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Lockdown’s clean air effect: Delhi’s solar output increased during lockdown, shows MIT study

If there is any silver lining to the COVID-19 pandemic, it is only this – we breathed clean, fresh air as a result of lockdowns worldwide. This pollution-free air, although temporary, has opened doors to a plethora of possibilities when it comes to a cleaner, greener future. One among them is the impact it has had on solar power.

A new study has, for the first time, linked a reduction air pollution to a rise in solar power output. The research, published in the journal Joule, studied the impact the COVID-19 lockdown had on solar photovoltaic panels in Delhi. What it found was an 8% increase in the power output from the installations.

In ‘business-as-usual’ circumstances, it is generally difficult to measure the output so decisively because of natural variations caused by clouds and pollution. But the pandemic, which literally ‘switched off’ air pollution for a while, gave the researchers an unprecedented opportunity to collect data effectively.

What aided the study’s findings was that the researchers, chiefly MIT professor of mechanical engineering Tonio Buonassisi, had been collecting data on solar panel output in Delhi since 2013. This coupled with years-long records of measurements of air pollution caused by fine particulate matter that had been collected by the US Embassy in Delhi gave the researchers enough of a base to work with and to confidently surmise the effect of air pollution on solar output. What they found was a roughly 10% overall fall in solar output in Delhi because of air pollution.

During the lockdown, however, the researchers were able to study the situation in reverse. The study made a comparison between data collected before and after the lockdown was implemented on March 24 and what they found was remarkable.

The pollution levels in one of the smoggiest cities had fallen by 50%. This led to an 8.3% increase in solar panel output in late March, and 5.9% in April. While an 8% increase may not sound like much, the researchers stated that the margins of profit in the solar business are small and therefore even the slightest variations make a sizeable impact. Most importantly, however, this study adds even more weight to the growing argument against fossil fuel use.

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