’s CO2 emissions.” To me it just sounds like “… an area the size of Rhode Island.” I guess this is why the big push for thin-films like CdTe, oh wait, cadmium. I just read a story about revisiting nuclear powered aircraft. I think I’ll stick to good ol’ natural oil – straight from the ground as nature intended.

JamesMT

Solar cells are also left off of this July 2008 article from the Guardian. Oh, answered my own question there didn’t I.

[…] Courtesy of Anthony Watts, we read that solar panel manufacturing could create a far greater danger of increased greenhouse gases than anything anyone had imagined so far.   Because of a greenhouse gas emitted in the cleaning of electronics that is a part of manufacturing solar panels: On Lubos Motls The Reference Frame he has as pointed out that a greenhouse gas emitted during the production of solar panels and HDTVs, nitrogen trifluoride (NF3) that is used for cleaning the electronics, is about 17,000 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. […]

F Rasmin

The green movement desire us all to sit around candles, but candles are composed of either palm oil, paraffin, or petroleum wax. Can one not see some objections by the greens to using these materials? So when we return to the natural state, what can we use for light and heat that does not use these products. It is no use gathering up brushwood , or cutting peat for a fire, as Nature has a use for this that does not include warming us!

Jeff Norman

D. Quist (19:10:40) :
IIRC…
Dihydrogen Oxide (H2O) is a 4.

Why the GWP is so high:
Neither water molecules nor CO2 absorb near the maximum of the infrared radiation emitted from ground or from water at ambient temperatures. They leave open the so-called atmospheric window. Methane and other molecules absorb in the ‘atmospheric window’ thus reducing strongly the radiative heat transport into space, at clear skies. (Water droplets do absorb strongly at all relevant infrared wavelengths).
If such molecules have a long life in the atmosphere, they accumulate very much. CO2 has a lifespan of 50 years, methane of 10 years, N2O probably much shorter, some weeks, I guess, but all fluorines are very stable molecules and stay in the atmosphere for a very long time.

Neil Crafter

William
Rhode Island area 4,002 km2
Finland area 338,144 km2
around 85 Rhode islands would fit into Finland (if you had that many of them that is)

Alan the Brit

This is great news! CO2 is off the hook then. All it needs now is for some “scientists” to find that windpower develops some other kind of CHG that’s x 100 more powerful than CO2 & the circle is complete.
Twice a very small number is a very small number! Perhaps the penny is dropping, everything pollutes, whatever we do, so let’s chose & use the lesser of evils & use fossil fuels while they are still here instead of pursuing silly political ideals that seem to ignore the poor & starving, for some peculiar reason!
I’ll be looking for the share price to plummet on photovoltaic cell manufacture.

Bobby Lane

*laughing* I like it, I do! the manufacturing of ‘green’ electricity generation products causes the emission of, to date, the most powerful greenhouse gas that I have ever heard of.
If that’s not poetic justice, I can’t say what is.

Manfred

Anthony,
I think, the NF3 emissions are much worse.
As NF3 remains in the atmosphere for approx. 700 years, while a solar cell produces electricity for only approx. 30 years, the net greenhouse emission of solar cells in the long run should be approx. 20 times higher than those of replaced fossil fuel.

Add this to the fact that ethanol creates more CO2 than burning just plain gasoline, and we have solutions at hand … Don’t we? Well, maybe not, do we know how much CO2 it takes to make those giant windmills?

JimB

Rick Sharp (21:15:39) :
“Looks like if we get rid of Finland we can keep using this stuff.”
Two words: Screen Spray
Jim

Michael

I have seen a similar article before. This is a very heavy gas and I wonder just how much of it actually gets into the atmosphere. To the best of my knowledge the difficulty with this gas is its tendency to accumulate in sewers, drains and work-pits. This is the data sheet
http://encyclopedia.airliquide.com/sds/en/091_AL_EN.pdf

Daniel

Probably would have been better to put in some ceiling windows and let those poor students get some natural light.

Cassanders

@William
I think the reference to Finland make some sense. The point is that the global energy production from solar cells is in the same order of magnitude as the (CO2) output from Finland. Hence the net greenhouse contribution from solar cells is currently nil.
Cassanders
In Cod we trust

Brett_McS

Why am I thinking of that illustration of animals caught in a tar pit?

