China photovoltaic industry leads the world
The 17th China Photovoltaic Conference, held in the city of Hohhot, focuses on the technological and commercial development of the solar energy sector. [Photo: Chinaplus]
A solar farm experiment is being carried out in the Kubuqi desert in north China's land-locked Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region.
The area is some two hours’ drive from the regional capital city of Hohhot.
The solar farm generates 500 gigawatt-hours of electricity every year.
The desert solar farm is just a tiny part of China’s massive transition to renewable energy, including solar power.
According to the International Energy Agency, the country installed more than 34 gigawatts of solar capacity in 2016.
That was more than double the figure in the US and nearly half of the total added solar capacity worldwide that year.
In the first half of this year, it’s estimated that 24 gigawatts of solar capacity has already been installed in China.
But how can the solar industry have developed so fast in the country?
Insiders say it’s mainly down to persistent industrial innovation and favorable government policies.
Tan Tianwei, President of China Renewable Energy Society, explains.
“Looking back at the development of the PV industry over the past few decades, I think what has really mattered is innovation. It’s due to continuous innovation that our PV industry has been leading the world and surpassing itself.
“I think China, driven by industrial innovation, will come up with better, cheaper renewable energy in the future.”
Tan Tianwei made the comments while addressing the opening ceremony of the 17th China Photovoltaic Conference held in the city of Hohhot at the end of August.
The conference was co-organized by the Photovoltaic Committee of the China Renewable Energy Society and Inner Mongolia University.
The four-day event drew the participation of photovoltaic academics, engineers and business representatives from all over the world.
Speaking on the sidelines of the event, James Sites, a physics professor from Colorado State University, USA, said he was encouraged by the speed of the solar industry development in China.
“China leads the world in the manufacture of photovoltaic panels and also the installed across the world including the US. And overall photovoltaic electricity is rising at a very rapid rate. So I think it won’t be long before a large fraction of our electricity comes from the Sun.”
In fact, China's enthusiasm for clean energy is pushing the global transition towards a low-carbon future.
According to a government plan released in December last year, China will spend 2.5 trillion yuan, which is more than 360 billion US dollars, in renewable power generation within four years.
Professor Stuart Irving is Director of the Center for Solar Energy Research at Swansea University in the UK.
He says the UK can draw inspiration and expertise from China to develop its own solar industry.
“The UK doesn’t have very strong manufacturing but carries out a lot of research in PV. And we have very strong links with China in manufacturing and also in academic. And I think the relationship with China is an important one because we need to install more renewable energy in the UK.
“There are government plans and commitments to install more renewable energy and solar forms a very important part of that. And we actually welcome the lower cost products that are coming into the markets because that’s what actually unlocking the potential for PV. Ultimately it’s about low cost electricity as well as renewable, sustainable electricity.”
Meanwhile, many foreign solar power enterprises are trying to expand their presence in the flourishing Chinese market.
Dr. Xiong Gang is Director of the California Technology Center of First Solar Inc., a US manufacturer of solar panels and a provider of utility-scale PV power plants.
“I think I was encouraged by the government determination of deploying more and more PV systems to replace other electricity sources that could cause air pollution. I am very encouraged by that perspective.
“As far as First Solar (is concerned), we already have very good collaboration with China. Most of our raw materials, for example cover glass, even other supplies, were actually procured from China.”
Dr. Kuo-Jui Hsiao is chief scientist of another US solar power company--Reel Solar Power Inc.
He says his company plans to build two factories in China within two years, each of which will ultimately reach an installed capacity of 500 megawatts.
While he was attending the photovoltaic event in Hohhot, Dr. Hsiao said the natural conditions of the Inner Mongolia region had aroused his interest.
“Inner Mongolia has many natural resources. So maybe this is a good starting point. And we can discuss with our partner in China to see if this is a good chance to build a factory in Inner Mongolia.”
While China’s solar industry is developing fast and attracting worldwide attention, challenges still remain.
Liang Zhipeng, an official with the National Energy Administration, explains.
“Although the production cost of PV electricity has been drastically slashed over recent years, it’s still expensive compared with other sources of energy. So currently, reducing the cost and improving its competitiveness are one of our most urgent and important tasks.”
At the moment, the cost and price of solar and other renewable energies is generally higher than that of coal-powered energy.
As a result, some industry insiders have called for increased government subsidies to cut the costs and help with the new sectors.