Because we generally associate the sun with bright and warm summer days, and snow with gray and frosty winter ones, it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that one of our more frequently asked questions is, what happens to solar panels when it snows? Especially given that the markets we serve – Missouri and Massachusetts – can be host to some very cold and snowy winters.
So it surprises many people to hear that while, yes, a thick layer of snow can block solar panels from absorbing any sunlight for a while, panels don’t usually stay snow-covered for long. Panels operate at a warmer temperature than the outside air, which helps to melt the snow off and in fact, recent research is proving that snow may actually help solar panel efficiency.
Researchers from St. Lawrence College, Michigan Tech, and Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario worked with a team of 20 industry partners to study the effect of snow cover on a large solar panel test field.
According to Michigan Tech’s Joshua Pearce, snowy solar panels benefit from the albedo effect, in which sunlight reflects off of the snow to help a panel generate even more electricity.
Solar Panels Experience Minimal Power Losses When Mixed with Snow
The team also found that “in most cases, power losses are minimal, even in snowy Canada,” said Pearce. Their research at the test field was validated with data from a sampling of Ontario’s large commercial solar farms.
In 2010, the Northern Research Institute (NORUT), located in Norway’s High North, published a scientific paper that predicted a sunny future for solar energy in the Nordic North.
“We’ve heard earfuls about how Norway isn’t suited for solar energy. That isn’t necessarily true,” Espen Olsen, associate professor at the Norwegian University of Life Science, told Science Nordic in an article about Norway’s solar potential last month.
Norwegians have seen their southern neighbors, Germany, become solar super stars; one May Saturday earlier this year, solar energy provided just around 50% of Germany’s electricity consumption.
According to simulations cited in NORUT’s 2010 paper, certain areas in Norway could produce around the same amount of solar energy as Freiburg in the south of Germany. In March 2012, NORUT had moved on from simulations to real-life tests, and expected to exceed predicted output at some of its facilities.
Cold Temperature’s Advantages for Solar-Panel Efficiency
One advantage of installing solar panels in northern locations? The cold weather is actually better for solar panel efficiency. “Heat means the atoms in substances are vibrating. These chaotic vibrations subside as temperature sinks,” says Trygve Mongstad, a researcher at the Kjeller Institute for Energy Technology. “Simply put, colder substances are more ideal, closer to perfect. The electrons are less agitated and transport more of their electrical energy out of the solar cell.”
It’s why back in 2000, the government of Mongolia recognized that solar energy was an ideal solution to bring electricity to its rural, nomadic population. Mongolia experiences long, cold winters, and spring brings quickly changeable weather, from snowstorms to sun to wind – Lonely Planet quotes the sentiment that Mongolia can experience four seasons in a single day.
But even with an extreme climate, Mongolia experiences more than 260 sunny days a year, earning it the nickname ‘Land of Blue Sky.’
And some half-million people there lead nomadic lives as herders, packing up and moving their homes – traditional tent homes called gers – to find new grazing ground for their livestock.
Solar energy’s portability led to a unique program to supply – and/or sell – solar panel systems to Mongolian herders, now given help by the World Bank. You can visit the World Bank’s website to watch a video on Mongolia’s solar energy progress.