Lifecycle Analysis of Renewables Shows Benefit over Fossil Fuel

October 22, 2014 By Karen Henry

wind-solar-energy-manageResearch shows that when considering lifecycle energy and emission impacts, renewable energy production has solid benefits over fossil fuel energy production. Sustainable Business News reported on research that compares the short- and long-term impacts of wind turbine and solar panel energy production to fossil fuel energy production.

Researchers at Oregon State University found that wind power is a net energy saver. Specifically, the researchers found that two typical 2-MW wind turbines have a six-month payback period, and even in a worst-case scenario, the lifetime energy requirements of a wind turbine will be subsumed by the first year of active use. This includes ongoing maintenance, as well as recycling and disposal costs at the end of the turbine’s life.

The same holds true for solar PV. Researchers at the European Photovoltaic Industry Association found that depending on type of technology and amount of available sunlight, the payback period for solar PV is between 0.5 and 1.4 years.

Even though wind farms use 14 times more iron than fossil fuel plants, and solar plants use 40 times more copper, the raw materials used over the lifetime of a renewable energy plant is still far less than a fossil fuel energy plant because the extraction required to build a renewable system is a one-time occurrence, whereas mining of the raw materials needed to operate a fossil fuel plant continue for the lifetime of the plant.

In the first analysis of the lifecycle transition from fossil fuel to fossil-free electricity, researchers found that two years of global copper production and one year of iron production, based on current production levels, would build a low-carbon energy system that could meet the world’s electricity needs in 2050, while also reducing carbon emissions by 62 percent, freshwater pollution by 50 percent, and airborne particulates by 40 percent compared to fossil fuel energy generation.

Photo via Shutterstock.

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