How Much Oil Does It Take to Make a Solar Panel?

Since we cannot run out of oil, and we need it for things other than producing electricity, the question of how much solar energy we get from a barrel of oil is interesting.

First off, this assumes that you use an average mix of technologies (solar thermal [CSP], solar photovoltaic [PV], and wind) to produce your electricity.

With investments into new technology in high gear, well over 80% of the oil currently used to generate electricity could be saved by switching to just solar PV!

This would reduce global CO2 emissions by about 15%, so it’s a good thing too.
For 2008, 541 million barrels per day were used worldwide 2008 for generating heat or electricity.

Here are some of the key points I’ll focus on, plus more you need to be informed about:

  • How is oil used to make solar panels
  • What do solar panels cost
  • Which oil is used to make solar panels

Read through the article to discover surprising facts regarding oil and solar.


How much oil does it take to make a solar panel?

The answer is about 20 times less than you think. Sure, this would be great for the world economy, but not so good for our wallets. Think of all the fantastic things you could do with $360 billion extra per day.

Suppose we assume an efficient conversion process for solar thermal plants (>50%) and 42% for conventional natural gas power plants.

In that case, it takes about 18kWhr from a barrel to generate one kWh by PV (yes, much higher than your typical estimate) and 30kWhr to generate one kWh by CSP.

With that, we can calculate the theoretical yield for solar panels per barrel.

For PV, it’s about 40 m² of panel generating an average of 3kWh/m² (with 2009 technology). Thus, to obtain 1 kWh you need 40 m² x 3 = 120 Whr / 18kWhr = 7 panels.

A 200-liter barrel contains 4728 liters or 124.74 gallons; if filled with oil, you get about 35 pounds or 15 quarts (slightly more than half a gallon) per barrel, (this varies depending on distillation endpoints).

This means that to obtain the equivalent energy yield as the current world production of electricity (about 87 TWh/day) generated by solar panels, you would need approximately 17,208,000 barrels of oil per day.

Since the current world daily production is only 85 million barrels, it takes about 3 years’ worth of worldwide oil production to make enough solar panels to generate as much electricity as we currently use!

How is oil used to make solar panels?

The process of producing monocrystalline silicon solar panels is very energy-intensive. For every kilogram of the final product, you need about 250 grams of high purity (99.99%) silver and 5 kilograms of copper powder.

This makes for an energy payback time of fewer than 2 months!

But don’t forget that we also need to produce this highly purified and reflective metal from ore and recycle it later!

Making thin-film amorphous silicon solar panels, on the other hand, only requires about 2 liters of water per watt due to its low material requirements, which can be obtained using point-of-use purification (POU) technology such as solar distillation.

On the other hand, thin-film CIGS panels need about 0.2-0.5 kWh per square meter of solar converted material.

Of course, you also need to produce all that silicon (silica) glass, copper indium gallium selenide (CIGS), cadmium telluride (CdTe), and iron, as well as smart grid technologies such as converting it to hydrogen for use in fuel cells or transportation!

See also: Solar Panel Manufacturing: A Comprehensive Guide for Beginners

What do solar panels cost?

As of 2010, polysilicon solar panels were down to $1/Wp (US) in the Taiwanese market.

At this rate, it would only take you about 1 year’s worth of worldwide oil production for generating enough electricity to cover your current annual usage at home.

Your cost for generating one kWh using solar power is less than 2 US cents if you live in Germany or Japan, but more than 5 times that amount if you live in China!

If you use POU technology like solar distillation, then it’s not hard to imagine that your price could drop below 1 cent per kWh during the next few years (we’ll be okay financially as long as we can keep our homes heated with this)

Where is oil used in the production of solar panels?

While it is possible to get a few percentage points more energy yield from oil-based hydrocarbons than coal, one liter of oil produces less power than 80 liters of water.

Thus, even if oil was ‘free’ or very cheap, it doesn’t make sense to use oil to generate electricity. Oil should be used for transportation and thermal insulation!

Oil must not be burned except in exceptional cases such as aircraft, which can reach much higher altitudes with little oxygen available to remove CO from the exhaust gases).

In other words: oil is too dirty to be able to directly stand in for gas.

What are the alternatives?

In general, solar panels can yield 5-6 times more energy than a fossil fuel/nuclear plant.

