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Embodied Carbon of Solar PV: Here s Why It Must Be Included In Net Zero Carbon…

Embodied Carbon of Solar PV: Here s Why It Must Be Included In Net Zero Carbon…

    Solar Panel Cost

    The cost of solar panels has declined dramatically over the last several decades and, with a sharp rise in utility electricity rates in 2022, home solar now offers more cost savings potential than ever before.

    In fact, the 2023 Heatmap Climate Poll found that 46% of US adults want to power their homes with solar panels in the future while 13% already do.

    So, what’s standing in the way of American homeowners and solar panels? The biggest hurdle is often the cost of solar panels. And like a monster in a horror movie, the cost of solar panels is far less intimidating once you shine some light on it and understand how it works.

    In this article, we’ll explore:

    As always, our goal is to give you the resources and knowledge to make educated decisions during the solar process.

    Is the price of solar panels falling?

    The price of solar panels has declined substantially over the last decade as the industry has matured and reached production at the largest global scale.

    Since 2010, solar panel have fallen by roughly 90% while global solar deployment has grown by over 400%, and this incredible growth rate along the entire global solar supply chain has dramatically reduced prices.

    Just like computers, big-screen TVs, and cell phones, the economies of scale that solar panels now enjoy have produced a dramatic cost curve that has fundamentally changed the energy industry.

    Utility-scale solar installations are now cheaper than all other forms of power generation in many parts of the world and will continue to replace older, dirtier power plants run on coal and natural gas.

    Additionally, homeowners are now able to own their power production more cost-effectively than ever before.

    Price per Watt vs cost per kWh

    There are two main ways to calculate the cost of a solar system:

    • Price per watt (/W) is useful for comparing multiple solar offers
    • Cost per kilowatt-hour (cents/kWh) is useful for comparing the cost of solar versus grid energy

    Let’s dive a little further into each measurement.

    What is solar price per watt?

    A fully installed solar system typically costs 3 to 5 per watt before incentives like the 30% tax credit are applied. Using this measurement, 5,000 Watt solar system (5 kW) would have a gross cost between 15,00 and 25,000.

    Price per watt for larger and relatively straightforward projects are often within the 3-4 range. Claiming incentives like tax credits and rebates can bring the PPW even lower.

    However, the following factors may push your solar price per watt into the 4 to 5 range.

    • Smaller system size
    • Unusual roof material or layout
    • Premium panel and inverter models
    • Multiple arrays versus a single array
    • Additonal work like panel box upgrades, trenching, or roof repair

    How to calculate solar price per watt

    Calculating the price per watt for a solar system is very straightforward — it’s simply the system cost divided by the number of watts in the system.

    Price per watt (/W) allows for an apples-to-apples comparison of different solar quotes that may vary in total wattage, solar panel brands, etc.

    Pro tip: It can helpful to know your solar price per watt before and after claiming the 30% tax credit.

    Ultimately there are many factors that figure into the price per watt of a solar system, but the average cost is typically as low as 2.75 per watt. This price will vary if a project requires special adders like ground-mounting, a main panel upgrade, EV charger, etc.

    Solar Price Per Watt Solar Price Per Kilowatt-Hour
    GROSS system cost / Total system wattage NET system cost / Total lifetime system production
    Useful for comparing solar quotes against one another Useful for comparing solar versus utility bill
    Pertains to the POWER of a system Pertains to the PRODUCTION of a system
    Typically 3.00-4.00/watt Typically 0.06-0.08/kWh

    Cost Per Kilowatt-Hour (kWh)

    Another measure of the relative cost of solar energy is its price per kilowatt-hour (kWh). Whereas the price per watt considers the solar system’s size, the price per kWh shows the price of the solar system per unit of energy it produces over a given period of time.

    Net cost of the system / lifetime output = cost per kilowatt hour

    You may also see this referred to as levelized cost of energy (LCOE).

    What is a kWh?

    A kilowatt-hour is a unit of energy and is equivalent to consuming 1,000 watts – or 1 kilowatt – of power over one hour. For reference, an energy efficient clothes dryer uses around 2 kWh of electricity per load, while central air conditioning uses around 3 kWh per hour.

    While price per watt is most helpful comparing the relative costs of solar bids, solar energy cost per kWh is best used to illustrate the value of solar relative compared to buying your power from the electric utility.

    For example, the average cost of a solar system purchased through is 6-8 cents per kWh, depending on the size of the system, type of equipment and local incentives.

    Let’s compare that to grid electricity in major metro areas for April 2023 to the average cost per kWh of home solar energy:

    Grid electricity (cents/kWh) electricity (cents/kWh)
    New York City 21.6 6-8
    Chicago 18.0 6-8
    Miami 16.8 6-8
    Houston 15.2 6-8
    Denver 15.2 6-8
    Los Angeles 26.9 6-8
    Seattle 12.7 6-8
    embodied, carbon, solar, here, included

    Based on this prices, it costs around 43 cents to dry a load of laundry using grid electricity in New York and only 14 cents to dry a load using solar power.

    How do I calculate the cost of solar panels?

    There are a few ways to get a rough estimate for how much solar panels will cost without sitting through a sales pitch. These include:

    • Online calculators
    • Hand calculations based on your electricity usage
    • The average cost of solar panels for comparable homes

    Let’s start with the quickest method: online calculators.

