China Could Massively Increase Solar Power Generation by Fighting Smog

In Beijing, the air is so bad that a brown sheath made of exhaust gases from cars, coal fires, and industry covers the city, blowing significant amounts of dangerous particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, and soot into the atmosphere.

Milky, gray smog shrouds many of the valleys and lowlands of eastern China in January 2017. The orange star marks the location of Beijing. (Image credit: Nasa Earth Observatory)

The polluted air has detrimental effects on human health. In fact, air pollution accounts for about 1.6 million premature deaths every year in China alone, and more than 7 million across the globe, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Victims are known to suffer lung diseases, heart attacks, or strokes.

Hence, China has started to introduce stringent measures to fight air pollution, and also as a means to mitigate CO2 emissions. In addition to other things, the government has made considerable investments in the deployment of emission-free solar power and intends to further expand photovoltaic systems in the coming days. However, at present, air pollution in China still continues to be high, with smog not only damaging public health but also reducing the solar radiation reaching the ground. This in turn considerably decreases the power output of present photovoltaic systems.

Electricity industry benefits from clean air

Therefore, clean air will significantly benefit the solar energy sector, as demonstrated by researcher Mercè Labordena and her coworkers from the Climate Policy group at ETH Zurich in a study recently reported in the journal PLOS ONE.

The scientists determined that by 2040, China would have the capacity to offer 85–158 TW hours of more electricity every year with present photovoltaic systems and also those that would have been developed by then. Conversely, this objective can be realized only if emissions from all sectors—households, industry, transport, and power—are fully eliminated. The extra production will be at least one-third greater than the present electricity needs of Switzerland and allow the Chinese electricity sector to generate around 10.1 billion US dollars more from solar power production.

The model shows that solar radiation is likely to increase by an average of 11% nationwide due to stringent air pollution control measures. This will enable solar cells to produce one-tenth extra electricity. Yet, the possibility for growth is not equal in all parts of the nation. For instance, in Beijing, solar radiation is likely to increase by just 8%, but the rate would be 26% in central Chinese provinces like Chongqing.

Good news for investors

Moreover, when Labordena and her colleagues measured the cost of launching best practice emission standards in all areas of the economy, they found that revenue resulting from increased photovoltaic generation may possibly cover 13%–17% of the cost of the rigorous air pollution control measures required to realize the zero-emission target.

Our figures could be good news for investors,” she continued. If the air was pollution-free, their investments will pay off more rapidly and free up money for more expansion of photovoltaics, she stated.

In the coming days, the solar investors on the east coast are the ones who might benefit considerably from the government’s implementation of rigorous air pollution control measures because solar expansion is developing the fastest in this region.

This made Labordena to infer that mitigating air pollution in the populated cities on the east coast will benefit public health and, at the same time, will expedite the fight against global warming and the transition to renewable energy.

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