Air pollution throws shade on India's solar success

September 3, 2017 by Nick Perry
US and Indian scientists measured how man-made particles floating in the air and deposited as grime on solar panels combined to seriously impair sunlight from converting to energy

Air pollution is diminishing India's capacity to harness power from the sun, experts say, undermining billions being invested in renewables as the energy-hungry giant emerges as a solar superpower.

New research has found the smog and dust that sickens millions across India every year is also sapping by more than 25 percent, far beyond levels previously thought.

In the first study of its kind, US and Indian scientists measured how man-made particles floating in the air and deposited as grime on combined to seriously impair sunlight from converting to energy.

This interference causes steep drops in power generation, they found.

At present levels in India, it could amount to roughly 3,900 megawatts of lost energy—six times the capacity of its largest solar farm, a gigantic field of 2.5 million panels.

"A simple calculation shows that this is a big amount of energy we are going to lose," Professor Chinmay Ghoroi, who co-authored the paper, told AFP at the Indian Institute of Technology in Gandhinagar.

These huge losses will only compound as India realises its grand solar ambitions, experts say.

India, the world's third-largest polluter, is banking on solar to electrify homes for hundreds of millions of its poorest citizens without adding to its sizeable carbon footprint.

India, the world's third-largest polluter, is banking on solar projects like these canal-top solar panels in Chandrasan village, near Ahmedabad, to electrify homes for hundreds of millions of its poorest citizens

At the Paris climate summit in 2015, India pledged cuts to its future emissions and vowed to source at least 40 percent of its energy from renewables by 2030—a target it is well on track to exceed.

New panels are being installed so fast that India is expected to more than double capacity this year, overtaking Japan as the world's third-largest solar market.

Billion-dollar hit

But with this spectacular growth comes "an exponential rise in the total amount of money lost" because of , said Mike Bergin, a professor from Duke University in North Carolina, who lead the research published in June.

"We're talking billions of dollars here, easy," he told AFP.

Dust has long been a menace for solar projects in desert states like Rajasthan and Gujarat, where robotic wipers are deployed to ensure panels are cleaned after sandstorms.

But the new research confirmed what solar installers had long suspected—that choking smog from cars, coal plants, crop burning and trash fires was particularly adept at bleeding energy.

The grimy coating that man-made pollutants deposit on solar panels is far more effective at blocking light than dust, and trickier to remove by washing, Bergin and Ghoroi found.

Chinmay Ghoroi, associate professor at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Gandhinagar, next to roof-top solar panels at the IIT building in Gandhinagar, near Ahmedabad

This is especially troublesome in northern India, where fine airborne particles from human activity contribute far more than dust to the dire air quality.

Vinay Rutagi, director of solar consultancy Bridge to India, said rooftop panels in Delhi, one of the world's most polluted cities, produced up to 30 percent less power than the same project just 40 kilometres away.

"The reason for that is the constant haze, the pollution and high dust levels," Rutagi told AFP.

"There is a huge amount of practical evidence on the ground available in this regard."

This bodes ill as the government seeks 40 percent of its solar energy from rooftop panels atop industrial zones and urban centres by 2022.

Walking on sunshine

But there is little appetite for gloomy projections as India's solar sector undergoes an unprecedented boom.

Amid this optimism, new milestones are being surpassed at a dizzying speed.

India's first 1 MW canal-top solar power project in Chandrasan village, some 45 km from Ahmedabad

A behemoth solar park nearing completion in India's southeastern Andhra Pradesh state will rival the world's largest.

In May, wholesale solar prices plunged to record lows, cheaper than the coal-powered electricity that overwhelmingly dominates the power grid.

Dr André Nobre, an expert on the effect of haze on solar generation, found little interest when he presented his findings at a solar summit in Delhi last month.

"People didn't pay much attention," said Nobre, who is head of operations and maintenance at Singapore-based Cleantech Solar, which invests heavily in India.

"They might have a gut feeling, but they might think the impact is negligible."

Rutagi said air pollution was brushed off as "a large, macro issue" by an industry fretting about crashing solar prices and obstacles connecting to the grid.