    Using a solar panel cost calculator

    First, you can use an online solar cost calculator, like this one powered by Simply punch in your address and your average monthly electricity bill, and the calculator will give you a side-by-side comparison of the cost of solar versus paying for utility electricity.

    But before you use any solar panel cost calculator, it’s important to understand that there are dozens of variables that affect the cost of solar panels, and solar calculators work by making assumptions about those variables.

    For example, your solar savings depends largely on how much utility rates increase over 25 years. Most calculators assume 3-5% annual inflation based on historical averages – but nobody can know for sure where will go over the next 25 years.

    Solar savings is also geographically sensitive, since every state has different incentives, electricity rates, sun exposure, and net metering policies.

    For example, a solar panel cost calculator for California would have drastically different assumptions than a cost calculator for New York.

    How to calculate the cost of solar panels by hand

    If you’d rather make your calculations offline, there are a few simple steps to estimate the cost of your solar system based on your electricity usage.

    • Dig up some recent electricity bills (the more the better!)
    • Average them together to get a baseline for your monthly electricity consumption
    • Divide your monthly consumption by 30 to get your daily electricity consumption.

    Once you have your average daily electricity use, follow the steps in the graphic below. Here are a few tips:

    • You’ll have to assume the price per Watt (PPW) you can get from a local solar installer. This typically ranges between 3.50 and 5 before incentives
    • Pro tip: Run the high and low PPW scenarios to get a range of solar costs

    If hand calculations aren’t your thing, you can get a quick-and-dirty estimate based on the cost of solar for comparable homes.

    How much do solar panels cost per square foot?

    The third – and least accurate – way to get an idea of how much solar panels will cost for your home is to see how much solar panels cost for homes similar to yours.

    Now, we absolutely encourage you to talk to friends, family, and neighbors that have installed solar systems to get a sense of the pros, cons, and cost. However, we’ve done a lot of that legwork for you.

    We analyzed thousands of systems sold on in 2022 to find the average cost of solar panels for homes based on their square footage of living space and number of bedrooms.

    On average, solar panels cost 8.77 per square foot of living space, after factoring in the 30% tax credit. However, the cost per square foot varies based on the size of the home.

    For example, the post-tax credit cost of solar panels for a 2,500 square foot home is around 20,000 for a rate of 7.96 per square foot.

    But how much do solar panels cost for a 1,500 square foot home? The average system cost only drops by 1,000 and the cost per square foot increases to 12.83.

    Square footage of living space Solar cost per square foot (after tax credit)
    1,500 12.83
    2,000 10.23
    2,500 7.96
    3,000 7.02
    3,500 5.79
    Average 8.77

    Based on systems purchased on in 2022. Square footage per Zillow.

    If you don’t know your home’s square footage, you can either look it up on Zillow or get a rough estimate using the number of bedrooms.

    What’s the cost of solar panels for a 3-bedroom house?

    The average pre-incentive cost of home solar is 29,161 for a three-bedroom house, or 20,412 after applying the 30% tax credit.

    However, as shown in the chart below, the number of bedrooms isn’t a great indicator of the size and cost of a solar system – and neither is living space, for that matter.

    Solar systems are typically sized based on electricity consumption – not square footage or number of bedrooms. That’s because a two-bedroom house with two EVs and an electric heat pump would likely use more electricity than a four-bedroom house with no EVs and gas heating.

    So, you can use this method to get in the right ballpark, but keep in mind that the previous two methods are more accurate.

    Once you have a rough cost estimate for your solar system, it’s time to compare it to the cost of buying electricity from a utility provider to get a sense of how much you can save by going solar.

    Do you really save money with solar panels?

    Yes, homeowners across the US can save money on energy costs by powering their home with solar panels instead of purchasing electricity from a utility. This is especially true following the Rapid rise in grid electricity rates in 2022.

    Home solar is essentially a way to buy electricity in bulk – similar to buying a giant can of coffee grounds from Costco instead of 50 individual cups at Starbucks. The 25 can of grounds costs more upfront but pays for itself after just 9 Grande Lattes at 3 each and nets 125 in savings over its lifespan.

    It’s the same concept with home solar, just on a much larger scale.

    How much money do you save a month with solar panels?

    Exactly how much money you save a month with solar panels depends on a few main ingredients:

    • Utility electricity rates
    • Electricity consumption
    • How you finance your system
    • Your energy goals

    These factors vary from household to household, so let’s take a look at the average monthly electric bill with solar panels and without solar panels.

    • By paying cash for a solar system, you can enjoy maximum lifetime savings – often north of 50,000 – but it can take several years to reach a payback period
    • By taking out a solar loan, you can front-load your cost savings by making solar loan payments that are less than your average electricity bill, but interest payments eat into your lifetime savings

    Adjusting the size of your solar system and how you finance it gives you control over your essential electricity costs – something you’ll never have by purchasing electricity solely through a utility company.

    How long does it take for solar panels to pay for themselves?

    The payback period for solar panels is typically 6-11 years, depending on factors like your utility rate, electricity consumption, and how you financed the system.

    With a solar loan, many homeowners are able to achieve “Day 1” savings by having a loan payment that’s lower than their average electricity bill. However, interest payments on the loan eat into the long-term energy cost savings.

    By paying cash for solar, homeowners maximize their lifetime savings potential, but typically need to wait 6-11 years to recoup the upfront investment.

    Is solar worth it financially?

