Quantcast

China’s Deadly Air Pollution Is Also Costing Billions in Solar Efficiency

Renewable Energy
A solar plant above a pond at the mining subsidence area in Liuqiao Town in Huaibei, Anhui Province of China on Dec. 11, 2017. VCG / VCG via Getty Images

China is leading the way on renewable energy, having installed half the world's solar panels in 2017. But its transformative economic growth fueled by coal and other fossil fuels and its outsized manufacturing sector have coughed up so much air pollution that it has blocked adequate sunlight from reaching its solar panels, according to a new study published this week in Nature Energy.


The researchers behind the study analyzed incoming sunlight at 119 different points around China from 1960 to 2015. They found that sunlight dimmed over the 55-year span and that average solar generation declined 11 to 15 percent during that time. If China could clean up its air enough to revert back to the air quality it had in 1960, it could yield a 12 to 13 percent increase in electricity production and save billions each year. The study projects that cleaner air would save $5 to $7 billion in 2030, according to CNET.

In economic terms, that 11 to 15 percent decline in solar output cost China the equivalent of $1.9 billion in 2016, which is enough to have powered 1.3 million homes in the U.S. for one year, as Interesting Engineering reported.

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

As if the gnarly images of dimmed skies, smog so thick it's impossible to see the skyline, and people walking around in face masks were not enough, the statistics behind the health effects of air pollution are enough to justify strict emissions regulations and a push towards renewable energy. Nearly 38 percent of Chinese citizens, or 532 million people, are breathing appallingly polluted air daily, which accounts for nearly 750,000 premature deaths each year, as Interesting Engineering reported.

The benefits cleaner air would offer to the economy and the solar industry are an 'energy boost,' but pale in comparison to a healthier citizenry, said Sweerts, as Earther reported.

Also, the energy boost varied depending on where the solar panels were. The five most polluted provinces actually saw potential energy generation declines of 20 to 28 percent. These areas included industrial centers in the east, but also some high-elevation areas in the west where a small amount of air pollution has a big impact, as ArsTechnica reported.

For a country set on energy independence and unfettered economic growth, cleaning up its air would have the win-win effect of healthier air that saves lives and improved solar panel efficiency that saves money.

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Investing in grid infrastructure would enable utilities to incorporate modern technology, making the grid more resilient and flexible. STRATMAN2 / FLICKR

By Elliott Negin

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences' recent decision to award the 2019 Nobel Prize in Chemistry to scientists who developed rechargeable lithium-ion batteries reminded the world just how transformative they have been. Without them, we wouldn't have smartphones or electric cars. But it's their potential to store electricity generated by the sun and the wind at their peak that promises to be even more revolutionary, reducing our dependence on fossil fuels and protecting the planet from the worst consequences of climate change.

Read More Show Less
Two Javan rhinos deep in the forests of Ujung Kulon National Park, the species' last habitat on Earth. Sugeng Hendratno / WWF

By Basten Gokkon

The global population of the critically endangered Javan rhinoceros has increased to 72 after four new calves were spotted in the past several months.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
A tiger looks out from its cage at a new resort and zoo in the eastern Lao town of Tha Bak on Dec. 5, 2018. Karl Ammann believes the "zoo" is really a front for selling tigers. Terrence McCoy / The Washington Post / Getty Images

Are tigers extinct in Laos?

That's the conclusion of a detailed new study that found no evidence wild tigers still exist in the country.

Read More Show Less

A group of scientists is warning that livestock production must not expand after 2030 for the world to stave off ecological disaster.

Read More Show Less
The largest wetland in Africa is in the South Sudan. George Steinmetz / Corbis Documentary / Getty Images Plus

Methane emissions are a far more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide – about 28 times more powerful. And they have been rising steadily since 2007. Now, a new study has pinpointed the African tropics as a hot spot responsible for one-third of the global methane surge, as Newsweek reported.

Read More Show Less