Air pollution is blocking sunlight and damaging China’s solar potential

China may miss out on billions of dollars’ worth of solar power production due to air pollution reducing its sunlight, researchers have found.

‘Global dimming’ caused by aerosols and soot may stunt photovoltaic (PV) production by 11-15% compared to its potential had China’s air quality stayed the same as it was in the 1960s, says a study led by the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETH Zurich).

Researchers believe that China’s poor air quality could cost the country between $4.6bn and $6.7bn by 2030 unless urgent action is taken on air pollution.

‘The results suggest that a return to the clean air of the early 1960s would massively improve the productivity of existing and future PV systems,’ said Stefan Pfenninger, co-author of the study at the Institute for Environmental Decisions (IED) at ETH Zurich.

Air pollution in Tiananmen Square, Beijing. China’s PV production could be stunted by 11-15% due to its poor air quality, researchers at ETH Zurich have said.

The researchers looked at radiation data collated from 120 monitoring stations throughout China comparing this with industrial emissions data to project the extent to which air pollution is likely to reduce the intensity of China’s sunlight.

Their analysis, published in the journal Nature Energy, found that returning China’s air quality to 1960 levels could increase the country’s PV power output by 12-13%, producing an additional 51-74TWh by 2030.

China currently produces more solar photovoltaic (PV) electricity than any other country – in 2018 17 gigawatts of solar panels were connected to its grid, totalling over a third of the world’s total PV capacity.

By 2030, the country is forecast to have at least 400 gigawatts of PV capacity, allowing solar power to provide at least 10% of its primary energy.

The scientists say that this capacity could still improve thanks to China’s progress in reversing its air pollution, as the country’s sulphur dioxide (SO2) and soot emissions have fallen since 1995 due to emissions control measures.

Martin Wild, adjunct professor at the Institute for Atmospheric and Climate Science (IAC) at ETH Zurich said: ‘When it comes to addressing air pollution, China is trailing Europe by about 20 years,’ before adding: ‘The trend has also been positive in China recently, with a slight increase in sunlight on the earth’s surface.’

The research results echo the findings of other studies, which say that while air pollution remains a significant issue in China, the country is starting to tackle the problem.

The 2018 Air Quality Report, conducted by the environmental tech company IQAir in collaboration with Greenpeace, showed that average PM2.5 concentrations of cities in China fell by 12% between 2017 and 2018.

Photo Credit: Michael Davis-Burchat/Flickr