    As a hedge against energy inflation, home solar is considered a safe and steady investment with a rate of return similar to real estate and 401k. Remember, home solar allows you to replace your electricity costs with lower, more predictable monthly payments on your solar system.

    Why is it financially beneficial to pay for solar rather than utility electricity?

    The chart below shows the steady rise of utility electricity from 5 cents per kWh to 16.5 cents per kWh over the last 44 years.

    For non-solar owners, this trend is a nightmare because it shows that utility rate hikes are about as certain as death and taxes. But if you have a home solar system, utility rate hikes are the fuel for your energy costs savings over the 25-year warrantied life of your solar system.

    Home solar also acts as a time machine, of sorts. Instead of paying the current utility rate for electricity, the cost per kilowatt-hour of home solar is typically around 6-8 cents – roughly what utilities were charging 40 years ago.

    So, are solar panels worth your money?

    Solar panels are worth your money if you want to want to:

    • Take control over your essential electricity costs
    • Hedge against energy inflation
    • Reduce your carbon emissions
    • Increase your home value
    • Provide backup power for grid outages (when paired with battery)

    However, if you have a hunch that grid electricity are suddenly going to plummet below 8 cents per kWh and stay there for 25 years, then don’t buy solar panels.

    How much does solar panel installation cost?

    Installation labor accounts for around 5.5% of the total cost of a residential solar project, according to a 2022 report from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

    That amounts to 1,375 for a 25,000 solar project.

    This figure often seems surprisingly low to homeowners that are used to labor being a bigger chunk of the cost for car repairs, landscaping work, and other home upgrades.

    It’s worth noting that installation costs vary from project to project based on the local minimum wage and scope of the project. For example, labor for specialized electrical work typically costs more than general labor for panel installation. This variability is why it’s tough to find a solar installation cost estimator online.

    Overall, labor costs have fallen in the last decade as technology has improved and the labor force has matured. The chart below shows the solar panel installation cost breakdown since 2010.

    • The overall cost of residential solar fell by 64% in the 2010’s
    • Solar module, inverter, and labor costs have come down substantially in the last decade
    • Non-labor soft costs and electrical hardware have been more stubborn

    At the end of the day, the installation labor makes up a very small chunk of the total cost of a solar system – and it’s well worth having professionals install a system that you want to last for 25 years or more.

    Can I install solar panels myself?

    Some homeowners with advanced knowledge and experience in construction, circuitry, and local permitting guidelines (not to mention a good amount of time on their hands) are able to successful install solar panels up to inspection and interconnection standards.

    However, it’s important to consider that DIY solar installation may void the manufacturer warranties on the equipment and does come with workmanship warranties.

    So, if there are problems with the equipment or the installation, like a panel broken during installation or a leaky hole in the roof, you are on your own to solve and pay for them.

    It’s also worth noting that full-service installers typically handle permitting, interconnection, and applying for incentives — which can be complicated and time consuming.

    How much does one solar panel cost?

    The average cost for one 400W solar panel is between 250 and 360 when it’s installed as part of a rooftop solar array. This boils down to 0.625 to 0.72 per Watt for panels purchased through a full-service solar company.

    At a retail vendor, such as Home Depot, you can buy a single 100W solar panel for 100 or a pack of 10 320W solar panels for 2,659, which boils down to 0.83 to 1 per Watt.

    Given the relationships with panel manufacturers, full-service solar companies are able to offer a much lower cost per solar panel than retail establishments.

    How long do solar panels last?

    Today’s solar panels typically have 25-30 year performance warranties that guarantee a certain level of production (usually 85-92% of its Day 1 capacity) during that time. However, the panels themselves can last and generate a meaningful amount of electricity for much longer.

    For example, the first modern solar cells were created in 1954 and are still producing power from their display case in a museum. Similarly, a solar panel installed in 1980 on a rooftop in Vermont is still producing at 92% of its original capacity.

    Based on manufacturer warranties, it’s safe to assume today’s solar panels will produce at a high level for at least 25-30 years. The real question is how far will they overshoot that warrantied lifespan.

    How can I lower the cost of solar panels?

    Although home solar is already more affordable than paying for utility electricity, there are a few ways to reduce the cost of your system and maximize your energy cost savings.

    Solar incentives

    First, there are solar incentives offered by federal, state, and local governments, in addition to utility providers.

    The most notable is the federal solar tax credit worth 30% of what you pay for solar panels. So, if your all-in cost is 25,000, you can claim a tax credit worth 7,500 on your federal income tax return for the year your system was deemed operational.

    Next, many states have additional incentives like tax credits, tax exemptions, and rebates for residential solar systems. For example, New York has all three with its NYSERDA rebate, 25% state tax credit, and sales and property tax exemptions for solar installations.

    At the local level, many city governments, municipal utilities, and investor-owned utilities have incentives for solar panels, battery storage, and other energy efficiency home upgrades.

    • The Austin Energy solar rebate worth 2,500
    • California’s Self-Generation Incentive Program with battery rebates up to 1,000 per kWh of capacity
    • Massachusetts’ handful of municipal utility rebates

    It’s well worth spending 5-10 minutes searching for solar incentives through your state, county, city, and utility provider.

    Compare multiple quotes

    The next way to reduce the cost of solar panels is to shop for the lowest price like you would for cars or a new pair of hiking boots.

    In most areas of the US, there are at least a handful of solar installers willing to compete for your business. Getting quotes from at least three reputable installers gives you a sense of a fair price, weeds out scammers, and gives you leverage to negotiate for a lower price.

