An Updated Life Cycle Assessment of Utility-Scale Solar Photovoltaic Systems Installed in the United States

Research output: NRELTechnical Report


Given the high deployment targets for solar photovoltaics (PV) needed to meet U.S. decarbonization goals, and the limited carbon budget remaining to limit global temperature rise, accurate accounting of the energy-use and greenhouse-gas emissions over the life-cycle of PV systems is needed. In the United States, most PV systems are large utility-scale systems which use single-axis trackers and central inverters, which are not commonly examined in existing life-cycle assessment (LCA) literature. In this study, we present a cradle-to-grave LCA of a typical silicon U.S. utility PV (UPV) installation which is consistent with the utility system features documented in the annual NREL PV system cost benchmark reports. We analyze and present results for four main metrics: cumulative energy demand (CED), greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, energy payback time (EPBT), and carbon payback time (CPBT). We consider six primary manufacturing options: three based on an imported PV module supply chain (comparing low-carbon imports, high-carbon imports, and average imports), and three based on a potential domestic PV module supply chain (comparing low-carbon U.S. regions, high-carbon U.S. regions, and average U.S. regions). These manufacturing options were then paired with installation locations to create six main cases: low-carbon options were installed in Phoenix (Arizona), high-carbon options were installed in Seattle (Washington), and average options were installed in Fredonia (Kansas). These locations were selected to represent a range of irradiance and grid mixes in the United States, in order to illustrate the likely range of EPBTs and CPBTs possible across the United States. For all six cases, a sensitivity analysis for end-of-life (EOL) handling was explored to capture current and future management options: landfilling, partial recycling, and high-quality recycling. For the purposes of this report, the benchmark system was defined to use an average imported supply chain with partial recycling, installed in Fredonia (Kansas). CED results show ratios at or below 0.1 MJoil-eq/MJgenerated which demonstrates efficient use of primary energy resources (below a 1:1 ratio), and represents a slight improvement over previous results in literature. GHG emissions per kWh range from 10-36 g CO2e, which are consistent with or lower than previous results published by NREL and IEA-PVPS. We use a graphical approach for calculating EPBT and CPBT in this report, which improves upon methods typically used in literature by accounting for non-linearity and avoiding data quality issues associated with long-term projections. EPBT was determined to vary from 0.5 to 1.2 years, with a benchmark EPBT of 0.6 years; CPBT was shown to vary from 0.8 to 20 years, with benchmark CPBT of 2.1 years, which is lower than other estimates from recent literature (typically >2 years).
Original languageAmerican English
Number of pages85
StatePublished - 2024

NREL Publication Number

  • NREL/TP-7A40-87372


  • carbon payback time
  • central inverters
  • cumulative energy demand
  • energy payback time
  • greenhouse gas emissions
  • life cycle assessment
  • solar photovoltaics
  • United States
  • utility photovoltaic systems


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