Alex Llewelyn

Guys you’re making a mountain out of a molehill. The concentration of NF3 in the atmosphere is 0.16 parts per trillion! Even with the 17,200 greater strength, its the equivalent of less that 0.003 parts per million of CO2.

JamesG

I don’t know why you guys are worried about costs all the time. Surely the bailouts have shown that governments have oodles of money under their mattresses ready to fund absolutely anything – even bad debts. Or are they just lying to us again and the money isn’t really there? At any rate though 10 billion for a nuclear fusion project looks like mere small change now. Imagine that 700 billion (seemingly conjured up in the blink of an eye) directed towards energy and infrastructure projects instead of bailing out and rewarding greedy, stupid bankers. Even better, imagine that those middle east wars were really about protecting the oil supply rather than fighting terrorism and then add that total cost to the pile of money that has been flushed down the toilet when it could have been used for something useful.

Not to worry – it will help keep us warm.

MarkW

The concentration of NF3 in the atmosphere was artificially increased by a factor of 20 during the last two decades.
————-
There’s a natural source of NF3?

MarkW

Solar cells offer the potential of reduced greenhouse emissions,
——
That depends on whether solar cells are ever able to produce more energy than it takes to make them in the first place. (And that includes all of the mounting hardware and the glass to protect them, etc.)

Mike Monce

paminator talks about SF6. I use that gas as an insulator in the ion accelerator lab I operate. It does have a large GHG index, but what is forgotten is its very high molecular weight and density. You can actually see this transparent gas flow and sink to floor level if you let some leak out of a hose. The density is so much higher than air the index of refraction change is quite apparent. It would take a lot of mixing to keep any SF6 in the upper parts of the atmosphere to provide any IR reflectivity. I suspect most of the SF6 is hanging around our feet.

Leon Brozyna

@Manfred (00:29:57) :
…a solar cell produces electricity for only approx. 30 years…
And if you try using solar cells in the Great Plains or Southeast, what are the odds that, during those 30 years, they’ll be damaged during a severe thunderstorm? These can produce some major hail stones. I wince just to think of what a home owner’s insurance rates would look like if they have to include possible damage to solar panels.

Dan McCune

Is the weighted average of the atmoshperic concentration relavent to GWP? CO2 at 385 PPM and a factor of 1 compared to H20 at a 4 GWP and one percent concentration makes H2O over 100 times more potent on a weighted average basis than CO2.
Weighted average
CO2 1 * .000385 = .000385
H20 4 * .01 = .04
.000385 / .04 = 103.9

Gary Plyler

Leon Brozyna (20:35:09) says :
” In my case, I’ve made a trade-off in replacing high usage incandescent light bulbs with CFLs, knowing as I do that they contain trace mercury.”
I did the same, but only for my outdoor lighting. I live in a region where I have no air-conditioning bills (not needed) but I do have heating bills. The 85% energy use difference between incadescent lighting and CFLs are heat losses. The heat from my indoor incadescent lighting helps defray my other home heating cost. Think about it.
Even green fool-aide drinkers should understand that it is more GHG friendly for me to utilize the power company generated heat from my lightbulbs than for me to use my home furnace which is less thermally efficient and therefore generates more GHGs per thermal unit.
But, I am being to logical.

Ed Scott

D. Quist (19:10:40) :
“I have a question, that I have yet to find an answer for. What is the GWP for water vapor? Every time I see a list, it is omitted. I should be on this list I think.”
Does this help? http://www.geocraft.com/WVFossils/greenhouse_data.html

[…] A new study suggest that the current production of solar panels won’t do anything to combat global warming. A chemcial call nitrogen triflouride (NF3) used in the production of the panels is 17,000 times more pontent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. (LINK) […]

John-X

Someone please tell the UK:
Your shivering in the dark this winter is POINTLESS.
You are not “saving the planet,” preventing sea-level rise, stabilizing the climate or helping polar bears.
You are just shivering in the dark.

