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China's Surge in Renewable Energy
(Released May 2011)

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  by Ethan Goffman  

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Although China has become the global leader in exports for solar photovoltaics, it has not nearly matched its internal use of wind power. This is because of the economics of solar power, which is far more expensive than other energy sources. Although the numbers vary greatly in differing conditions and time periods, solar power costs something like 23 cents per kWh, while wind is something like 8 cents, competitive with conventional sources (Morgan). Still, the cost of both continues to decrease dramatically.

In photovoltaics installed, though, China lags far behind. Indeed, Chinese installed photovoltaic capacity is less than Germany, Italy, the United States and Japan (Mufson & Pomfret). China does plan to greatly increase its solar capacity this year, adding 600 MW to the existing 400 MW; however, this is small “compared with the 13,000 megawatts to be installed globally” (Anonymous Policy Change).

Rooftop Solar Water Heaters
Rooftop solar water heaters are ubiquitous in China.

China does use solar power extensively in one major area: solar thermal to heat water, which is economically competitive. As early as 2006 “At least 10 percent of all households in China (that's 30 million households)” had them (Fang). Currently, the number has swelled to some 50 to 60 million households, 70% of the global total (Flavin).

Not surprisingly, China is in a superb position to take advantage of the global solar boom; it produced slightly over half of the world’s solar panels in 2010. In addition, China’s “share of the American market has grown nearly six fold in the last two years” (Bradsher). The CEO of China’s Suntech Power, the world’s largest solar manufacturer, is optimistic about his industry’s future. “In about five years’ time, we should be able to reach grid parity in at least 30 to 50 percent of the global market,” he predicts (Bullis). Should this happen, solar power will be competitive with conventional energy, and its use in China may very well see the kind of escalation that is already happening with wind. However cloud cover, nightfall, and the sun’s irradiance limit solar photovoltaics (although its use can be complementary with wind power).

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