Air Pollution Can Put a Dent in Solar Power


Study finds lost revenue can be millions of dollars annually, suggests ways to quantify haze-related reductions in solar panel output.

Ian Marius Peters, now an MIT research scientist, was working on solar energy research in Singapore in 2013 when he encountered an extraordinary cloud of pollution. The city was suddenly 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, and the air had the acrid smell of burning. The event, triggered by forest fires in Indonesia and concentrated by unusual wind patterns, lasted two weeks, quickly causing stores to run out of face masks as citizens snapped them up to aid their breathing.

While others were addressing the public health issues of the thick air pollution, Peters’ co-worker Andre Nobre from Cleantech Energy Corp., whose field is also solar energy, wondered about what impact such hazes might have on the output of solar panels in the area. That led to a years-long project to try to quantify just how urban-based solar installations are affected by hazes, which tend to be concentrated in dense cities.

Now, the results of that research have just been published in the journal Energy & Environmental Science, and the findings show that these effects are indeed substantial. In some cases it can mean the difference between a successful solar power installation and one that ends up failing to meet expected production levels — and possibly operates at a loss.

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