Chinese Air Pollution Dimmed Sunlight Enough To Impact Solar Panels

Using a record of solar radiation measurements around China going back to the late 1950s, researchers from ETH Zurich found that China’s coal-driven air pollution is significantly reducing the output of solar panels by dimming the Sun. Ars Technica reports: The researchers found that, over the entire record between about 1960 and 2015, the average potential solar generation declined by about 13%. Expressed in terms of capacity factor — the fraction of a solar panel’s maximum output that is actually produced on average — the drop from the start to the lowest point in 2008 was 0.162 to 0.142. The change wasn’t the same everywhere, though, as air pollution and local conditions varied. The five worst provinces actually saw potential generation drops of fully 20-28%. These included industrial centers in the east but also some clearer high-elevation areas in the west where a small amount of air pollution can have a big impact.

If China could go back to its 1950s air quality, its existing solar installations in 2016 would have produced an additional 14 terawatt-hours of electricity for free. As more solar panels are built, that number would only grow. By 2030, cleaner air could net an additional 70 terawatt-hours of electricity each year — about 1% of total projected electricity generation at that point. To put some dollar signs on these numbers, the researchers used the current feed-in tariff of $0.14 per kilowatt-hour and a projected drop to $0.09 per kilowatt-hour in 2030. In 2016, this would mean cleaner air would have brought $1.9 billion worth of electricity. In 2030, the extra 13% or so of solar potential could be worth over $6 billion per year. The study has been published in the journal Nature Energy.


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