Life Cycle Assessment for Emerging Technologies: Case Studies for Photovoltaic and Wind Power (11 pp)



Goal, Scope and Background

This paper describes the modelling of two emerging electricity systems based on renewable energy: photovoltaic (PV) and wind power. The paper shows the approach used in the ecoinvent database for multi-output processes.


Twelve different, grid-connected photovoltaic systems were studied for the situation in Switzerland. They are manufactured as panels or laminates, from mono- or polycrystalline silicon, installed on facades, slanted or flat roofs, and have a 3kWp capacity. The process data include quartz reduction, silicon purification, wafer, panel and laminate production, supporting structure and dismantling. The assumed operational lifetime is 30 years. Country-specific electricity mixes have been considered in the LCI in order to reflect the present situation for individual production stages. The assessment of wind power includes four different wind turbines with power rates between 30 kW and 800 kW operating in Switzerland and two wind turbines assumed representative for European conditions – 800 kW onshore and 2 MW offshore. The inventory takes into account the construction of the plants including the connection to the electric grid and the actual wind conditions at each site in Switzerland. Average European capacity factors have been assumed for the European plants. Eventually necessary backup electricity systems are not included in the analysis.

Results and Discussion

The life cycle inventory analysis for photovoltaic power shows that each production stage may be important for specific elementary flows. A life cycle impact assessment (LCIA) shows that there are important environmental impacts not directly related to the energy use (e.g. process emissions of NOx from wafer etching). The assumption for the used supply energy mixes is important for the overall LCIA results of different production stages. The allocation of the inventory for silicon purification to different products is discussed here to illustrate how allocation has been implemented in ecoinvent. Material consumption for the main parts of the wind turbines gives the dominant contributions to the cumulative results for electricity production. The complex installation of offshore turbines, with high requirements of concrete for the foundation and the assumption of a shorter lifetime compared to onshore foundations, compensate the advantage of increased offshore wind speeds.


The life cycle inventories for photovoltaic power plants are representative for newly constructed plants and for the average photovoltaic mix in Switzerland in the year 2000. A scenario for a future technology helps to assess the relative influence of technology improvements for some processes in the near future (2005-2010). The differences for environmental burdens of wind power basically depend upon the capacity factor of the plants, the lifetime of the infrastructure, and the rated power. The higher these factors, the more reduced the environmental burdens are. Thus, both systems are quite dependent on meteorological conditions and the materials used for the infrastructure.

Recommendation and Perspective

Many production processes for photovoltaic power are still under development. Future updates of the LCI should verify the energy uses and emissions with available data from industrial processes in operation. For the modelling of a specific power plant or power plant mixes outside of Switzerland, one has to consider the annual yield (kWh/kWp) and if possible also the size of the plant. Considering the steady growth of the size of wind turbines in Europe, the development of new designs, and the exploitation of offshore location with deeper waters than analysed in this study, the inventory for wind power plants may need to be updated in the future.

wind power Switzerland photovoltaic allocation capacity factor ecoinvent electricity mixes multi-output process onshore offshore 


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Copyright information

© Ecomed 2005

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Dr. Sc. Techn. Niels Jungbluth ESU - services, environmental consultancy for business and authorities Kanzleistrasse 4 8610 Uster SCHWEIZ
  2. 2.Dr. Christian Bauer Paul Scherrer Institute (PSI) Systems/Safety Analysis CH-5232 Villigen PSI Switzerland
  3. 3.Roberto Dones Paul Scherrer Institute (PSI) Systems/Safety Analysis 5232 Villigen PSI SCHWEIZ
  4. 4.Dr. Sc. Techn. Rolf Frischknecht ESU-Services Kanzleistrasse 4 8610 Uster SCHWEIZ

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