Abstract The development of renewable energy technologies is a critical tool for reducing climate change and the reliance on fossil fuels. However, renewable energy technologies cannot be considered totally clean because they require energy consumption and have environmental impacts that cannot be neglected during their life cycle. In this paper, the life cycle assessment methodology was applied to assess resource use and other environmental burdens related to the entire life-cycle steps of a solar cooling plant. The investigated system works with an absorption chiller assisted by a solar plant. Two back-up configurations (hot back-up and cold back-up) were examined in two localities: Palermo (southern Italy) and Zurich (Switzerland). The benefits in terms of primary energy savings and greenhouse gases emission reduction were demonstrated by comparing the use of this innovative plant in substitution of a conventional one. Energy and CO2eq emission payback times and the energy return ratio of the system were calculated. For all the analysed configurations they ranged from 4 to 6years. A sensitivity analysis related to the calculation of the energy payback time was carried out to assess the influence of various system performance parameters on the payback index. The analysis stressed the following: – LCA of renewable energy technologies has to include a detailed analysis of the use phase to assess the benefits that arise from the energy produced by the system during its useful life and to obtain reliable and high-quality LCA results. – The use phase is responsible of about 70–90% of the energetic and environmental impacts of the plant life cycle. – The innovative plant has a lower environmental impact than the conventional plant. – The advantages of renewable energy technologies strongly depend on the climate of the installation site.