    Admittedly, it takes time and effort to research installers, set appointments, and sit through sales pitches in order to gather quotes. simplifies this process by instantly generating dozens of quotes from our network of trusted installers so you can easily compare quotes in a pressure-free environment.

    However you choose to do it, comparing multiple quotes is crucial to lowering your solar cost and setting yourself up for a long-lasting and productive solar installation.

    Can I get free solar panels?

    Despite what the ads on and YouTube say, it is not possible to get free solar panels from Tesla, Home Depot, or the US government. This is a common scam used to gather personal data and/or trick people into signing long-term solar lease agreements that are far less favorable than owning solar panels.

    For example, in February 2023, a page called “Solar Panel Rate” ran multiple ads claiming Elon Musk was paying homeowners 2,500 to test out new solar technology. Further inspection revealed that the account was run by three individuals in Indonesia and the ads were designed to collect personal information.

    There are also dozens of YouTube ads claiming that the “US government is giving away free solar panels.” While it’s true that the federal government strengthened the solar tax credit and created new home electrification incentives by passing the Inflation Reduction Act, it is not “giving away” solar panels.


    The falling cost of solar panels coupled with the recent spike in grid electricity have made home solar a reliable means of reducing your essential energy costs.

    While the five-figure price tag for home solar often gives people sticker shock, it’s important to remember that going solar is like buying 25-years worth of electricity in bulk. It may cost more upfront, but it is much more affordable than buying electricity at the retail rate from a utility.

    Plus, there are zero-down solar loans that can spread out the cost of solar panels and, in many cases, provide instant energy cost savings.

    Installation accounts for roughly 5.5% of the total cost of solar projects. However, non-labor soft costs like permitting, inspection, interconnection, and general overhead makeup around half of the cost of home solar.

    There are a few ways to reduce the cost of going solar. First, research federal, state, and local solar incentives to make sure you’re not leaving money on the table. Second, shop around for the best price by getting multiple quotes from vetted local installers. ( makes this quick, easy, and pressure-free).

    Finally, neither Elon Musk nor the US government are giving away free solar panels. And if they were, they wouldn’t be advertising it on and YouTube.

    Steer clear of free solar ads to avoid giving away personal information or ending up in a long-term solar lease.

    Frequently asked questions

    Is one solar panel enough to power a house?

    One solar panel is not enough to power a house. Home solar systems typically feature 10-20 panels in order to produce enough power to offset 100% of the average household electricity consumption.

    It’s also worth mentioning that installing one solar panel at a time isn’t very efficient, as there are soft costs associated with designing, permitting, inspecting, and interconnecting solar systems. Homeowners typically get the most bang-for-their-buck by installing at once as many solar panels as they’ll need to offset current and near-future electricity needs.

    How long can a house run on solar power alone?

    According to the NREL, a small solar system with 10 kWh of battery storage can power the essential electrical systems of a home for three days in parts of the US and in most months of the year.

    Essential electrical systems do not include electric heating or air conditioning, which require massive amounts of electricity.

    However, it’s worth noting that solar systems need to be paired with battery storage in order to provide backup power during outages. Solar-only systems are automatically shut off during outages as a safety precaution to protect the technicians repairing the grid.

    What is the main downside of solar energy?

    The main downside of solar energy is that it’s intermittent. In other words, solar panels need sunlight to produce electricity, and when the sun goes down production stops.

    This intermittence poses challenges to grid operators because it creates an influx of energy during the middle of the day, when consumption is down, and a lack of energy in the evening, when consumption is peaking.

    The most obvious solution to this challenge is various forms of energy storage including batteries, pumped hydro, compressed air, and thermal technologies.

    In fact, residential solar and battery systems in California provided around 340 MW of power during a heatwave in September 2022 to help prevent power outages.

    Is it worth it to get solar panels in California?

    Given its abundant sunshine and high utility electricity rates, California is one of the best states to save money with home solar.

    In fact, even after reducing the value of solar exports through NEM 3.0 solar billing, Californian’s can still save more money with solar than homeowners in most other states. Under NEM 3.0, it’s much more beneficial to pair solar systems with battery storage in order to use as much of your own solar production as possible instead of exporting it onto the grid.

    Many installers are offering less expensive “arbitrage” battery systems that allow solar owners to store and use their own electricity, but don’t provide backup power during outages (hence the price decrease).

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    Embodied Carbon of Solar PV: Here‘s Why It Must Be Included In Net Zero Carbon Buildings

    Embodied carbon is the carbon footprint to make a product. It arises throughout the supply chain and cuts across geographies. It therefore gives us a true picture of the carbon intensity to manufacture a product.

    When it comes to Solar Photovoltaics (PV), it is well established that they can have a high embodied carbon footprint. However, this has traditionally been offset by the savings in electricity from the national grid.

    Historically the carbon emissions of generating UK electricity have been high. Not too long-ago coal and gas fired power stations dominated the UK fuel mix. That has rapidly changed with the rise of renewables, particularly wind, and biomass which has transformed the carbon footprint of the national grid.

    In fact, the carbon footprint of UK electricity has reduced by a massive 45% in just 4 years (2015 to 2019). It also continues to decarbonise and is expected to make a significant contribution to the UKs aspiration to be net zero carbon.

    An important question is therefore, in the modern landscape of a rapidly decarbonising grid, is the embodied carbon of PV now something that needs tackling?

