China's Solar Industry Could Get a Nearly £5.6 Billion Boost From Cleaning Up Air Pollution

By Brian Kahn on at

Reducing air pollution is objectively good. In addition to providing huge public health benefits, new findings show it would also give China's solar generating industry a big boost in productivity.

The research published Monday in Nature Energy reveal that decades of increasing air pollution has decreased the potential amount of solar power generated in China by up to 15 per cent by blocking sunlight from reaching the ground. But the good news is that winding down pollution to 1960 levels would clear the air and ramp up solar production that will be crucial in curbing climate change.

China’s huge industrial manufacturing sector and reliance on coal power has created a pollution crisis, leading to Blade Runner-like images of dulled sunsets. It’s also responsible for thousands of deaths each year with an estimated 38 per cent of Chinese citizens exposed to unhealthy air on the regular. That alone is enough to justify China’s more stringent air regulations, but the new findings have uncovered what the researchers call an “electricity bonus.”

“There is a direct energy-related benefit of cleaner air,” Bart Sweerts, the energy researcher at ETH Zürich who led the study, told Gizmodo. “As such, this study provides a supporting argument for the primary driver behind air pollution control measures: reducing the detrimental effects on health.

Solar panels obviously require sun to generate power. The problem with air pollution is that it gets in the way of said sun, reducing panels’ ability to generate energy. Researchers used a dataset of incoming sunlight measured at 119 stations across China from 1960-2015 to gauge the solar generating capacity across the nation. The results showed that sunlight dimmed over the 55 years, resulting in diminishing capacity particularly in the winter months. While it’s possible changes in cloud cover may have played a minor role, the majority of evidence indicates that pollution is the driving factor for the diminished sunlight. The researchers then gauged how this affected different types of solar installations ranging from rooftop solar to utility-scale solar farms where panels were fixed in place or rotated to follow the sun.

The results show that by 2016, the dimmer skies meant China was missing out on generating 14 terawatt hours of solar power each year or enough energy to power more than 1.3 million American homes. It also cost utilities £1.5 billion in lost power generation. China is plowing more money than any country on Earth into renewables, including solar, and the financial and power losses will mount if it doesn’t move forward with plans to clean up its pollution.

The findings show if China were to clean up air pollution to match 1960 levels while ramping up its solar generating capacity as expected, it could cash in on that electricity bonus by generating up to 74 terawatt hours more solar electricity by 2030 compared to if pollution stayed at 2015 levels. It would also boost utilities’ bottom line by up to £5.3 billion. China isn’t alone in facing these challenges either with other countries—particularly India—potentially forfeiting billions in solar power losses to polluted air.

That’s small potatoes compared to the £1.8 trillion drag air pollution is on the health and well-being of people across the Asia Pacific region. But it’s a pretty good reminder that there are very clear co-benefits to addressing air pollution, especially since humanity will need to wring every last benefit out of renewable energy to avert a climate catastrophe.