A truck filled with coal drives down a freeway in China.

Enlarge (credit: Han Jun Zeng / Flickr)

Coal is seen by many as an enemy of renewable energy and the first fossil fuel in line for elimination as things like solar and wind generation have gotten cheaper. But counterattacks from coal can go even further than lobbying against pro-renewable policies, it seems. According to new research, China’s coal-driven air pollution is significantly reducing the output of solar panels by dimming the Sun.

China is easily number one in terms of new solar construction right now, accounting for over half of the world’s installs in 2017, for example. Between 2010 and 2017, China went from having less than 1 gigawatt of solar capacity to 130 gigawatts, and the country is headed for around 400 gigawatts by 2030. After a run of transformative economic growth powered by coal and other fossil fuels, China is dealing with choking air pollution that is a major driving factor in this solar push.

Recent research has compiled a record of solar radiation measurements around China going back to the late 1950s. The research shows a declining trend in solar radiation until about 2005, when it leveled off and began to tick back upward. That tracks the increasing particulate air pollution due to coal-burning power plants and manufacturing—as well as biomass burning—that has only recently been addressed.

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