China is well-known for its heavy smog. “It’s very bad,” Denise Mauzerall, an atmospheric scientist at Princeton, said. “The air pollution in eastern China can be so bad that you can’t clearly see across the street. It can feel like you’re walking through a heavy fog that’s burning your lungs.”
But smog has other damaging effects too. Mauzerall and her team have found that in winter months the smog in China’s northeastern provinces is so severe that it blocks more than 20 percent of sunlight from reaching the region’s solar panels.
The findings, based on satellite data and photovoltaic performance models, are in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
One solution to the problem might be installing even more solar panels. “This is a virtuous cycle—whereas if you use more solar electricity, you can reduce your use of coal. And that will reduce the air pollution levels, and that will then allow you to produce more solar electricity.”
China hopes to harvest 10 percent of its electricity from solar by 2030. They’ll need 400 gigawatts, or about 10 times what we have installed in the US today. It’s an optimistic forecast for solar electricity and hopefully, for China’s air quality, too.