    How does the embodied carbon compare to operational carbon?

    Or is solar PV now the elephant in the room?

    With the rise of net zero carbon buildings, this is now a prominent question.

    Embodied Carbon of Solar PV

    There are many different types of solar PV. Despite this, crystalline PV has been dominant, with over 90% of the market share.

    Crystalline PV is can be further separated into mono-crystalline, which has a higher efficiency, and polycrystalline, which has a slightly lower efficiency. For this article, we will take a look at mono-crystalline PV.

    Let’s take a closer look at the embodied carbon of PV. Collecting data on the embodied carbon per kWp or per m2 of solar panel, allows us to compare the embodied carbon with carbon savings on a location by location basis. We have used several references on the embodied carbon of mono-crystalline PV [IEA, 2015; ecoinvent V3; M. Ito, 2011]. There are many other references, but we found that most are based upon the same background data and there is a desperate need for more data from producers of PV systems.

    The average embodied carbon in those references for monocrystalline PV was 2,560 kg CO2e per kWp. The embodied carbon of all products vary notably, so that should be appreciated with any embodied carbon values.

    This now needs to be compared with the amount of energy generated.

    Electricity Generation of Solar PV

    The amount of electricity generated by solar PV is naturally dependent upon the location and how it has been installed, e.g. orientation, pitch, shading, …etc.

    In regards to the UK, the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT) state that many UK PV systems could be expected to generate 700-900 kWh per kWp. In fact, a well installed system in sunny parts of the south of the UK could generate over 1,000-1,100 kWh per kWp. Outputs therefore vary notably.

    The International Energy Association (IEA, 2015), estimate that the average yield of PV in the UK at optimal angle in urban areas is 920 kWh per kWp, which they state is before an annual degradation of electricity generated of 0.7%. However, to remain conservative we will apply a 0.5% degradation factor. This is the annual electricity generation that we will use for the purpose of this article. This means that each year the output of the PV system drops by 0.5%.

    Each year the PV system will generate electricity, thereby reducing the load on the national electricity network. This saves carbon emissions each year over the operational lifetime of the system, which is generally taken to be 25-30 years.

    So how does this compare with the carbon footprint of UK electricity?

    Carbon Emissions of UK Electricity – Grid Decarbonisation

    According to Defra’s GHG emissions factors for company reporting for 2019, UK electricity has an all scopes carbon emissions of 0.316 kg CO2e per kWh. What is often not appreciated, is that this is based on the UK’s fuel mixture for 2017. The emissions factors are always 2 years out of date, due to the time it takes to compile the data.

    This electricity will also undergo grid decarbonisation over time.

    The rate of grid decarbonisation in the future can naturally only be estimated. In order to estimate the rate of grid decarbonisation, data from the National Grid’s Future Energy Scenarios, FES, (National Grid, 2018) on their decarbonisation in 2 degrees scenario has been overlaid with Defra’s GHG emissions factors for company reporting. This scenario has been used here to estimate emissions of electricity generation in the future. It should be appreciated that any scenarios looking into future trends can only ever be an estimate and has an inherent uncertainty.

    For clarity, only the emissions from scope 2 were decarbonised. The well to tank emissions were assumed to remain constant to give a conservative approach (however, with an increase in renewables the well to tank emission would be expected to decline over time). This provides the estimated carbon profile of UK electricity below, which has considered the real year of data for the Defra’s GHG emissions factor:

    The Significance of Net Zero Carbon

    In the UK there has been a considerable rise in interest in net zero carbon developments. The framework definition and method behind what net zero carbon means is still developing and the scope has been left open if the net zero includes just operational carbon or if it also includes the embodied carbon footprint.

    We feel that the operational carbon emissions will be expected to be net zero carbon through the use of generating energy from renewables. But that the embodied carbon is more likely to achieve net zero carbon through voluntary carbon offsets.

    It therefore presents the case that solar PV is likely to be on the radar of a lot of net zero carbon buildings. It’s a strong technology, has minimal maintenance, low planning condition requirements and a long lifetime.

    But what about the embodied carbon?

    Let’s see how significant the embodied carbon of PV is, particularly for a building that wants to be net zero CO2.

    Significance for an Office Building that wants to be Net Zero Carbon by 2030

    Taking the example of an office building. Our data suggest that a typical office could have an embodied carbon of ~600 kg CO2e per m2 floor area. This is for a non-high rise office building.

    The CIBSE TM46 benchmarks suggest that a general office consumes around 95 kWh electricity per m2 per year. This compares well to actual energy consumption data on the excellent CarbonBuzz website for office buildings (at the time of writing they had collected data from 134 offices, so a good base).

    At the same time, the energy consumption of offices vary and according to the alternative CIBSE ECON 19 benchmarks, the electricity consumption could be as low as 33 kWh per m2 for a naturally ventilated cellular office at good practice, or as high as 358 kWh per m2 for an air conditioned prestige office at typical practise.

    The electricity consumption of 95 kWh per m2 per year therefore appears to be a suitable starting point.

    To bring the operational electricity (rather than heat load) to net zero carbon through renewables, the main options are typically wind or solar PV. Wind turbines can have many issues with planning conditions, are not suitable for all locations and we can’t just have a country full of wind turbines. A diverse grid mixture is important for energy security and also for balancing the system with an increasing number of renewable with intermittent energy outputs.

