It’s hard to argue that China is not making some definite progress in solar energy. China is the world’s leading solar cell and component manufacturer and has been in a head-to-head race with the United States to overtake Germany as the world’s leading solar market. Himin Solar Energy Group Power Plant. Photo Credit: TradeVV Any American shopper knows that China is a hub for manufacturing of all kinds, and solar power panels are no different. Low US import tariffs and low labor costs have facilitated a massive emigration of American companies to Chinese labor markets. Major US players in solar electricity, including First Solar and SunPower, have manufacturing plants in China.
Manufacturing as Progress?
But does domination in solar manufacturing necessarily dictate progress in solar energy? Arguably yes and no. The yes side is simple - the solar industry wouldn’t be what it is today without China’s manufacturing prowess, not to mention their preexisting capacity for producing solar-grade polysilicon. However, even solar manufacturing plants can pollute, as China has unfortunately illustrated, and just because you manufacture solar equipment doesn’t mean you use it. China doesn’t even appear on a SolarBuzz chart of PV market demand in 2008.
This contradiction - world’s largest solar manufacturer as world’s largest polluter - has inspired recent action from China. Its government has taken a more proactive approach to increasing demand within its own wide and often sunny borders. Although the details are still unclear, the national government has pledged to fund up to 50% of new solar projects and set a renewable energy goal of 15% by 2020. There is also talk of a cap-and-trade program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
New and developing energy goals and incentives are expected to greatly boost demand for solar power in China. Several large-scale projects are planned throughout the country, including First Solar’s 2-gigawatt thin-film plant in Inner Mongolia, and China’s first solar thermal power plant already built earlier this year.
China does excel in solar water heating. According to a PR Minds release, China has the largest output and usage volumes for solar water heaters in the world, with a gross collector area of more than 100 million square meters and over 1,000 solar water heater manufacturers. There are currently more than 20 PV cell producers in China and solar energy production is expected to catch up with equipment production soon. It is estimated that Chinese solar PV production will top 1,000 megawatts during 2010.
US and China
As an American trying to answer for China’s solar energy progress, it is imperative that any answer be self-reflective. This is due largely to China and the United States being at similar points of renewable energy progress. China leads in cell and component production and the U.S. leads (China) in energy production. Both have recently set long-term incentives for solar energy production. Both are expected to catapult into the lead in global solar energy. And both have plenty of room for growth and abundant solar resources.
China and the US are really just beginning to make progress in solar energy. The US has the lead in energy production at 360 MW in 2008, but still lags far behind world leader Germany, with 1.86 GW solar electricity in 2008 - more than five times more.
Yet the US and China are expected to overtake Germany within the next few years, as both have a geographic advantage and a wide open market with plenty of room to grow. So the answer to Chinese progress in solar energy lies between first steps and steps to come. In other words, China is setting the stage for real progress in PV and solar thermal electricity (as is the US), and in that sense, real progress is being made. Although it may take a few years for the hard numbers to appear on charts and in reports.