How bushfire smoke is altering the efficiency of solar panels

The Australian bushfires have had disastrous effects; the scorched land to the expected one billion animals lost to the tragedy. And then there are the thousands of homes destroyed, families left heartbroken and climbing costs for restoration. There’s no denying that the flames could be the worst the country has ever seen, and they’re affecting almost all industries across the nation. 

Renewable energy is no exception. Described as a ‘snowball effect’ by Domain, the immense bushfire smoke blanketing the east coast (and beyond) is reducing the efficiency of solar panels. As a result, the load on coal-fired power plants is increasing – something we were trying to ween ourselves off of.

South-east hit with the worst efficiency rate 

The smoke accumulated over the south-east of Australia is currently causing significant decreases in solar panel efficiency, enough for experts to warn could lead to more action in the ‘snowball effect’.

Solar Analytics – a solar monitoring firm – reported that on New Year’s Day, panels in Canberra were operating at only 55 per cent of their capacity, all because of the considerable amount of pollution and haze.

Since October, when the bushfire disaster first hit headlines, more than 2000 homes have been destroyed, as well as 27 lives (and counting). The resulting smoke quickly made its way across the south-east of Australia, blanketing cities with harmful air quality and drastically affecting visibility. 

Nigel Morris – business development manager of Solar Analytics – said the smoke’s impact saw 15 to 45 per cent in solar production, rather than running at peak capacity. He said it’s a “direct result of the unprecedented smoke haze”.

On December 21, Sydney saw its biggest drop down to 27 per cent, despite it being cloud-free. It should have been an exceptional day for solar panel users, but the smoke stopped all success in its tracks.

The effectiveness of panels in Melbourne is still yet to analysed by the company.

Not unlike cloud cover

Professor Gary Rosengarten from Energy@RMIT said the smoke haze doesn’t have a dissimilar effect on panel generation to cloud cover. There’s only a slight difference.

“What you’re seeing now is the sun’s light isn’t making as much of a sharp shadow as it normally would because the smoke particles are scattering the light, a bit like a cloudy day.”

Because panels are known to absorb radiation from the red and infra-red section of the light spectrum, the haze is likely to be significantly harmful for energy production on days where there’s a red tinge in the sky. However, Rosengarten says more research needs to be done to know whether this is 100 per cent the case.

And though we’ve welcomed the rainfall over the last few days, he says even that can affect output by up to 15 per cent. 

“If it rains a bit or the particles settle down, it can create a dirt layer…[it] will be stuck there until you clean it off,” he said.

The reduction in efficiency is bound to have a direct impact on household finances, Morris noted. In a time of year where generation is usually operating at max capacity, the smoke and prolonged cloud will affect overall electricity costs. 

Data and information gained from Domain.