Life Cycle Greenhouse Gas Emissions of Thin-film Photovoltaic Electricity Generation

Systematic Review and Harmonization


  • Hyung Chul Kim,

  • Vasilis Fthenakis,

  • Jun-Ki Choi,

  • Damon E. Turney

Vasilis Fthenakis, Bldg.130, Brookhaven National Laboratory, Upton, NY 11973.


We present the process and the results of harmonization of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions during the life cycle of commercial thin-film photovoltaics (PVs), that is, amorphous silicon (a-Si), cadmium telluride (CdTe), and copper indium gallium diselenide (CIGS). We reviewed 109 studies and harmonized the estimates of GHG emissions by aligning the assumptions, parameters, and system boundaries. During the initial screening we eliminated abstracts, short conference papers, presentations without supporting documentation, and unrelated analyses; 91 studies passed this initial screening. In the primary screening we applied rigorous criteria for completeness of reporting, validity of analysis methods, and modern relevance of the PV system studied. Additionally, we examined whether the product is a commercial one, whether the production line still exists, and whether the study's core data are original or secondary. These screenings produced five studies as the best representations of the carbon footprint of modern thin-film PV technologies. These were harmonized through alignment of efficiency, irradiation, performance ratio, balance of system, and lifetime. The resulting estimates for carbon footprints are 20, 14, and 26 grams carbon dioxide equivalent per kilowatt-hour (g CO2-eq/kWh), respectively, for a-Si, CdTe, and CIGS, for ground-mount application under southwestern United States (US-SW) irradiation of 2,400 kilowatt-hours per square meter per year (kWh/m2/yr), a performance ratio of 0.8, and a lifetime of 30 years. Harmonization for the rooftop PV systems with a performance ratio of 0.75 and the same irradiation resulted in carbon footprint estimates of 21, 14, and 27 g CO2-eq/kWh, respectively, for the three technologies. This screening and harmonization rectifies previous incomplete or outdated assessments and clarifies variations in carbon footprints across studies and amongst thin-film technologies.