Optimal integration of microalgae production with photovoltaic panels: Environmental impacts and energy balance

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Background: Microalgae are 10 to 20 times more productive than the current agricultural biodiesel producing oleaginous crops. However, they require larger energy supplies, so that their environmental impacts remain uncertain, as illustrated by the contradictory results in the literature. Besides, solar radiation is often too high relative to the photosynthetic capacity of microalgae. This leads to photosaturation, photoinhibition, overheating and eventually induces mortality. Shadowing microalgae with solar panels would, therefore, be a promising solution for both increasing productivity during hotter periods and producing local electricity for the process. The main objective of this study is to measure, via LCA framework, the energy performance and environmental impact of microalgae biodiesel produced in a solar greenhouse, alternating optimal microalgae species and photovoltaic panel (PV) coverage. A mathematical model is simulated to investigate the microalgae productivity in raceways under meteorological conditions in Sophia Antipolis (south of France) at variable coverture percentages (0% to 90%) of CIGS solar panels on greenhouses constructed with low-emissivity (low-E) glass. Results: A trade-off must be met between electricity and biomass production, as a larger photovoltaic coverture would limit microalgae production. From an energetic point of view, the optimal configuration lies between 10 and 20% of PV coverage. Nevertheless, from an environmental point of view, the best option is 50% PV coverage. However, the difference between impact assessments obtained for 20% and 50% PV is negligible, while the NER is 48% higher for 20% PV than for 50% PV coverage. Hence, a 20% coverture of photovoltaic panels is the best scenario from an energetic and environmental point of view. Conclusions: In comparison with the cultivation of microalgae without PV, the use of photovoltaic panels triggers a synergetic effect, sourcing local electricity and reducing climate change impacts. Considering an economic approach, low photovoltaic panel coverage would probably be more attractive. However, even with a 10% area of photovoltaic panels, the environmental footprint would already significantly decrease. It is expected that significant improvements in microalgae productivity or more advanced production processes should rapidly enhance these performances.




Morales, M., Hélias, A., & Bernard, O. (2019). Optimal integration of microalgae production with photovoltaic panels: Environmental impacts and energy balance. Biotechnology for Biofuels, 12(1). https://doi.org/10.1186/s13068-019-1579-4

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