    It is therefore not inconceivable for net zero carbon developments to consider a large solar installation (or funding part of one). Particularly if they have the available roof space or more likely land to accommodate it.

    Let’s take a look at some numbers.

    Assuming a 10,000 m2 office. The electricity consumption in this case would be around 950,000 kWh per year. If the building is in a location to achieve 920 kWh per kWp from PV in year one (degrading at 0.5% a year), it would take around a 1,140 kWp PV system size to provide the electricity for 30 years, so a large system. This has considered the annual degradation of output from PV.

    Taking an embodied carbon of 2,560 kg CO2e per kWp, this system could have an embodied carbon around 2,920 t CO2e.

    The embodied carbon of the office (cradle to constructed), assuming 0.6 tCO2e per m2 and 10,000 m2, could be around 6,000 tCO2e.

    Combined with the embodied carbon of the PV system this is 8,920 kg CO2e.

    Yes, that’s right, in this scenario the embodied carbon of the solar PV system could add almost 50% to the original embodied carbon of the building. Granted it was for a large PV system, but that is a considerable amount of embodied carbon to add without further consideration and something should be done to manage this.

    The example above, provides a good case for including embodied carbon in the definition of net zero carbon, to ensure no carbon leakage occurs.

    At this point it’s important to not draw the wrong conclusions but to also look at the significant carbon reduction opportunity that arises.

    It should also be noted that the carbon footprint of providing electricity from solar PV is considerably lower than fossil fuels and PV has a long lifetime. However, these details should not exclude it from opportunities to reduce emissions further through managing embodied carbon, especially when there is a significant opportunity.

    How does saving 63% embodied carbon sound?

    Embodied Carbon V Operational Carbon

    The embodied carbon also presents some unfortunate comparisons. The embodied carbon of the PV system was estimated to be around 2,920 t CO2e. Had the building instead used electricity from the UK national grid this could be equal to about 20 years of operational carbon emissions once grid decarbonisation is considered (e.g. for that same quantity of electricity and not including heat of the building). It’s important to note that these estimates are UK only – they do not apply to any other countries.

    At the same time, it also presents a paradoxical chicken and egg situation. For the grid to decarbonise we need more renewables, including solar PV.

    There will of course be many systems in locations with a better electricity output and therefore improved comparisons. Each case should be compared on its own merits.

    For clarity, had grid decarbonisation not been considered, it would be equal to around 12 years of operational carbon emissions for the UK electricity. That approach uses the estimated carbon emission factor per kWh from the year 2020 and applies it for every year in the future. For further clarification the carbon factor from the year 2017, which at the time of writing is the latest actual data from Defra 2019, but in 2020 is 3 years old, it would have been 9 years of operational electricity, again without projecting grid decarbonisation. [Note: we will come back to this article in 2022 to compare what the actual carbon emissions of UK electricity was, which is when the data will be available from the Defra GHG emissions factors.

    These multiple figures perhaps show well the challenge of profiling carbon of solar PV over a long timeframe and in a rapidly decarbonising grid.

    These are unfortunate comparisons that get ever longer as the grid decarbonises and show well the limitations of attributional based carbon accounting to solar PV.

    It also needs to be considered what is the marginal emissions of generating electricity from solar PV. Particularly in a system with growing electricity demand. Those are complex issues worthy of separate articles.

    Does Solar PV Payback the Embodied Carbon Emissions?

    This article is specific to mono-crystalline PV. There are many other types of PV.

    In regards to monocrystalline PV, despite the high embodied carbon, in the UK it does currently save more operational carbon than the embodied carbon of production. However, the embodied carbon is significant.

    Whilst solar PV is helping to reduce reliance on fossil fuels, such as coal and gas it will always have favourable carbon payback rates.

    embodied, carbon, solar, here, included

    At the same time, the marginal emissions in a rapidly decarbonising grid may become increasingly important and complex. With such a Rapid rate of decarbonisation, combined with increased demand from electrification and a market where fossil fuels are no longer the default provider of new capacity, what is the marginal supply, what was the electricity technology that was displaced (or more likely mix of technologies)? Add a 25 to 30 year timeline to this debate and it becomes an increasingly complex situation. We can therefore expect the high embodied carbon versus expected carbon savings to attract increased scrutiny.

    Despite these complexities, solar PV will be an important technology. It is therefore better to FOCUS on the opportunity for reducing carbon emissions of PV, and there is a considerable opportunity…

    Opportunity to Reduce Embodied Carbon Emissions using Solar PV

    What does this mean for solar PV? Well solar is an important technology in the transition to a low carbon economy and understandably so. It doesn’t have the same planning restrictions as a wind turbine and there are plenty of buildings new and old with the spare roof space, car park space or land to install the systems (e.g. roof mounted or integrated, car ports, ground mounted systems). The output from solar PV is also typically contrasting to that of a wind turbine, with each needing opposing weather conditions for peak outputs. PV also compares very well to any fossil fuel-based electricity.

    The case study above, presents a strong case for including embodied carbon in the definition of net zero carbon and highlights the opportunity for reducing the embodied carbon of PV.

    In that regards, it is important to appreciate that there are other types of photovoltaics with a lower embodied carbon – in some cases significantly lower.

    According to the IEA (2015) a cadmium-telluride, CdTe, based PV system would have an embodied carbon ~63% lower than a monocrystalline PV system for each kWp (embodied carbon around 867 kgCO2e per kWp). With a slightly lower efficiency it needs a bit more space per kWp.

