STUDY: China’s Pollution Is So Bad That Solar Panels Aren’t Even Working

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Michael Bastasch DCNF Managing Editor
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China’s air pollution problem is hurting the country’s green energy goals, according to a new study.

Aerosols resulting from power plants and motor vehicles may be blocking out sunlight and reducing solar power output as much as 35 percent in China’s northern and eastern industrial zones, according to a Princeton University study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Chinese officials have taken the country’s pollution problems more seriously in recent years as economic growth wanes. Environmental officials have shut down entire industrial regions to, at least temporarily, clear up air quality. Coal plants and mines have been shut down and replaced with natural gas in some places to alleviate pollution.

“We understand that current air quality fails to meet people’s expectations,” China’s Minister of Environmental Protection Li Ganjie told reporters on Monday. “People should be patient about improvements in air quality improvement as it will take time to solve such a big problem.”

Environment officials have a goal to meet air quality goals by 2035, but new research suggests China’s pollution could also be hampering the goal to get 10 percent of electricity from solar energy.

“Developing countries with severe air pollution that are rapidly expanding solar power, such as China and India, often neglect the role of aerosols in their planning, but it can be an important factor to consider,” Charles Li, lead author and Ph.D. candidate at Princeton, said in a statement.

Li used NASA satellite data and models to estimate that as much as “one and a half kilowatt-hour per square meter per day, or up to 35 percent” of solar power is lost because of pollution particles blocking sunlight, according to the study’s release. Air pollution particles reflect solar radiation back into space.

“That’s enough to power a vacuum cleaner for one hour, wash 12 pounds of laundry or work on a laptop for five to 10 hours,” the study’s press release on Monday claims.

Interestingly enough, these same regions of China have seen a 20-year cooling trend, according to a recent study. Scientists say aerosols can can have cooling effects on climate because they reduce the amount of solar radiation coming through the atmosphere.

“During the past two decades since 1997, eastern China has experienced a warming hiatus punctuated by significant cooling in minimum temperature (Tmin), particularly during early-mid winter,” researchers with the China Meteorological Administration wrote in a July study.

“There is no evidence indicating a termination of the recent warming hiatus in eastern China,” researchers found. “The question of when the accelerated warming trend will resume needs to be answered by climate model prediction.”

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