Solar Panels Power World’s Highest Weather Station (CleanTechnica Interview)

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For anyone who scoffs at the notion that solar panels work in cold weather, check out this new weather station sitting on the Balcony just below the rather chilly summit of Mount Everest. A nine-person team risked their lives to haul it up the mountain and drill it into the rock, and all that hard work would have gone for nothing if the solar panels failed to function. Well function they did, but that drill was a whole ‘nother kettle of fish, and if you want to see what happened (or didn’t happen, as the case may be), catch Expedition Everest on National Geographic Television, June 30 at 10/9C.

solar panels Mount Everest weather
Solar panels are the secret sauce behind a high-risk, high reward weather station installation on Mount Everest (photo courtesy of National Geographic).

The Solar Panels Worked!

The weather station adventure is just one part of Expedition Everest, but it’s the part that features solar panels, batteries, and climate change, so let’s zero in on that.

One does not often associate weather stations with death-defying efforts that make for tension-filled moments of drama. However, climate science made the so-named Balcony Station worth the risk.

“…only Mount Everest and a few of its Himalayan cousins are tall enough to reliably pierce the Sub-tropical Jet Stream—one of the narrow bands of powerful winds that circle the globe at high altitudes, influencing everything from storm tracks to agriculture growing seasons,” explains the National Geographic website.

For those of you keeping score at home, the Balcony Station was installed last May and it is still the world’s highest weather station at 27,657 feet above sea level. Only the summit of Mount Everest, just a few hundred feet up the road, is higher.

The Drill Worked…Eventually

CleanTechnica got the inside scoop on the new Balcony Station from expedition co-leader and climate scientist Baker Perry of Appalachian State University in North Carolina, in a phone conversation last week.

He and the expedition team applied previous experience in the Andes to help prepare for the task, but they knew that Everest would be different.

The two 10-watt solar panels that power the station were not an issue because they were heavy-duty models from the same company that Perry had used successfully in past cold-weather installations, Campbell Scientific.

The drill, however, was a known unknown.

“The previous installations in the Andes had been on snow or ice. We had never done an installation directly on rock and I was losing a lot of sleep about that from the beginning,” Perry said.

After much tossing and turning he settled on an 18-volt drill. It ran on the same batteries that teammates from the University of Maine had tested in their freezer so they knew it would work. Or not, as the case may be.

The batteries were fine, and so was the drill. The problem was the drill encountering Himalayan granite for the first time.

“So we went to 36-volt drill which we had on standby, but we didn’t have as many batteries for that one and the batteries were not as new; plus we had to charge everything before we left base camp….that presented a new set of challenges,” said Perry. “I never faced that particular situation with the drill before… to say the least.”

That’s still not the end of the drill story, because once they got to the Balcony…oh just go tune in and see yourself.

Solar Panels Work Really Well On Mount Everest, Most Of The Time

CleanTechnica has been spilling some ink on the ability of solar arrays to function efficiently in cold weather. One main factor is that solar panels lose efficiency when they are too warm, so anything that keeps them cool is a plus.

Another factor that improves efficiency is the reflective effect of snow and other light-colored surfaces on solar panels. If you’re thinking of the word albedo, run right out and buy yourself a cigar.

That explains why Alaska, for example, has been on a bit of a solar power tear lately.

The effect on solar cell efficiency is even more extreme when the altitude is extreme.

“There’s plenty of incoming solar radiation up there, plus reflection from adjacent peaks and clouds ramp up efficiency, so you get incredibly high values of solar radiation,” said Perry.

Oddly enough, it wasn’t the cold that was concerning. It was a warm-weather event taking place many feet below the Balcony, namely, the monsoon season.

Perry explained that they couldn’t place the solar panels too high up on the station because they were concerned about wind load. However, during the monsoon season, somewhere around the end of July into early August, the panels stopped producing as efficiently.

The true cause may never be known. Perry hypothesized that one or both panels may have become partially buried under snow, or they accumulated monsoon-related rime ice, meaning supercooled water droplets attached themselves to the surface.

Anyways no harm, no foul. Balcony Station continued to collect data throughout. After the winds picked up later in August the solar panels resumed normal function, and the station was able to transmit the data to researchers.

Climate Change & The Future Of Solar Panels

The Balcony Station has been in place for a relatively short time, but Perry took note of at least one important bit of information already gleaned from the data:

“We have exceptionally high values of incoming solar radiation — not totally unexpected at high elevations but it’s important combined with glacier behavior and recognition that even up at extreme elevations that because of the solar radiation melting can occur even though air temperatures are well below freezing.

“The broader implication includes the fact that many of the glacier models are really just based on air temperature. They’re not including some of the other processes including intense solar radiation. Our findings can help improve these models.”

“These glaciers may be at more of a risk than initially anticipated,” he concluded.

Add that to the pile of evidence indicating that the global economy needs to decarbonize sooner rather than later.

So as not to end on a gloomy note, let’s take a quick look at a trend in the agriculture sector that could help speed things along.

One of the arguments that critics deploy against solar panels has to do with the availability of land for food crops, but a new field called agrivoltaics is afoot, with the aim of putting the “farm” back in solar farms, and it seems to be catching on like wildfire.

If you’re thinking about the combination of pollinator habitats with solar panels, that’s part of it. Farmers are also starting to adopt methods for grazing livestock and planting food crops that take advantage of the shaded micro-climate that develops under solar panels.

In fact, policy makers are already envisioning agrivoltaics as a formula for practicing regenerative agriculture, preserving farmland, and motivating the up-and-coming generation to farm for a living — after all, what good is saving farmland if nobody is interested in farming it?

Where were we? Oh right, the world’s highest weather station. A return trip is planned to improve the insulation and make some other adjustments next year, so stay tuned for more on that.

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Photo: Courtesy of National Geographic (via email).

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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

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