According to a new study, air pollution may be limiting the efficiency of solar energy production.
Researchers from Duke, the Indian Institute of Technology at Gandhinagar, and the University of Wisconsin at Madison were investigating the hypothesis and came back with evidence supporting the claim.
Their findings were published last month in the Environmental Science & Technology Letters. Among the researchers were Mike Bergin, professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, as well as Drew Shindell, professor of climate sciences at the Nicholas School of the Environment. According to the research, solar energy production was reduced by about 17 to 25 percent in India, China, and the Arabian Peninsula due to the particles in the air.
Pollution is very toxic to our bodies as well as our food supply, and now there is another thing to add to the list. Shindell claims, “If you really did the economic analysis of these things, you would find that this is yet another reason why the apparently cheap, but very dirty fossil fuels are actually not so cheap.”
The idea of pollution affecting the efficiency of solar energy production occurred to Bergin while he was traveling in India. One of his colleagues took Bergin to the roof to show him their solar panels when he noticed how they were very dirty and “totally covered” with dust particles.
Shindell created a global climate model that quantifies the effects of air pollution relative to the solar panel’s baseline. Using the global climate model, Bergin was able to predict “the amount of sunlight getting to the surface and how much of it was being blocked because of air pollution” around the world. These models were also tested in field experiments, which ended up providing very similar results.
According to Shindell, the reduction of solar productivity in China was due to the pollution caused by human activity. On the other hand, in India and the Arabian Peninsula the reduction of solar productivity could have been caused by other factors as well, such as the arid climate and the wind being blown from the desert.
“What [the Arabian Peninsula needs to do] is clean the panels fairly often, maybe more often than other places or after their big dust storms because there’s so much material blowing around in the air there,” Shindell said.
Although the amount of pollution has reduced vastly over the past 30 years, there is still a lot of work to do to make a real difference as well as enhance solar energy productivity.
“There’s a lot of really awesome benefits of decreasing these [human-generated] pollutants,” Bergin said. “If you decrease these particulates, you would get less carbon dioxide, less people getting sick from breathing these things in. But also now, we come to find that you would also have a dramatic increase in solar energy production. It’s kind of something that people had not foreseen, but I think this is just another great benefit of reducing emissions of air pollutants.”
If the amount of pollution caused by human activity continues to decrease, it will not only be beneficial to mankind, but the environment around us as well.