Coronavirus lockdown leads to less air pollution, more clean energy

NUREMBERG, Germany — Shortly after the coronavirus lockdown began, people around the world started sharing pictures of an amazing phenomenon taking place — major cities were suddenly clear of air pollution and smog. It turns out cities aren’t just cleaner, they’re gathering more power during the pandemic. A team of scientists in Germany report that solar panels are able to harvest more energy from the sun now that the air is cleaner than usual.

Researchers from the Helmholtz-Institute Erlangen-Nürnberg for Renewable Energies say pollutants hang in the air and block the sun’s rays. With more people living in quarantine, there is less air pollution and this produces more clean energy.

Air pollution capital gets cleaned up

One of the cities scientists are using for their studies is Delhi, India. Since it usually experiences high levels of air pollution, researchers believe there are many COVID-19-related effects taking place here.

“Delhi is one of the most polluted cities on the planet,” says first author Ian Marius Peters in a media release. “Moreover, India enacted a drastic and sudden lockdown at the start of the pandemic. That means that reductions in air pollution happened very suddenly, making them easier to detect.”

The ERN team used the photovoltaic (PV) system to capture the solar radiation in Delhi. Scientists then compared the output of the PV solar panels in late March of 2020 with data from the same time period in 2017-2019. The results reveal solar panels are able to collect eight percent more sunlight this year than in previous years.

“The increase that we saw is equivalent to the difference between what a PV installation in Houston would produce compared with one in Toronto,” Peters explains. “I expected to see some difference, but I was surprised by how clearly the effect was visible.”

Flattening the ‘climate curve’

Peters adds the study shows the significance of cutting down on worldwide pollutants, whether people are living in quarantine or not.

“We’ve gotten a glimpse of what a world with better air looks like and see that there may be an opportunity to ‘flatten the climate curve.’ I believe solar panels can play an important role, and that going forward having more PV installations could help drive a positive feedback loop that will result in clearer and cleaner skies.”

The study is published in the journal Joule.

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