The photovoltaic solar panel in use today was developed back in 1950s. The initial conversion rate for converting sunlight into electric current was pretty low but since then the innovation has made the cells more efficient and also cheaper to manufacture.
Now, if you think about it, everything that we are manufacturing or producing requires some energy. While before the discovery of electricity the energy was derived from labor and tools of the time, today we use a mix of manual labor and electric or fuel energy to make things. For example, even an agriculturist is using energy to draw water from a well, plough the fields with a tractor that runs on diesel, and then storing the produce in cold storage. Add to that the huge energy spent by government on irrigation projects, canals and dams and you get an idea of the carbon footprint something as simple as farming has today.
So, going by the same logic, the solar panel also requires energy to manufacture. Moreover, the initial solar panels did not have the benefit of using green energy since the tech was yet to be fully-developed. This means a huge amount of energy has been spent in creating the solar panels that we use today, including the excavation of raw materials like quartz and copper, plus the molding, encasing, packaging and shipping of these products. All these activities are sure to have an environmental impact, and a study conducted by the University of Groningen tried to find out just that.
We can assume that no such study can exactly determine the results since the data is being sourced from all over the world and there are best case and worst-case scenarios to be considered. But all in all the study has some very positive notes to offer. As per the research it is suggested that the solar industry broke even on its net energy cost in 2017 and is expected to break even on the greenhouse gas emissions somewhere in 2018. Some more optimistic views of the study state that the energy debt was paid off in 1997, but hey, even if the 2017 assumption is true, isn’t it great news?
I mean, imagine, the energy that you are producing from your rooftop solar installation is not only carbon-free right now, but also has zero carbon footprint from a technical standpoint. So, every watt that is generated through solar is paying for your energy bills and is also mitigating the carbon emissions that occurred in creating the solar panels. Wow!
If you are living in a sunny country like India and do take the environmental cause seriously, solar deserves a look up. If you are not sure where to start, start with a solar calculator (link).