Impact of solar panels on global climate

Abstract

Regardless of the harmful effects of burning fossil fuels on global climate1,2, other energy sources will become more important in the future because fossil fuels could run out by the early twenty-second century3 given the present rate of consumption4. This implies that sooner or later humanity will rely heavily on renewable energy sources. Here we model the effects of an idealized large-scale application of renewable energy on global and regional climate relative to a background climate of the representative concentration pathway 2.6 scenario (RCP2.6; ref. 5). We find that solar panels alone induce regional cooling by converting incoming solar energy to electricity in comparison to the climate without solar panels. The conversion of this electricity to heat, primarily in urban areas, increases regional and global temperatures which compensate the cooling effect. However, there are consequences involved with these processes that modulate the global atmospheric circulation, resulting in changes in regional precipitation.

Access options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.

from$8.99

All prices are NET prices.

Figure 1: Surface temperature.
Figure 2: Precipitation.

References

  1. 1

    IPCC in Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability (eds Field, C. B. et al.) (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2014).

    Google Scholar 

  2. 2

    IPCC in Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis (eds Stocker, T. F. et al.) (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2013).

    Google Scholar 

  3. 3

    Shafiee, S. & Topal, E. When will fossil fuel reserves be diminished? Energy Policy 37, 181–189 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. 4

    Key World Energy Statistics (International Energy Agency, 2013).

  5. 5

    Van Vuuren, D. P. et al. RCP2.6: Exploring the possibility to keep global mean temperature increase below 2 °C. Clim. Dynam. 109, 95–116 (2011).

    Google Scholar 

  6. 6

    International Energy Outlook 2013 DOE/EIA-0484 (US Energy Information Administration, US Department of Energy, 2013).

  7. 7

    Rogner, H.-H. et al. Global Energy Assessment-Toward a Sustainable Future Ch. 7, 423–512 (Cambridge Univ. Press and the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, 2012).

    Google Scholar 

  8. 8

    Kamat, P. V. Meeting the clean energy demand: Nanostructure architectures for solar energy conversion. J. Phys. Chem. 111, 2834–2860 (2007).

    CAS  Google Scholar 

  9. 9

    Gent, P. R. et al. The Community Climate System Model version 4. J. Clim. 24, 4973–4991 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. 10

    Oleson, K. W., Bonan, G. B., Feddema, J. & Jackson, T. An examination of urban heat island characteristics in a global climate model. Int. J. Clim. 31, 1848–1865 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. 11

    Clarke, L. et al. in Climate Change 2014: Mitigation of Climate Change (eds Edenhofer, O. et al.) 413–510 (IPCC, Cambridge Univ. Press, 2014).

    Google Scholar 

  12. 12

    Rephaeli, E. & Fan, S. Absorber and emitter for solar thermo-phtovoltaic systems to achieve efficiency exceeding the Shockley–Queisser limit. Opt. Express 17, 15145–15159 (2009).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  13. 13

    Bermel, P. et al. Design and global optimization of high-efficiency thermophotovoltaic systems. Opt. Express 18, A314–A334 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. 14

    Chukwula, C. & Folly, K. A. Overview of concentrated photovoltaic (CPV) cells. J. Power Energy Eng. 2, 1–8 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. 15

    Lenert, A. et al. A nanophotonic solar thermophotovoltaic device. Nature Nanotech. 9, 126–130 (2014).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  16. 16

    Kurokawa, K. et al. (eds) Energy from the Desert: Very Large Scale Photovoltaic System (Earthscan, 2007).

  17. 17

    Meehl et al. in Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis (eds Solomon, S. et al.) 747–845 (IPCC, Cambridge Univ. Press, 2007).

    Google Scholar 

  18. 18

    Millstein, D. & Menon, S. Regional climate consequences of large scale cool roof and photovoltaic array deployment. Environ. Res. Lett. 6, 034001 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. 19

    Taha, H. The potential for air-temperature impact from large scale deployment of solar photovoltaic arrays in urban areas. Sol. Energy 91, 358–367 (2013).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  20. 20

    Masson, V. et al. Solar panels reduce both global warming and urban heat island. Front. Environ. Sci. 2, 14 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. 21

    Collins, M. et al. in Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis (eds Stocker, T. F. et al.) 1029–1136 (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2013).

    Google Scholar 

  22. 22

    Zhang, G. J., Cai, M. & Hu, A. Energy consumption and the unexplained winter warming over northern Asia and North America. Nature Clim. Change 3, 466–470 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references

Acknowledgements

A portion of this study was supported by the Regional and Global Climate Modelling Program (RGCM) of the US Department of Energy’s Office of Science (BER), Cooperative Agreement No. DE-FC02-97ER62402. This research used computing resources of the Climate Simulation Laboratory at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), which is sponsored by the National Science Foundation; the Oak Ridge Leadership Computing Facility, which is supported by the Office of Science of the US Department of Energy under Contract DE-AC05-00OR22725. The National Center for Atmospheric Research is sponsored by the National Science Foundation.

Author information

Affiliations

Authors

Contributions

A.H. designed and led the study. A.H., S.L., G.A.M., W.H., W.M.W., K.W.O., B.J.v.R., M.H. and W.G.S. contributed to the model simulations, data analysis, and all authors actively contributed towards writing the manuscript.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Aixue Hu.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Hu, A., Levis, S., Meehl, G. et al. Impact of solar panels on global climate. Nature Clim Change 6, 290–294 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate2843

Download citation

Further reading

Search

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing