Methodological Guidelines on Net Energy Analysis of Photovoltaic Electricity, 2nd Edition: IEA PVPS Task 12: PV Sustainability

Marco Raugel, Garvin Heath (NREL Technical Monitor)

Research output: NRELTechnical Report


Net Energy Analysis (NEA) is a structured, comprehensive method of quantifying the extent to which a given energy source is able to provide a net energy gain (i.e., an energy surplus) to the end user, after accounting for all the energy losses occurring along the chain of processes that are required to exploit it (i.e., for its extraction, processing and transformation into a usable energy carrier, and delivery to the end user), as well as for all the additional energy 'investments' that are required in order to carry out the same chain of processes. However, this general framework leaves the individual practitioner with a range of choices that can affect the results and thus, the conclusions of a NEA study. The current IEA PVPS guidelines were developed to provide guidance on assuring consistency, balance, and quality to enhance the credibility and reliability of the results from photovoltaic (PV) NEAs. The guidelines represent a consensus among the authors - PV NEA experts in North America and Europe - for assumptions made on PV performance, process inputs and outputs, methods of analysis, and reporting of the results. Guidance is given on photovoltaic-specific parameters used as inputs in NEA and on choices and assumptions in inventory data analysis and on implementation of modelling approaches. A consistent approach towards system modelling, the functional unit, the system boundaries and allocation aspects enhance the credibility of PV electricity NEA studies and enables balanced NEA-based comparisons. Specifically, "apples-to-oranges" comparisons of different energy carriers (e.g., fuels vs. electricity) are not methodologically sound and are to be avoided in all cases; also, any comparison across renewable and non-renewable electricity generation technologies must clearly point out the intrinsically short-term nature of the NEA viewpoint, which does not capture the long-term sustainability implications of renewable vs. non-renewable primary energy harvesting and use: non-renewable primary energy resources are depleted and finally exhausted (irrespective of the size of the EROI), while renewable primary energy resources are not. This document provides an in-depth discussion of a common metric of NEA, namely the energy return on investment (EROI), and how this is to be interpreted vis-a-vis the deceptively similar-sounding metrics in the field of Life Cycle Assessment (LCA): cumulative energy demand (CED) and non-renewable cumulative energy demand (nr-CED) per unit output. Specifically, a number of key differences are highlighted between these metrics as applied to electricity production systems, which are listed in Table S-1 (in the document).
Original languageAmerican English
Number of pages34
StatePublished - 2021

Bibliographical note

NREL's Garvin Heath is a task manager of IEA PVPS Task 12

NREL Publication Number

  • NREL/TP-6A20-88862

Other Report Number

  • Report IEA-PVPS T12-20:2021


  • net energy analysis
  • PV electricity
  • PV performance


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