Study: Climate change could slash solar electricity

Source: By David Iaconangelo, E&E News reporter • Posted: Monday, October 19, 2020

Climate change is likely to cause solar panels in some parts of the world to produce power more intermittently, complicating efforts to preserve the electric grid’s reliability, according to new research.

In a first-of-a-kind study, environmental engineers at Princeton University, Khalifa University in the United Arab Emirates and Nanjing University in China used satellite data and climate models to gauge how daily levels of solar radiation would change by 2050.

They found that clouds, along with dust and other airborne particles, would move differently from in the past, causing more overcast days in sunny areas. That in turn would lead to “direct impacts on solar power reliability.”

“What you see from the results is that [solar production] is going to be much more intermittent,” said Amilcare Porporato, a co-author and professor of civil and environmental engineering at Princeton.

Overall, the researchers found that hot, arid regions like the American Southwest were most vulnerable to future changes in sunlight.

Parts of the Middle East — seen as an optimal site for photovoltaics — could see more overcast days, making them as much as 8% more likely to supply a smaller amount of energy than the grid demanded. Conversely, panels installed in central European countries could produce more energy than before, becoming about 4% more reliable, according to the study published in the journal Nature Communications last week.

In the U.S., the findings tended to be less conclusive. But solar’s reliability would also likely take a hit in the Southwest and California, making less power available in those areas, said Porporato.

In January, “strong variations” in solar radiation and power reliability were also expected in the northern U.S., according to the study.

Energy storage might help mitigate that issue, but more of it would be required than before, adding extra cost to achieve the same level of solar energy to the grid, researchers said.

Future scenarios for solar energy production should give “special attention” to the changing outlook because of climate change, the authors wrote.

“If we do good statistical analyses, we can handle this,” said Porporato. But the changes in reliability were “a big deal.”

“If you make a mistake of 8%” in calculating solar production, he noted, “it’s going to cost you a lot of money. … We need to prepare for that additional intermittency.”