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How wildfires impacted solar panel efficiency

How last year’s wildfires impacted Australian and Californian solar panel efficiency. Should we be worried about the same thing happening in New Zealand?
wildfires and solar production

2020 has been a real doozy of a year so far. On top of everything else that happened, wildfires added to our global woes.

Solar energy snowball
In Australia this year, wildfire smoke nearly halved solar panel efficiency in every south-eastern city. Solar experts are predicting this could lead to a potential snowball effect with once die-hard fans of solar energy giving it up in favour of less sustainable energy suppliers.

The reduction in energy supplied by solar panels also caused an increased demand for power from high-polluting coal. This is a double-whammy for the solar panel installation companies in that country.

Meanwhile in California, solar panel power generation decreased by close to a third when the recent wildfires caused smoke so thick that it darkened the skies for days.

How likely are we to experience the same wildfire effect in New Zealand? And if we ever get one of these natural disasters again in the future, will it change the way we think about obtaining our energy from solar panels?

fire and solar panel impact

How do bushfires cause a decrease in solar panel efficiency?
According to Solar Analytics, in Canberra on New Year’s Day, residential and commercial solar panels were only operating at 55% capacity due to the haze created by the bushfires. Major cities in south-east Australia have experienced significantly reduced visibility and lowered air quality.

This is after bushfires claimed 27 lives and destroyed more than two thousand homes.

Companies who track residential solar panel performance are able to predict lower solar production linked to smoke haze. This year, even though more solar panels have been installed in homes, there was still a 15 to 45% decrease in solar production performance as a direct result of bushfires.

Wildfires blanket the sky with thick smoke.
This smoke contains millions of carbon particles that are in sufficient amounts to block out the sun’s rays.
Solid particles from the smoke haze are too heavy to rise up and escape into the atmosphere.
They settle back onto the ground and on top of solar panels.
The combination of smoke in the air and soot particles settling onto solar panels causes solar-powered generated electricity to fall.
This is what happened in south-eastern Australia and California.

crazy wildfires in australia and california

What happened in California to decrease solar power?
The state of California has embraced solar power electricity whole heartedly. It’s now Californian law to build all new housing with it. The solar panel installation growth trend means that California has come to rely on solar energy from the residential sector to supply nearly 20% of all the state’s electricity generation. In fact, California generates more solar power than the combined output of the other five states trailing behind it in the top solar energy production polls.

California, like New Zealand, is committed to meet its goal of 100% clean, renewable energy by 2045 in an effort to combat climate change. But with over 2 million acres of bush lost to wildfires, not only is their goal looking more uncertain, but the pollution levels in major Californian cities has skyrocketed.

Is New Zealand in danger of losing a percentage of its renewable energy output from bushfires in the future?

New Zealand is no stranger to sudden changes in its natural environment. From volcanoes erupting to heavy storms blowing in from the Pacific, New Zealand has perfected the art of going with the flow. But will our preparedness extend to bushfires wiping out our renewable energy options?

You will be relieved to know that this is not likely. Just over half of our renewable energy is generated by hydro power. Compare that hefty percentage to California’s hydro-produced renewable energy amount of 19.21% and Australia’s total hydroelectrical output of 40%.

In New Zealand’s quest for 100% renewable energy in the next few decades, we haven’t put all our eggs in the solar power basket, as it were.

As though nature was in sync, Napier in the North Island experienced devastating fires around the same time California was dealing with the same thing. The difference was that New Zealand had power back-up in the form of our 80% hydroelectricity output.

Additionally, after the Port Hills wildfires around Christchurch in 2017, the Department of Fire and Emergency NZ was created to help in the battle against bushfires. The department not only mobilises to help fight fires in New Zealand, but also Australia.

Because of this effort, New Zealand leads the way in fighting fire with a fiery attitude. Along with 80% hydropower, New Zealand’s electrical grid is unlikely to experience the same problems as California and Australia.

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