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Forecast: partial sun in China

Photonics Spectra
Jun 2009
Recent solar subsidies move China cautiously toward a greener future.

Anne L. Fischer, Senior Editor,

“The move toward renewable energy is the clean way to go for any country, but it’s especially needed in China.”

On the one hand, China is a notorious polluter, with coal-burning plants spewing carbon into the atmosphere at astonishing rates. On the other hand, China is a world leader in solar module production.

Unfortunately, most solar panels produced in China have been exported and have ended up on rooftops elsewhere. However, change may be afoot, spurred by recent legislation promoting solar installations.

In March, the Chinese government offered a temporary subsidy plan that provides incentives for solar installations. According to analysts, this offer could pay for at least half the cost of a solar installation. The ripple effect of this policy started when the announcement sent stocks soaring, including those of California-based SunPower Corp. and Arizona’s First Solar of Tempe, as well as Chinese solar companies JA Solar Holdings, Suntech Power Holdings, Trina Solar and Yingli Green Energy. The longer-term effects are a little less certain.

The Power Valley Jin Jiang International Hotel in Baoding, China, is an example of a building-integrated photovoltaic installation. It uses different types of solar modules, has photoelectric glass panels and is grid-connected. Photo courtesy of Yingli Green Energy.

China’s solar subsidy plan initially indicated that the government would pay 20 yuan (about $2.94) per watt for integrated photovoltaic projects with output greater than 50 kW. To be eligible, monocrystalline silicon panels would have to have efficiencies of better than 16 percent, multicrystalline 14 percent and thin-film 6 percent. At first it sounded like all installations would be subsidized, but now it appears that solar on the roof will get less than solar integrated within a building, which essentially is favoring new construction over retrofits. The subsidy is also subject to review periodically, which means the guidelines could change. So in a country blackened by coal dust, the subsidy picture turns out not to be as rosy as first suspected.

Coal, coal everywhere

The move toward renewable energy is the clean way to go for any country, but it’s especially needed in China where there’s a rural electrification initiative in place coupled with an increasing dependence on coal. According to the Energy Information Administration of the US Department of Energy, coal use in China and India is expected to double from 2005 to 2030. To keep up with economic growth in China in particular, an additional 735 GW of coal-fired capacity is projected to be brought on-line by 2030 – added to the 299 GW already in operation.

A building-integrated photovoltaic installation in China has a 0.3-MW installed capacity and can generate approximately 260,000 kWh of electricity. Photo courtesy of Yingli Green Energy.

This increased capacity requires investments in new coal-fired power plants, along with transmission and distribution systems, which is contrary to initiatives aimed at reducing carbon emissions in China. Cutting carbon in China is serious business because the country is the world leader in carbon output (following the US). Increasing solar energy is one step in the right direction. Reducing carbon emissions will require a reduction in energy consumption by changing lifestyles and harnessing new technologies, as well as generation of energy through carbon-free technologies and carbon sequestration initiatives.

The move to solar

Although China is building coal-fired plants faster than ever, the country is harnessing new clean technologies, too. China leads the world in solar water heating and was the third-largest installer of wind turbines in 2007. The country is now working on setting the pace with green energy, green buildings and green cars. The Chinese Academy of Sciences has launched an initiative to turn solar into a major energy source by 2050, estimating the availability of sunshine for two-thirds of the country at more than 2200 hours per year. Included in the calculations are its vast deserts, where large concentrating plants can crank out solar thermal power. According to China’s National Development and Reform Commission, the country plans to generate at least 150 MW of power from solar thermal power stations by 2015. Its first 1.5-MW solar thermal power station is under development in a suburb of Beijing. It’s expected to generate up to 2.7 million kilowatt hours of electricity per year. According to Wang Zhifeng, chief of the plant, this amount is the equivalent of reducing carbon emissions by 2300 tons.

Recent installations are just the tip of the iceberg. Analysts at Cleantech Group of New York City estimate that China had about 100 MW installed at the end of 2007 and close to 150 MW last year.

The announced subsidies likely will spur new solar installations in China. Further changes to the plan, such as adding performance standards that must be reached by a specific time period, would encourage research into more efficient materials and development of high-quality products and installations oriented toward making the most of the sun’s energy. China is growing and modernizing by leaps and bounds, and it’s in a perfect position to lead by example, from its subsidies and incentives right on through to highly efficient use of state-of-the-art alternative energy technologies.

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