Thin-Film Photovoltaic Power Generation Offers Decreasing Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Increasing Environmental Co-benefits in the Long Term

Garvin Heath, Joseph Bergesen, Thomas Gibon, Sangwon Suh

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

60 Scopus Citations

Abstract

Thin-film photovoltaic (PV) technologies have improved significantly recently, and similar improvements are projected into the future, warranting reevaluation of the environmental implications of PV to update and inform policy decisions. By conducting a hybrid life cycle assessment using the most recent manufacturing data and technology roadmaps, we compare present and projected environmental, human health, and natural resource implications of electricity generated from two common thin-film PV technologies-copper indium gallium selenide (CIGS) and cadmium telluride (CdTe)-in the United States (U.S.) to those of the current U.S. electricity mix. We evaluate how the impacts of thin films can be reduced by likely cost-reducing technological changes: (1) module efficiency increases, (2) module dematerialization, (3) changes in upstream energy and materials production, and (4) end-of-life recycling of balance of system (BOS). Results show comparable environmental and resource impacts for CdTe and CIGS. Compared to the U.S. electricity mix in 2010, both perform at least 90% better in 7 of 12 and at least 50% better in 3 of 12 impact categories, with comparable land use, and increased metal depletion unless BOS recycling is ensured. Technological changes, particularly efficiency increases, contribute to 35-80% reductions in all impacts by 2030.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)9834-9843
Number of pages10
JournalEnvironmental Science and Technology
Volume48
Issue number16
DOIs
StatePublished - 19 Aug 2014

NREL Publication Number

  • NREL/JA-6A20-60684

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