Can pollution impact solar panel performance?

Alex Crees
By Alex Crees September 4th, 2018
For business

Solar panels are meant to cut down on air pollution – but is it possible that air pollution, in turn, can cut down on the effectiveness of solar panels?

A new study published in Energy & Environmental Science suggests that not only can urban-based solar installations be affected by pollution-based haze, but that that effect can be “substantial.”

Ian Marius Peters, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology research scientist, said he was working on solar energy research in Singapore when the city was “engulfed in a foul-smelling cloud of haze so thick that from one side of a street you couldn’t see the buildings on the other side,” according to an MIT press release.

The haze was triggered by forest fires in Indonesia, made worse by atypical wind patterns, and lasted a total of two weeks.

Inspired by the event, together with co-worker Andre Nobre from Cleantech Energy Corp. and other MIT researchers, Peters set out to quantify the impact of pollution-induced haze on urban solar installations.

From Singapore to Delhi, India

The researchers conducted the bulk of their study in Delhi, India, where unlike Singapore, Peters says the pollution is ‘constant.’

“There’s never a day without pollution,” he said.

For the study, the researchers had to collect data on the amount of solar radiation reaching the ground and the amount of particulate matter in the air as well as calculate the amount of sunlight absorbed or scatted by haze before reaching a solar panel installation.

Based on their calculations, the researchers found the annual average level of attenuation of the solar panel output was approximately 12 percent.

While they acknowledge the amount may not seem large, Peters said it actually exceeds the profit margins of some solar installations and thus has the potential to make the difference between a project that succeeds, and one that fails.

“When you’re doing project planning, if you haven’t considered air pollution, you’re going to undersize, and get a wrong estimate of your return on investment,” Peters said.

If a project fails, the researchers added, it has the potential to cause a ripple effect: deterring others from investing in solar projects.

The worldwide impact of pollution on solar energy

Using preliminary data from 16 other cities around the world, the researchers found haze impacts ranging from 2 percent in Singapore to over 9 percent in Beijing, China.

The researchers also studied the impact of haze on different types of solar cells, including gallium arsenide, cadmium telluride and perovskite cells, and found all of them were affected even more strongly than standard silicon cells.  Perovskite cells, according to the researchers, were affected the most with over 17 percent attenuation in Delhi.

As cities increasingly commit to solar power – India, for example, is targeting 40 gigawatts of rooftop solar installations – the impact of haze-related attenuation could be severe, the researchers said.

They estimated in Delhi the lost revenue from power generation could total as much as $20 million annually, while in Beijing and Shanghai could see losses of approximately $10 million apiece.

In the United States, planned installations in Los Angeles, CA, have the potential to lose between $6 to $9 million.

Worldwide, the researchers said the losses “could easily amount to hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars annually.”

Ultimately, Peters said, this study “hopefully is another small piece of showing that we really should improve air quality in cities, and showing that it really matters.”

Alex Crees is a writer covering issues related to energy, the environment and politics.  Her work has appeared in Fox News and Prevention. Alex earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from New York University.