Towards anticipatory life cycle assessment of photovoltaics

T. R. Dwarakanath, Benjamin A. Wender, Thomas Seager, Matthew Fraser

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingConference contribution

6 Scopus citations


There is a critical need to incorporate life cycle assessment (LCA) into research and development of renewable energy technologies, so that cradle-to-grave environmental concerns are identified early and communicated to technology developers. For example, environmental analyses of photovoltaic (PV) technologies may call attention to energetically burdensome processes with room for improvement, and can be used to compare the net energy balance of competing PV technologies. However, existing LCA frameworks are largely retrospective (i.e., requiring detailed data from existing industries and supply chains), and are thereby unable to provide timely information to decision makers. Large growth in the photovoltaic industry necessitates the development of anticipatory LCA methods, which can be used to explore potential environmental impacts of technologies and industries as they evolve. While the economic experience curves (i.e., $/watt) in PV project the costs to continuously come down as efficiency improves, it is not obvious that environmental experience curves (i.e., embodied energy/watt) are also monotonically declining. We review the boundaries and assumptions of all published PV-LCAs, and develop environmental experience curves for mono-Si, multi-Si, amorphous Si, and cadmium tellurium PV cells. The curves show decreasing manufacturing energy burden for silicon cells and relatively little improvement for thin film technologies. Using these environmental experience curves, we calculate the Energy Returned on Energy Invested (EROI) from cradle-to-use for each technology, plotting historic improvements for each technology and calling attention to the different rates of improvement. Results suggest alternate research and policy agenda, for example, silicon research should focus on decreasing manufacturing and supply chain investments while the net energy production of thin film PV may be improved largely through increases in efficiency.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publication39th IEEE Photovoltaic Specialists Conference, PVSC 2013
PublisherInstitute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Inc.
Number of pages2
ISBN (Print)9781479932993
StatePublished - 2013
Event39th IEEE Photovoltaic Specialists Conference, PVSC 2013 - Tampa, FL, United States
Duration: Jun 16 2013Jun 21 2013

Publication series

NameConference Record of the IEEE Photovoltaic Specialists Conference
ISSN (Print)0160-8371


Other39th IEEE Photovoltaic Specialists Conference, PVSC 2013
Country/TerritoryUnited States
CityTampa, FL


  • Photovoltaic systems
  • Product life cycle management
  • Sustainable development
  • Thin Film Devices

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Control and Systems Engineering
  • Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering
  • Electrical and Electronic Engineering


Dive into the research topics of 'Towards anticipatory life cycle assessment of photovoltaics'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this