China solar capacity is growing exponentially but it has not always been so. For decades, China has been powering its economy with electricity generated by burning coal. It worked fine for a while and allowed the Chinese economy to become the fastest growing in the world, with annual increases in economic output often exceeding 10%. There was only one problem. The pollution from burning coal poisoned the skies over China’s major cities (China has 106 cities with more than 1 million inhabitants. The US has 10.)
Suddenly, China’s healthcare system was overwhelmed by people with respiratory diseases and life expectancy among city dwellers started falling instead of rising. Chinese people with the financial resources to choose where they live put access to clean air at the very top of their wish list. The government of China took notice and realized it was a victim of its own success. It began to plan for way to slash pollution, principally by investing in renewable energy systems like wind and solar power. It also initiated a series of incentives to encourage people to buy electric cars.
China may have had one of the world’s dirtiest energy grids, but it has turned that around. In 2016, China installed more solar panels than any nation on earth, more than doubling its solar energy capacity in just one year. It is now the world’s biggest producer of solar energy by capacity, the National Energy Administration announced recently. China is now closing hundreds of coal fired generating plants every year.
Installed solar capacity rose to 77.42 gigawatts by the end of 2016, thanks to the addition of 34.54 gigawatts during the past year. Shandong, Xinjiang, Henan were among the provinces that saw the most capacity increase, while Xinjiang, Gansu, Qinghai and Inner Mongolia had the greatest overall capacity at the end of last year, according to the data.
China expects to add another 110 gigawatts of solar power by the end of 2020 according to the NEA’s solar power development plan. It will invest $364 billion to achieve that goal. The country intends to increase the amount of non-fossil fuel generated power to 20% by 2030. It is 11% today.
China solar capacity growth is taking advantage of the enormous amount of open space in the sun drenched Gobi Desert for solar installations. China is also pursuing concentrated solar technology in cooperation with BrightSource. It is also working with partners in Russia, South Korea, and Japan on a solar powered “supergrid” that would provide clean renewable power to most of Asia.