New research shows that solar power output increases as skies clear

As the air cleared after lockdowns, solar installations in Delhi produced 8% more power, study shows.

According to findings published in the journal Joule, researchers
from MIT have demonstrated that clearer skies have an impact on the output from
solar PV panels, leading to an 8% increase in the power output from
installations in Delhi after shutdowns and stay-at-home orders took effect. Mechanical
engineer, Tonio Buonassisi, research scientist Ian Marius Peters, and three
others in Singapore and Germany, conducted the research.

The scientists said that this is the first study to demonstrate
and quantify the impact of the reduced air pollution on solar output. The
effect should apply to solar installations worldwide but would normally be very
difficult to measure against a background of natural variations. The conditions
triggered by COVID-19, with its sudden cessation of normal activities, combined
with high-quality air-pollution data from one of the world’s smoggiest cities,
afforded the opportunity to harness data from an unprecedented, unplanned
natural experiment.

The study was an extension of previous research in Delhi. The
impetus for the work came after an unusual weather pattern in 2013 swept a
concentrated plume of smoke from forest fires in Indonesia across a vast swath
of Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore, where Peters, who had just arrived in
the region, found “it was so bad that you couldn’t see the buildings on the
other side of the street.”

Peters decided to investigate the effects of air pollution on
solar panel output. The team had data on both solar panel output and solar insolation,
and they saw that during the 18-day-long haze event, the performance of some
types of solar panels decreased, while others stayed the same or increased

Peters later learned that a high-quality, years-long record of
actual measurements of fine particulate air pollution (particles less than 2.5
micrometers in size) had been collected every hour, year after year, at the
U.S. Embassy in Delhi. That provided the necessary baseline for determining the
actual effects of pollution on solar panel output; the researchers compared the
air pollution data from the embassy with meteorological data on cloudiness and
the solar irradiation data from the sensors.

They identified a roughly 10% overall reduction in output from the
solar installations in Delhi because of pollution.

To see the impact of COVID-19, researchers used the mathematical
tools they had developed, along with the embassy’s ongoing data collection, to
see the impact of reductions in travel and factory operations. They compared
the data from before and after India went into mandatory lockdown on March 24
and compared this with data from the previous three years.

Pollution levels were down by 50% after the shutdown, they found.
As a result, the total output from the solar panels increased by 8.3% in late
March, and by 5.9% in April.

“These deviations are much larger than the typical variations we
have” within a year or from year to year, Peters says — three to four times
greater. “So, we can’t explain this with just fluctuations.” The amount of
difference, he says, is roughly the difference between the expected performance
of a solar panel in Houston versus one in Toronto.

An 8% increase in output might not sound like much, Buonassisi
says, but “the margins of profit are very small for these businesses.” If a
solar company was expecting to get a 2% profit margin out of their expected 100%
panel output, and suddenly they are getting 108% output, that means their
margin has increased fivefold, from 2% to 10%.

“This is the first real quantitative evaluation where you almost
have a switch that you can turn on and off for air pollution, and you can see
the effect,” he says. “You have an opportunity to baseline these models with
and without air pollution.”

By doing so, he states, “it gives a glimpse into a world with
significantly less air pollution.” It also demonstrates that increasing the usage
of solar electricity, and thus displacing fossil-fuel generation pollution,
makes those panels more efficient.

The research team included C. Brabec and J. Hauch at the
Helmholtz-Institute Erlangen-Nuremberg for Renewable Energies, in Germany,
where Peters also now works, and A. Nobre at Cleantech Solar in Singapore. The
work was supported by the Bavarian State Government.


  1. ^ Renewable Energy World Content Team (
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