"From a doability perspective, those issues are much more tractable, or solvable, that air quality issues. People have kind of taken it in their stride," he said.

There are some signs the industry is taking note.

Air pollution is diminishing India's capacity to harness power from the sun, experts say, undermining billions being invested in renewables as the energy-hungry giant emerges as a new solar superpower

Bergin said he was bombarded by emails from Indian solar businesses eager for solutions to fix the problem.

Jinko Solar, a Chinese photovoltaic cell manufacturer, is marketing a coating designed to resist dust and other grime from accumulating on panels, its Indian sales director Vivek Bhardwaj told AFP.

But the putrid skies blocking out the sun have a far more sinister impact: premature deaths from smog have steadily climbed in India to nearly 1.1 million in 2015.

This shadow cast over India's solar success story should encourage policymakers to redouble efforts to clean the skies, Ghoroi said.

"Now that we have identified that air pollution is one of the biggest culprits... if we tackle that, we'll kill two problems together," he said.

Explore further: Air pollution casts shadow over solar energy production

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8 comments

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axemaster
not rated yet Sep 03, 2017
I would view this positively. They will eventually be able to generate 25% more power per panel! And in the meantime they can give some poor people jobs wiping down the panels. Not so bad.
Tom_Andersen
5 / 5 (1) Sep 04, 2017
They can plugin all the solar panels they want, but it won't be enough to power the billion air conditioners the country will install over the next decade or so. Coal is being installed now. To lower pollution India needs to start fracking for gas. Gas for cooking, gas for electric power. Once people can breath and have money then they can decide how best to spend money to lower pollution even more.

If Germany switched from coal to gas they would lower carbon output more than all the solar + wind they have installed to date.

Simple physics - fact can be unpopular.
WillieWard
5 / 5 (1) Sep 04, 2017
Aside air pollution, weather conditions, snow, clouds, dark nights, the birds are another problem for solar panels.
https://www.ergon...alV2.jpg
http://solarsouth...2-02.jpg
http://www.solar-...ls_2.jpg
https://i1.wp.com...50%2C200
But no problem, there is an eco-friendly solution: just install wind turbines, it will slaughter the birds in the midair before they defecate over the panels and the carcasses you can make a barbecue or organic fertilizer.
https://savetheea...bine.jpg
axemaster
5 / 5 (1) Sep 04, 2017
To lower pollution India needs to start fracking for gas


Although this carries the risk of destroying their remaining water supply, which seems unwise for a country already having water shortages...
rrrander
5 / 5 (2) Sep 05, 2017
Solar in an expensive flop. India is awash in thorium. They should be pouring money into creating a reactor than can use it.
Eikka
5 / 5 (1) Sep 05, 2017
If Germany switched from coal to gas they would lower carbon output more than all the solar + wind they have installed to date


And the Russian oligarchs would clap their hands over the stranglehold on western european politics. Why? Because the little green men in Germany succeeded in banning shale gas extraction, so they'd have to buy it from Gazprom.

And because Gazprom produces natural gas out of conventional oil wells, increasing gas production means increasing oil production, which is why they've traditionally traded both in a bundle: if you want gas, you must buy oil, and vice versa.

Eikka
5 / 5 (1) Sep 05, 2017
They can plugin all the solar panels they want, but it won't be enough to power the billion air conditioners the country will install


Due to thermal inertia of buildings, and because people don't run their AC when they're not at home to save money, the air conditioning load is actually delayed vs. peak solar output. Solar peaks at noon, AC peaks 3-4 hours later when solar is already going down.

For example:
https://asm-air.c...raph.jpg
"Home electricity usage reaches peak between 3-7 pm on hot days"

That's another reason why solar PV isn't quite as helpful as commonly thought. The devil is in the details.
rrrander
5 / 5 (1) Sep 06, 2017
Most home services in the West now are operating at the plug at 20amps. This compares to 15amps 2 decades ago. A huge increase. Forget all your energy-saving ideas. Modern living demands more energy. Solar and wind are NOT the way to address this. Their "power density" or "power per input" are simply too low.

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