Estimation of losses in solar energy production from air pollution in China since 1960 using surface radiation data


China is the largest worldwide consumer of solar photovoltaic (PV) electricity, with 130 GW of installed capacity as of 2017. China’s PV capacity is expected to reach at least 400 GW by 2030, to provide 10% of its primary energy. However, anthropogenic aerosol emissions and changes in cloud cover affect solar radiation in China. Here, we use observational radiation data from 119 stations across China to show that the PV potential decreased on average by 11–15% between 1960 and 2015. The relationship between observed surface radiation and emissions of sulfur dioxide and black carbon suggests that strict air pollution control measures, combined with reduced fossil fuel consumption, would allow surface radiation to increase. We find that reverting back to 1960s radiation levels in China could yield a 12–13% increase in electricity generation, equivalent to an additional 14 TWh produced with 2016 PV capacities, and 51–74 TWh with the expected 2030 capacities. The corresponding economic benefits could amount to US$1.9 billion in 2016 and US$4.6–6.7 billion in 2030.

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Fig. 1: Changes in national CFs from 1960–2015 in China.
Fig. 2: Provincial five-year mean CFs in China.
Fig. 3: Historic CFs and absolute change over the past 50 years on the provincial level.
Fig. 4: Aerosol emissions, estimated CFs and air pollution policy regulations from 1960–2015.

Data availability

A subset of the data used in this paper is available from the Chinese Meteorological Administration data portal ( The data that support the plots within this paper and other findings of this study are available from the corresponding author upon reasonable request.

Code availability

The GSEE PV simulation model is available at The code used to produce CFs from the homogenized dataset is available from the corresponding author on reasonable request.

Change history

  • 12 July 2019

    In the version of this Article originally published, the units of ‘Total electricity yield’ and ‘Potential electricity gain’ in Table 1 were incorrectly presented as GWh yr–1; they should have been TWh yr–1. These errors have now been corrected.


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The authors would like to thank J. Müller for the code used to construct the hourly GSEE input data from the daily global horizontal solar radiation data.

Author information

M.W., S.P. and B.S. designed the study. B.S., S.P., M.W. and B.v.d.Z. drafted the article. B.S. and S.Y. gathered the data. B.S. analysed the data. B.S. generated the figures. All authors worked on the final manuscript.

Correspondence to Bart Sweerts.

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Supplementary notes 1–3, Figs. 1–12, Tables 1–2 and references

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