John-X

Mike Monce (05:30:08) :
“…very high molecular weight and density…
The density is so much higher than air the index of refraction change is quite apparent.”
It’s also enough to significantly affect the speed of sound through the gas. It’s the “anti-helium.” You can find videos on YouTube of people goofing around with SF6, giving themselves deep voices.

Marcus

D. Quist (@19:10:40): The reason that water vapor is not on a “GWP” list is that an emission of a kg of H2O would mostly condense out in a fairly short time, and that time would be very dependent on conditions (relative humidity, for example). So if you take the integral of radiative forcing over 100 years, the GWP of H2O would be very small, and also poorly defined.
This is different question than what the contribution of water vapor is to total radiative forcing in the atmosphere: there, H2O (including clouds) is about 70% of all radiative forcing, compared to CO2 which is about 20% (plus or minus a bunch depending on how you do the calculations).
Which is a different question still from what the human contribution is: CO2 we can measure fairly easily. Despite massive water budget changes through things like creation of giant lakes (Lake Powell) and huge irrigation programs, we probably don’t have much direct impact on atmospheric water vapor (again, because it condenses out). The indirect impact on water vapor (and clouds) through the change in atmospheric temperature due to increased GHGs is the elephant in the room on this question, and probably where more than half of the legitimate uncertainties in climate change predictions come from.

Flanagan

As stated (but somehow “forgotten”) in the original paper, NF3 contribution rightnow is approx 0.04 percent of the anthropogenic CO2-induced contribution to the greenhouse effect. This means that the present-day concentrations of NF3 should be multiplied by at least a factor of 10 before becoming comparable to CO2 effects.

Marcus

On the NF3 from solar panel questions: Lubos makes at least two significant errors in trying to say that NF3 from solar cells is the same magnitude greenhouse effect as CO2 reductions from solar cells.
1) As mentioned in an above comment, solar cell manufacture is far from being the only source of NF3.
2) He is equating the total atmospheric stock of NF3 (eg, 20 years worth of emissions) with the solar cell energy production in one year.
Now, it would be useful to do a proper lifecycle analysis: how much CO2 is emitted in solar cell production, maintenance, and disposal, what kind of energy are solar cells displacing and what was the CO2 emissions from that, and what are the NF3 emissions. My gut instinct is that solar cells are still a net-plus for the climate. Obviously the NF3 reduces the size of that net plus compared to the counterfactual with no NF3 emissions, but I’m guessing it will be on the order of a few percent reduction, not 100% reduction.

JLawson

I suspect most of the SF6 is hanging around our feet.
I was wondering why my feet have been warmer lately.
Oh, wait. I’m working indoors…

paminator

Mike Monce- I also have worked with SF6 in the lab, and I agree that you can see the refraction of the gas as it vents out of an open port. I have not seen any reports on SF6 concentrations versus altitude in the troposphere or stratosphere, and I would bet that it is inconsequential. My point was that very useful chemicals are being banned or penalized for no good reason.
Werner Weber- CO2 has an atmospheric half-life of 3 to 7 years, demonstrated by ten’s of peer-reviewed studies dating back to the early 1960’s. Any numbers higher than this range (your 50 year number or the IPCC’s 100+ year number, for example) make assumptions about carbon cycles and carbon sequestration, which is nonsensical.
Anthony- Do you have the costs and performance data for that beautiful solar PV installation? It would be interesting to see how the payback is working out, including any maintenance costs associated with the operating system.
Has anyone seen a study on increased UHI effect (and subsequent impacts on NASA GISS ‘data’) due to the reduced albedo caused by a solar panel being installed over a higher-albedo surface such as gravel, crushed shell or a rooftop? This would probably dwarf the effects of 0.16 ppt of NF3.

Bern Bray

“I still have the same T.V. I bought 20 year ago, does that make me NF3 neutral? ”
No, back then it was cleaned with TriChloroEthane or Freon which caused a hole in the ozone! Now we find out from our brilliant scientists that Freon’s ability to bond with ozone is 1/10th what they thought it was.
Doh! But our new models are so much better! See! They have been using them in the Financial Industry for decades… Doh! No, really, trust me, they are so much better. Pay no attention to the weather outside…

Mike Bryant

“My gut instinct is that solar cells are still a net-plus for the climate.”
Odd, my gut instinct is that they make no difference whatsoever.