    Going back to the previous example of the 10,000 m2 office, a 63% carbon reduction would have been equal to 1,840 tCO2e saved.

    This would be achieved by selecting a CdTe system over a mono-crystalline PV system.

    That is a significant saving and placed into context of the embodied carbon of the building is equal to almost 30% of the embodied carbon of the building (before a PV system was included).

    Wow, an opportunity to save embodied carbon worth 30% of the building from a single measure.

    That places it at the very top of carbon reduction opportunities for that building, but is only realised through looking at embodied carbon impacts of PV.

    It should be appreciated that this example was for an aspirational building that wanted to generate all electricity of an office from PV (perhaps due to lower planning permission requirements). This gives a large PV system and is currently a rare situation, but with the rise of net zero carbon buildings may now be considered in many more cases.

    For whatever reasons, CdTe based PV haven’t really taken off in the UK, but perhaps it’s time to investigate the feasibility of other types of solar PV. As a side note, the element cadmium is known to be highly toxic. There are studies that show cadmium-telluride is less toxic than the cadmium in isolation. PV laminates are also encapsulated. That said, it offers a good example of why true sustainability is difficult to achieve and requires trade-offs to balance one issue with another.

    What Can the Solar Sector Do?

    Transparency of embodied carbon: It would also be expected that many PV manufacturers produce lower embodied carbon monocrystalline PV panels. The embodied carbon of any product varies between different producers. However, there is a chronic lack of embodied carbon data from the producers themselves. Considering the size of the solar sector around the world, we would have expected to find some Environmental Product Declarations, such as EN 15804, or detailed life cycle assessments (LCA). Until manufacturers produce detailed embodied carbon footprints of their products, procuring a lower embodied carbon crystalline PV panels becomes a challenge.

    Cleaner production: The embodied carbon of monocrystalline may also be expected to improve over time. However, we can only determine that with more transparent data on the embodied carbon impacts. In fact, the IEA (2015) report present significant opportunities for reducing the embodied impacts of producing monocrystalline PV. Hopefully over time these opportunities will be realised.

    Diversify PV mix: Around 90% of the PV market is from crystalline PV technologies. This is unfortunately the higher embodied carbon technology. There are other types of PV, including the ~63% embodied carbon saving identified for CdTe. Consider the feasibility of alternative types of PV and don’t discount the embodied carbon, it needs to be considered.

    Improve efficiency: An increased PV system efficiency helps when comparing the embodied and operational carbon of PV systems.

    Discussion – Implications for PV and Net Zero Carbon

    These results are significant and have profound implications for net zero carbon buildings. It brings into question the scope of net zero carbon and presents a strong case for inclusion of embodied carbon. If an organisation is aspiring to be next zero carbon, particularly by 2030, it raises difficult questions for those not including embodied carbon as part of their definition of net zero.

    Can we just source lower embodied carbon monocrystalline panels? Perhaps we can, but there is a chronic lack of embodied carbon data published by the manufacturers. In fact, we did not find manufacturer specific data, such as an EN 15804 Environmental Product Declaration (EPD) for solar panels.

    It is important to highlight that these results are specific to mono-crystalline PV in the UK. They would not apply to other types of PV, although polycrystalline should have a similar but slightly better result profile. The results certainly do not apply to other countries. Each country should be assessed as its own case. The key parameters are the amount of solar irradiation and how carbon intensive is the electricity network. High irradiation and a carbon intensive electricity supply, e.g. as is the situation in Australia, will naturally give a very different carbon profile. Those offer the ideal application for solar PV.

    In the context of the UK, it is clear that the embodied carbon of solar PV is now an important parameter, but a big opportunity. As the UK grid decarbonises the embodied carbon of solar panels will only become even more prominent and the large opportunity of reducing the embodied carbon of solar PV is now important.

    The Big Question – What About Wind Turbines?

    A natural question is what about wind turbines, do they also have a large embodied carbon?

    In short, no they don’t. By our calculations, the embodied carbon of a large wind turbine is equal to around 1 year of carbon saved from the electricity. Over such a short timescale grid decarbonisation is not a factor and questions on marginality are not so prominent.

    To raise another pertinent question, aren’t renewables part of the UK’s national grid mix anyway? Which gives rise to the decarbonising electricity grid. Well yes, they are.

    Currently solar PV is not a particularly large contributor on a national scale. Between 2015 and 2019 the UK reduced the carbon intensity of electricity by 45% per kWh. This was predominantly driven by wind and biomass, combined with a reduction in reliance on coal.

    What Next?

    It also leaves some burning questions, will other types of PV take over? Will the market take the opportunity to save over 60% of the embodied carbon, or will crystalline PV clean up its act?

    Who knows, for now we know that the embodied carbon of PV needs to be taken seriously and that it also warrants further research.

    This should be taken to avoid potential carbon leakage, especially in the context of net zero carbon.


    What do you think? Let us know by sharing this page

    References and Further Reading

    IEA, Life Cycle Assessment of Future Photovoltaic Electricity Production from Residential scale Systems Operated in Europe, 2015.

    National Grid, 2018. Future Energy Scenarios 2018, “Decarbonisation in Two Degrees”, from Table 3.2,

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    Global solar PV installed cost 2010-2021

    Between 2010 and 2021, the average installed cost of photovoltaics worldwide declined steadily due to the widespread availability of materials, which reduced production expenses. In 2021, the average installed cost of solar PV systems stood at 857 U.S. dollars per kilowatt. Likewise, the levelized cost of electricity (LCOE) for solar photovoltaics has seen a similar trend over the past decade.

