A place with some of the worst air quality in the world isn’t usually somewhere you would think of to be a leader of alternative energy.
But China is once again surprising the world and fighting trends, this time by becoming the largest solar energy producer.
World’s Largest Producer
China’s National Energy Administration recently announced that its solar power production more than doubled in 2016.
It reached 77.42 gigawatts by the end of the year, making it the world’s biggest solar electricity generator based on capacity. That’s an increase of nearly 35 gigawatts over the course of a year.
This is particularly noteworthy coming from a country notorious for poor air quality.
Residents of the capital Beijing are often told to stay inside as much as possible to avoid air that is beyond the measurement charts in poor quality and unhealthiness.
Numerous cities around China have been known to temporarily closed schools and businesses in efforts to bring air quality back to a level that is safe for breathing.
China’s air quality problems aren’t instantly fixed with solar energy, but it is definitely a step in the right direction.
Aside from its large population, China has excellent geography for solar energy, as its large areas of open rural land can create productive solar farms.
In 2016, the Shandong, Xinjiang, and Henan provinces saw the biggest increases in solar capacity, but Xinjiang, Gansu, Qinghai, and Inner Mongolia ended the year with the largest overall capacity.
What it Really Means
Although China’s feat is impressive, solar power is still a small portion of China’s overall energy output. When compared on a per-capacity basis, China is easily beat in solar production by Germany, Japan, and the United States.
China has nearly 17 times as many people as Germany but produces less solar power per person. China’s position as the world’s top polluter isn’t likely to change any time soon, but the move towards solar power can work to offset the pollution.
Currently solar is just 1% of China’s total power output, but that could change in coming years. The NEA has plans to increase production by more than 110 gigawatts by 2020.
That growth should help China’s fuel power from non-fossil sources grow from its current 11% to 20% by 2030.
Moving away from its traditional fossil fuels is a noble effort for China, but it won’t come easy or cheaply. By the end of the decade, China will spend 2.5 trillion yuan ($364 billion) on renewable power sources, including solar.
The renewable energy plan also includes placing large resources on wind and hydro power, which also lend themselves well to China’s geography.
In Beijing, a city with some of the worst air quality in the world, China is hoping to cut its long-term reliance on coal power and move to natural gas.
City officials recently pledged to enact abatement measures that cut coal consumption by an additional 30% and has made a push to cut back on vehicle emissions with a move towards clean transportation.
Coal consumption has also been falling in other places around the country, and CO2 emissions are down.
Future of Global Solar
China’s huge solar growth puts pressure on the rest of the world to increase its output accordingly. Some countries, including the U.S., have enacted policies in recent years that promote the fossil fuel industry, causing them to lag behind in alternative energy growth.
Other countries are already following in China’s footsteps—Ireland recently passed a bill that would make it the first country to divest from fossil fuels, and Iceland is creatively drilling what will become the world’s largest geothermal energy well.
As oil prices in Saudi Arabia continue to fall, the country plans to invest almost $50 billion in solar and wind power alternatives.
Not every country has China’s huge population and vast land resources for solar farms.
However, China proves that any country, even one with the most dense smog in the world, can grow its solar production and take a step in the right direction towards renewable energy.