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Chinese air pollution dampened enough sunlight to affect solar panels

  A truck filled with coal drives down a highway in China.

Cool is seen by many as an enemy of renewable energy and the first fossil fuel is in line for elimination, as things like solar and wind generation have become cheaper. But counter-attacks from coal can go even further than lobbying against pro-renewable policies, it seems. According to new research, China's carbon-driven air pollution significantly reduces the production of solar panels by dampening the sun.

China is easily number one in terms of new solar construction right now, which accounts for over half of the world's installations in 201

7, for example. Between 2010 and 2017, China went from having less than 1 gigawatt of solar capacity to 130 gigawatts, and the country is on its way to about 400 gigawatts by 2030. After a period of transformative economic growth driven by coal and other fossil fuels, China is trading with choking air pollution, which is an important driving force in this sun pressure.

Recent research has compiled an overview of solar radiation measurements around China dating back to the late 1950s. The study shows a declining trend in solar radiation until around 2005 when it smoothed and began to cross upwards. It tracks the increasing particulate air pollution caused by coal-fired power plants and manufacturing processes as well as biomass combustion. It has only recently been addressed.

A team led by Bart Sweerts at ETH Zurich took that record and fed it in generation models for China's solar installations to calculate how much generation has been lost – and how much would be achieved by cleaning the air.

The researchers found that the average potential solar generation in the entire record between 1960 and 2015 fell by approx. 13 percent. Expressed in terms of capacity factor – the fraction of a solar panel's maximum output actually produced on average – the drop from start to lowest point in 2008 was 0.162 to 0.142.

  The effect of air pollution on potential solar output, shown here by capacity factor (the amount of electricity a panel produces relative to the technical maximum). "src =" https://cdn.arstechnica.net/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/china_solar_air_pollution_impact-2-640x297 .png "width =" 640 "height =" 297 "srcset =" https: // cdn .arstechnica.net / wp-content / uploads / 2019/07 / china_solar_air_pollution_impact-2.png 2x
Enlarge / The effect of air pollution on potential solar production, shown here by capacity factor (the amount of electricity, a panel produces in relation to the technical maximum).

The change was not the same everywhere, as air pollution and local conditions varied. In fact, the five worst provinces saw potential generation drops of as much as 20-28 percent. These included industrial centers in the east, but also some clearer high altitude areas in the west, where a small amount of air pollution can have great influence.

If China could return to the air quality of the 1950s, its existing solar installations in 2016 would have produced another 14 terawatt hours of electricity for free. As more solar panels are built, this number will only grow. By 2030, cleaner air could net an additional 70 terawatt hours of electricity each year – approx. 1 percent of the total projected electricity production at that time.

To put some dollar bills on these numbers, the researchers used the current feed-in rate of $ 0.14 per dollar. kilowatt-hour and an expected drop of $ 0.09. kilowatt-hour in 2030. In 2016, this would mean that cleaner air would have brought 1.9 billion. dollars of electricity. By 2030, the extra 13% or so of the solar energy potential could be over $ 6 billion a year .

For another comparison, solar panel efficiency improvements improved an increase of approx. 10 percent between 2005 and 2017, helping to make them more cost-competitive. Getting back to the 1950s air quality would do more than that in China. As a business task, air pollution is stuck in the sun.

Of course, the researchers note that this is a drop in the bucket in relation to the total health and economic costs of air pollution in China. But it adds another valuable and perhaps surprising advantage to eliminating pollution from coal and biomass.

Nature Energy, 2019. DOI: 10.1038 / s41560-019-0412-4 (To DOIs).

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