    Solar photovoltaic technology

    Solar cells, also known as photovoltaic (PV) cells, can absorb sunlight and convert it into electrical energy. They are made of different semiconductor materials with specific characteristics. Silicon as the primary semiconductor has a maximum theoretical efficiency at around 32 percent, this has prompted researching new materials and designs to enhance PV performance. Currently, China is by far the leading producer of solar PV modules across the globe.

    Solar PV energy worldwide

    In recent years, solar PV accounted for 2.5 percent of the global electricity generation, with the renewables being dominated by hydropower. Despite fossil fuels remaining as the largest contributor to electricity generation representing over 60 percent of the global share, renewable sources are projected to grow in the following years, accounting for more than half of the world’s power generation by 2050.

    Average installed cost for solar photovoltaics worldwide from 2010 to 2021 (in U.S. dollars per kilowatt)

    Based on 2021 U.S. dollar values

    Global cumulative installed solar PV capacity 2000-2021

    Global benchmark capex for utility-scale solar PV 2010-2020

    Worldwide demand for solar photovoltaics outlook 2015-2024

    Global module manufacturing production 2000-2021

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    Kerala home gets 36.72 kWp solar system using 540Wp panels

    The system is claimed to be India’s largest residential on-grid residential solar installation using 540 Wp PV modules. It uses 68 numbers of JA Solar 540 Wp half-cell mono PERC modules and 27kW Fronius inverter.

    36.72 kW residential solar system installation by Maxwatt Solar


    Kerala-based EPC installer Maxwatt Solar has installed a 36.72 kWp rooftop solar system for a homeowner in Kerala, which it claims to be India’s largest on-grid residential solar system using 540Wp modules. The project is located at Anchukallumoodu in the Kollam district of Kerala.

    The installation uses 68 numbers of JA Solar 540 Wp half-cell mono PERC modules, supplied by Redington Solar, one of the largest solar PV distribution companies in India. Besides, it uses three-phase 27 kW Fronius inverter (model ECO 27.0-3-S)

    The system is an on-grid solar PV system without any battery backup.

    “It is designed not to run any specific house load but it is sufficient enough to run even the centralized AC unit of this house. So, in a nutshell, we could say that irrespective of the connected load, this solar system could run any house load connected to it and the electricity generation is more than enough to offset the customer’s monthly electricity bill,” Prabi Prasad, technical director at Maxwatt Solar, told pv magazine.

    “Technically speaking, 1 kWp could easily generate 4 units of electrical energy (kWh) per day. Therefore, 36.72 kWp could generate 146.88 kWh daily but based on our experience with previous systems, you can consider 4.5 kWh instead of 4 kWh. Then it will be 165.24 kWh daily, or 60,312.60 kWh annually.”

    “The daily electricity consumption of our customer’s house is 40 kWh (based on their monthly electricity bill). So the daily electricity generation of 165.24 kWh/day by the solar system will be four times their daily requirement. In this case, the customer will be able to feed this extra 120 kWh/day to the State discom Kerala State Electricity Board Ltd (KSEB), which is a win-win situation for both parties.”

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    Uma Gupta

    Based in New Delhi, Uma reports on the latest PV market trends and projects in India. After gaining an MSc Physics (Electronics) and an MBA, she has gone on to accrue over a decade of experience in technology journalism.

    Kwp in solar

    India’s First Solar Renewable Energy e-Commerce Platform


    LUMINOUS 4 Kwp Solar Super Smart Home System

    LUMINOUS 4Kwp Solar Standard Smart Home System is a Home UPS System which comprises of Solar PV Polycrystalline Module of capacity 4KWP (24Volt), Inverter of capacity 5.5KVA and eight lead acid tubular batteries of capacity 150Ah.This unique product is manufactured especially for homes with maximum power consumption in their day to day life. It is a solar Smart home product which consumes its energy from the sun and hence will help to keep the energy bills under control and find rebates that save you extra. It is one of the best branded and cost-effective solar Smart home products.

    Luminous Power Technologies is one of the powerful and trustworthy brands featuring exclusive range of innovative products in the power backup, home electrical and residential solar space that covers inverters, batteries, solar solutions to home electricals such as fans, LED lighting etc. It has 7 manufacturing units, with more than 28 sales offices in India and presence in over 36 countries all over the world. Luminous serves more than 60,000 channel partners and millions of customers with its innovation to make their life more comfortable and efficient.

    Zero Power is an online platform which features a wide range of exclusive renewable energy products. Zero Power has widened its boundaries and transformed itself from a normal e-commerce platform to a community and established itself in both Business-to-consumer(B2C) and Business-to-Business service(B2B) platforms. Zero Power offers an exclusive range of branded Solar Smart Home System products in a best affordable price, delivered safely to your address. We provide a service period of 1year from the date of installation and commissioning.

    Solar PV Module technology used in this product is Polycrystalline technology based PV Module made using silicon crystal ‘seed’ placed in a vat of molten silicon.

    Inverter technology is based on ISOT technology.

    Battery is based on lead acid technology.

    This product can be installed and be useful in below establishments:

    • Homes
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    Break-up of the product components:

    The Solar Smart Home System product comprises of the following components:

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