Solar power generation records have been set in three of Europe’s largest markets, with cleaner air as a result of the coronavirus pandemic a contributing factor.
Reduced air pollution from the lockdown has contributed to new records in Germany and the U.K., while Spain’s bumper year of installations in 2019 is going through its first springtime boost.
Records are common at this time of year as panels installed in the previous autumn and winter make their first meaningful contribution to the grid. This time around, however, the effect is more pronounced.
With traffic off the roads, planes out the skies and many industries closed, some sources of air pollution have fallen drastically. The British government has detected a 25 percent decline in nitrogen dioxide levels, but the drop is thought to be even more pronounced, up to half, in the most polluted locations in the country.
The U.K. solar record was broken on Monday this week when production peaked at 9.68 gigawatts, according to data from Sheffield Solar, a project run by the University of Sheffield. The previous record was 9.55 gigawatts, set in May last year.
Solar panels also perform better in cooler temperatures, so while the U.K. was bathed in spring sunshine on Monday, the average temperature was only around 57 degrees Fahrenheit (14 degrees Celsius) and only just inched above 66 degrees F in the southernmost part of the country. Module performance starts to degrade above 77 degrees F. A decrease of around 0.4 percent per degree Celsius is fairly typical among products from the big manufacturers.
“Ideal weather conditions and lower levels of pollution than normal mean solar is providing record levels of cheap, clean power to the grid,” said Chris Hewett, chief executive of the U.K.’s Solar Trade Association (STA) in a statement. “At a time when most of us are working remotely, we can say that solar is truly keeping the Wi-Fi on.”
The U.K. is now approaching two weeks without any coal power on the grid, according to the STA.
In Germany, record solar generation was also achieved on Monday with a peak of 32.2 gigawatts, according to Bloomberg, as the same favorable conditions took hold.
Spanish solar boom makes its mark
Spain broke its generation record on March 26, according to network operator Red Eléctrica, but newly connected projects from last year and this year are most likely the reason for that.
The new peak record surpassed 6.3 gigawatts, about a quarter of mainland Spain’s power demand at the time.
Earlier this month, Iberdrola grid-connected the 500-megawatt Núñez de Balboa project. With that extra capacity, it is possible the new record has already been broken. Statistics for this month will be released in May.
Spain added 4.7 gigawatts of new solar capacity in 2019, making it the largest market in Europe and ensuring that any previous records for generation were not going to survive 2020.
Pollution can block solar radiation directly and make panels dirtier. Aerosols like sulfur dioxide also seed more cloud cover, reducing the output of PV systems below.
Last summer, a peer-reviewed research paper published in the journal Nature Energy (PDF) assessed just how much air pollution impacted the output of solar assets in China.
The team, led by researchers from ETH Zürich, found losses of 11 to 15 percent between 1960 and 2015. If pollution was decreased to the levels seen in 1960, an extra $1.9 billion of electricity could have been generated in 2016. By 2030, when China is forecast to have 400 gigawatts of installed solar, the additional revenue could reach $6.7 billion a year.