Smoke From California Wildfires Chokes Off Solar Energy Production

An orange, smoky sky caused by wildfires over San Francisco's financial district
Photograph by Christopher Michel (CC 2.0 license)
Published On
Sep 22, 2020

A grayish-brown haze stretches from one horizon to the other, turning the sun into a bright orange ball, like a sunset at ten in the morning. White flakes of ash drift down from the sky. A lingering smell of smoke gets in our clothes, our hair and our home. It’s like we are living in an ashtray.

My wife packs up the car, and we go to the only place that we can bear. We will have to trade unbreathable air for heat. Palm Springs is a balmy 105°F, but at least we can open our eyes. And breathe.

Southern California has a notorious history of poor air quality. Now, the entire state is battling pollution as smoke from wildfires darkens skies, renders the air unbreathable and limits solar-power generation. 

For several days in August and September, air quality in the Los Angeles basin exceeded 200 on the U.S. Air Quality Index (AQI), a measurement of air pollution. An AQI over 100 is starting to become unhealthy. Anything above 200 is considered very unhealthy. 

The figures for the Los Angeles and Orange County region exceeded 20-year highs for both months and, in the case of September, exceeded 20-year highs for all months of the year.

The smoke also choked off solar-power generation. California has long been a national leader in solar energy and gets more than 20% of its power from solar-generating sources. Nearly 8,000 homes in the state are powered by solar energy. The state was ranked first in the nation for solar power in 2019 by the Solar Energy Industry Association (SEIA), Washington, D.C. 

The state is in an unusual position. Its widespread adoption of solar power photovoltaics does not contribute to climate change. However, California is more vulnerable to shortages of power because of smoke from the raging wildfires that are caused in part by climate change.

Offshore wind has pushed smoke into areas where solar installations are concentrated, and the state is seeing reductions to behind-the-meter and large-scale solar throughout the state, according to a California Independent System Operator statement. 

Solar power generation in California can exceed 11,000 megawatts (MW) during midday, when the sun is at its brightest. On September 11, the day a family of Los Angeles residents decided to go to the desert for some clean air, solar generation peaked at just over 7,700 MW. That’s a 36% drop.

About the Author

Rick Laezman

Freelance Writer

Rick Laezman is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer who has been covering renewable power for more than 10 years. He may be reached at

Stay Informed Join our Newsletter

Having trouble finding time to sit down with the latest issue of
ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR? Don't worry, we'll come to you.