Air pollution takes a toll on solar energy

Tiny particles in the air and deposited on panels can block sunlight

Shanghai in October 2015

SMOG FOG  By blocking sunlight and dirtying solar panels, air pollution — as in this image of Shanghai on October 12, 2015 — can hamper the production of solar energy.


Air pollution is a drag for renewable energy. Dust and other sky-darkening air pollutants slash solar energy production by 17 to 25 percent across parts of India, China and the Arabian Peninsula, a new study estimates. The haze can block sunlight from reaching solar panels. And if the particles land on a panel’s flat surface, they cut down on the area exposed to the sun. Dust can come from natural sources, but the other pollutants have human-made origins, including cars, factories and coal-fired power plants.

Scientists collected and analyzed dust and pollution particles from solar panels in India, then extrapolated to quantify the impact on solar energy output in all three locations. China, which generates more solar energy than any other country, is losing up to 11 gigawatts of power capacity due to air pollution, the researchers report in the Aug. 8 Environmental Science & Technology Letters. That’s a loss of about $10 billion per year in U.S. energy costs, says study coauthor Mike Bergin of Duke University. Regular cleaning of solar panels can help. Cleaning the air, however, is harder. 

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