Can Poor Air Quality Reduce the Efficiency of Solar Energy?

Because solar energy is a significant investment, the question remains: can poor air quality reduce its effectiveness?

High-end housing developments are increasingly using sustainability as a selling point, with features such as solar panels, home automation technology, and battery storage attracting buyers with an eye for eco-friendliness. This demand has a trickle-down effect, with states such as California decreeing that as of 2020, all new builds will be powered by the sun. Because solar energy is a significant investment, the question remains: can poor air quality reduce its effectiveness and if so, what steps can homeowners take to enhance the quality of home air?

Air Pollution and Solar Energy

Until 2019, few tests had been carried out on the effects that poor air can have on solar energy. This year, however, a study published in the journal Nature energy showed that poor air quality indeed reduces the amount of sunlight that enters solar installations. This undermines the ability of solar energy to provide the required needs of homeowners and state solar installations alike. The study, carried out in China, found that the average decrease in energy potential was 11-15% between the years 1960 and 2015 — owing to pollution. The researchers stated that strict air pollution control, combined with reduced fossil fuel consumption, would increase the amount of radiation by between 12 and 13%. Moreover, studies by MIT research scientist Ian Marius Peters found that in the most populated cities in the world, the lost revenue from power generation could amount to $20 million annually.

The Effect of Outdoor Air Pollution on Indoor Air Quality

The EPA has warned that indoor air quality in American homes can be two to five times worse than the air quality outside. However, outdoor air pollution has an undeniable effect on the quality of air indoors. Research by P.M. Shrestha and colleagues, published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, reminds readers that features such as particulate matter, wildfires, and road proximity are key determinants of indoor pollutant concentrations as well. 

Why Does Pollution Hamper Solar Energy Efficiency?

The reason that solar panels cannot function as optimally as intended, is the accumulation of aerosol particles on PV (photovoltaic) panels. A 2019 study published in Science of the Total Environment looked at the impact of air quality on PV systems in the U.S. The scientists found that in cities like Texas, the loss of energy could be estimated at 3.17 ± 4.20%. Results were similar for systems located in Colorado.

Solar Energy a Cost-Effective Path to Reduced Fossil Fuel Reliance

Solar energy is a vital link in the chain when it comes to reducing pollution levels – both indoors and outdoors. It is important that high-end homeowners and investors in the property industry be aware of the long-term savings and potential income solar energy can bring. Companies that invest in solar energy can create all the power they need and sells excess kilowatts to a utility. Individual homeowners can also save considerably. The Energy Commission estimates that solar panels cost $8,400 in terms of upfront costs, though, in the long term, homes can save around $19,000 over a three-decade period. 

Improving Indoor Air Quality

Reducing pollution levels outdoors clearly depends on both governments and individuals. Because homeowners know that the outdoor levels affect their indoor atmosphere, it is important to take steps to ensure air quality at home is as good as it can be. This can be achieved through a multifaceted approach which includes the use of humidifiers and air purifiers. This should be potent enough for the amount of space they cover, be energy efficient, and produce no ozone, ions, or white dust. Filter-free machines make life easier for homeowners, who can count on efficient operation with minimal upkeep.

Additional Steps

Homeowners should also be aware of items in the home that can increase pollution levels. These include wood pressed furniture (which emit VOCs), soft furnishings made with flame retardants (these emit formaldehyde), and poor ventilation systems. The choice of cleaning products is also relevant. Homeowners should be encouraged to opt for tried-and-tested machine-based cleaning (such as steam vacuums) instead of harsh and toxic cleaning products such as bleach.

Air quality has a direct impact on the efficiency of solar energy. This is because particles settle on PV panels, reducing their ability to generate energy. Solar panels continue to be an important part of keeping the air clean, but more needs to be done on a governmental and individual level so as to reduce pollution in urban zones.