However, suppose we want to go 100% renewable. In that case, there is no way around massive amounts of storage (so we can use the sun’s energy when it’s not shining and save it for nighttime) and electric transportation (to replace gasoline cars, diesel trains, and ships).

The most efficient way to store energy is utilizing electrolysis, and hydrogen has a much higher storage density than batteries (300-400 times more!).

That’s why we would need 3x fewer solar panels to generate enough renewable electricity for replacing what we currently do with fossil fuels.

About half the cost of polysilicon comes from mining silicon ore so that recycling would be a large part of our future economy.

We already know how to recycle our electronic waste, which contains many ounces per ton of gold, silver, tin, copper, platinum group metals such as ruthenium and palladium, as well as rare earth metals such as neodymium, europium, cerium, and lanthanum.

We already have a lot of experience recycling all these elements from our current waste stream, so we should quickly adopt those techniques.

Why are solar power prices dropping so rapidly?

Solar panels are made of just a few types of earth materials that are readily available. The most expensive material in these cells is silicon, which comprises about 20% of the total costs.

Recent research may even be possible to use coal fly ashes instead of silicon to obtain comparable results!

Coal contains many other valuable metals such as zinc, copper, and selenium, which can all be extracted from their spent fuel/fly ash for a spotless energy source!

In general, though, you need at least some silver, indium, and tellurium because these trace elements play an essential role in bandgap engineering, making renewable energy work!

What are the advantages of solar panels?

Solar power is “free” in terms of initial costs because you only need to invest in the materials.

If these are put in a safe place where they can be reused/recycled, then nothing needs to be thrown away after it has been used.

The longest-lasting components are the glass, which protects the cells from weathering, and tempered glass is often used in windows due to its superior physical properties.

However, when using traditional silicon-based photovoltaic solar panels, there are many concerns about toxic chemical byproducts when manufacturing these types of cells.

If we were serious about going green, we’d look at all our options instead of just looking for ways to cut production costs!

Which oil is used to make solar panels?

The majority of solar panels are made from silicon-based materials. Other types, such as thin-film cells (that look like aluminum foil), rely on cadmium telluride and copper indium gallium selenide.

We can find all these materials in abundance within the earth’s crust, and we already know how to recycle them! It takes much less energy for us to collect those raw elements than dig up the oil and refine it into plastics and gasoline.

If we want to go green, we should not burn any fossil fuels anymore because these things do irreparable damage by emitting greenhouse gases!

What contaminates our environment when creating solar panels?

Most people think that they need a lot of water for making solar panels, but the truth is that they do not use any water, which might become a concern in very dry areas during summertime when there is almost no rain!

Solar cells come from pure silicon, and we already know how to recycle them if we want to achieve zero wastefully.

Pollution can be caused by many elements such as nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, ammonia, and carbon monoxide.

However, pollution isn’t always harmful because these chemicals can be used to make fertilizers!

What is the efficiency of solar panels?

A larger surface area makes it possible for a cell to absorb more sunlight, so efficiency is an essential parameter that you must look at when making any renewable energy.

Even though most photovoltaic cells operate at 13-15% conversion efficiency, the very best ones can reach as much as 20%.

In theory, concentrating solar cell devices which use lenses or mirrors and tracking systems could achieve efficiencies beyond 50%, but they are not used commercially yet.

Why is solar power better than any other type of energy?

Solar power is better because the raw materials are environmentally sustainable, abundant, and inexpensive!

In addition, there is no risk of a global nuclear disaster as opposed to radioactive waste from nuclear power plants! If we ever want to survive as a civilization, we have to start going green now; otherwise, our planet will become unfit for human life.

One possible solution could be space colonization – but I can’t see that happening too soon.

This article’s bottom line is that it takes much less oil to make a solar panel compared to a plastic product made from refined oil, which might eventually be thrown away!

We should look into all forms of renewable energy before making any about which one is best.

It takes less energy to make a solar cell than it does to drill the oil, transport the oil and refine it into plastics.

There are significant benefits of pollution, such as fertilizer, so we should not be too concerned about contaminating our environment. We have to go green now if we want to survive!

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Elliot has 20+ years of experience in renewable technology, from conservation to efficient living. His passion is to help others achieve independent off-grid living.

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