Current policies accelerating photovoltaics (PV) deployments are motivated by environmental goals, including reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by displacing electricity generated from fossil-fuels. Existing practice assesses environmental benefits on a net life-cycle basis, where displaced GHG emissions offset those generated during PV production. However, this approach does not consider that the environmental costs of GHG release during production are incurred early, while environmental benefits accrue later. Thus, where policy targets suggest meeting GHG reduction goals established by a certain date, rapid PV deployment may have counterintuitive, albeit temporary, undesired consequences. On a cumulative radiative forcing (CRF) basis, the environmental improvements attributable to PV might be realized much later than is currently understood, particularly when PV manufacturing utilizes GHG-intensive energy sources (e.g., coal), but deployment occurs in areas with less GHG-intensive electricity sources (e.g., hydroelectric). This paper details a dynamic CRF model to examine the intertemporal warming impacts of PV deployments in California and Wyoming. CRF payback times are longer than GHG payback times by 6-12 years in California and 6-11 years in Wyoming depending on the PV technology mix and deployment strategy. For the same PV capacity being deployed, early installations yield greater CRF benefits (calculated over 10 and 25 years) than installations occurring later in time. Further, CRF benefits are maximized when PV technologies with the lowest manufacturing GHG footprint (cadmium telluride) are deployed in locations with the most GHG-intensive grids (i.e., Wyoming).

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)10010-10018
Number of pages9
JournalEnvironmental Science and Technology
Issue number17
StatePublished - Sep 2 2014

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Chemistry(all)
  • Environmental Chemistry


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