China’s Solar Energy Boom

Monday, 4th February 2019

Jo Coles

china solar shanghai

Datong County in northern China is the proud location of two giant pandas, made from thousands of solar panels! This mega-solar farm covers 248acres and generates 100megawatts (MW) combined. This is not the only massive installation. In December 2018, the first 100 MW solar plant opened in Dunhuang City, Gansu Province with a potential to generate up to 390million kilowatt hours (kWh) of electricity per year.

Solar energy is booming in China! The nation has a vested economic interest in investing in solar energy, since it produces most of the world’s solar panels and has an economic drive to generate business both domestic and international.

China’s economy is rapidly growing, with consequences such as rapidly increasing greenhouse gas emissions and energy consumption. So there is a need to add more renewable energy sources to the energy mix. However, 2/3 of the country’s electricity still comes from burning coal.

China has huge potential to maximise solar energy farms due to its physical geographical features, namely climate and relief, as well as the sheer scale of the land area. The vast north and north-western plains have plenty of space, and a reliable supply of solar energy. However, they are far from the major population centres – which are predominantly on the eastern coast. This means the distribution of energy and electricity to the population centres and industrial zones is problematic. Huge amounts of power is lost along the vast transmission lines.

There is a focus from Chinese government to invest in infrastructure in remote zones – particularly politically sensitive areas such as around Tibet. Interestingly, one scheme uses solar panels to heat an underground grid designed to melt permafrost, in the hopes that the reclaimed land will become suitable for farming and afforestation.

With all this influx of development in solar energy, China is expected to have a sudden boom of solar panel waste to deal with from 2040 onwards – and this is a problem. Solar panels must be broken up, and it is hard to recycle them because they contain harmful chemicals like sulphuric acid. Similarly, China is a large producer of polysilicon used in first generation solar cells around the world which produces poisonous silicon tetrachloride as a by-product. This costs a huge $84’500 per tonne to properly recycle.


  • China produces 60% of the world’s solar panels
  • China has been the world’s largest manufacturer of solar panels since 2008
  • The largest solar plant in the world is in the Tengger Desert, China (1500 megawatts capacity)
  • The first 100Megawatt solar plant opened in China in December 2018
  • China has more solar energy capacity than any other country
  • China met its 2020 target for solar energy capacity three years early, in 2017
  • 94% of China’s population live in the eastern zone of China, whereas the distribution of wind and solar energy resources is in the west
  • The government-run renewable energy fund is in debt to more than $15billion so investment in infrastructure is lacking to maximise the potential of these energy sources
  • China’s goal for solar energy is to reach 1’300GW of combined solar capacity
  • Solar panels only last about 30 years, after which there is a waste & replacement problem
  • Despite all the investment, due to the large population size the energy per capita in China is just 58 watts


Suggested activities:

We have selected some classroom activities to support this. Some of the activities are based around the Solar Resource Map you can find from Commons.wikimedia.

Activity 1:

Study the map that shows solar irradiation across China. Describe the distribution of solar irradiation.

(Tip: when describing the distribution of something from a map, start off by considering the overall pattern, then talk about regions that have the most and compare to regions that have the least. Try to include compass direction or place names, and refer to facts from the key to be specific.)

Activity 2:

What is renewable energy?

(Tip: for a definition question, state what you think the key term means and then give an example to make it clear)

Activity 3:

Why are countries trying to increase their renewable energy mix?

Remember the ‘energy mix’ of a country means the combination of different forms of energy sources that are used to create energy to meet the consumption needs of the population, which can include fossil fuels such as coal/oil/natural gas, nuclear, or renewable energy source such as wind/solar/hydro/tidal/geothermal energy.

(Tip: Think about the positives of renewable energy sources compared to non-renewable sources, think about the impact on the environment or how different energy sources contribute to greenhouse gases and climate change)


Activity 4:

Resource Reliance:

Why are countries so reliant on electricity and power?

What is this energy used for?

Why has consumption (use) of energy increased so much over time?

Activity 5:

Decision Making Exercise. China’s population is growing, and so is their industry and use of energy. The government is considering stopping financial incentives for solar energy because there is so much wasted energy and waste materials. What should they do?

A: Continue to use fossil fuels for most of their electricity, but invest in ways to reduce the amount of CO2 produced by burning.

B: Continue to give financial incentives to support solar power plants, but build solar farms nearer to the big populations and industry to save waste.

C: Invest heavily in technology to improve the efficiency of the transformers that move electricity from solar farms on the west to urban areas on the east.

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