Solar power is one of the great hopes for clean energy, but in order for solar panels to work, they can’t be where the sun doesn’t shine. That’s why China’s efforts to green up its energy supply are hitting a roadblock. According to a new study, the country’s air pollution has gotten so bad that the sun can’t reach the solar panels—and it’s affecting the solar panels’ output.
The research, published Monday in the journal Nature Energy and first reported by CNET, mapped the impact of China’s air pollution on potential solar output from about 1960 to 2015. Over the years, the generation of solar power in China has declined by 11% to 15% due to air pollution blocking the sun’s rays. The researchers believe that if China managed to get its air quality back to 1960s levels, it could yield 12% to 13% more solar electricity and the economic benefits that goes with it, which they estimate at between $5 billion and $7 billion in U.S. dollars by 2030.
China’s pollution-caused smog, particularly in its larger cities, is infamously awful. According to Greenpeace, in 2017, the deadly fine particulates in Shanghai’s air (called PM2.5) exceeded World Health Organization air-quality guidelines by nearly four times. And that jumped to six times for the air in Beijing.
There’s also cause for concern about the levels of ozone (03) in the air, leading to a risk of lung damage, asthma, and respiratory and cardiovascular diseases. Because coal burning is the leading cause of air pollution in China, switching to green energy was supposed to help alleviate the smog. However, China appears to be stuck in a chicken-or-the-egg situation, where the solar panels can’t work efficiently due to the continued use of coal, but the country can’t switch to solar power until production ramps up, which it can’t do until the air clears.
It’s a brain teaser that could make it difficult for China to continue to push for more renewable energy and reach the goals laid out in the 2016 Paris climate agreement.