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August 18, 2015 | China Is Making a Big Switch From Coal to Solar Energy

China is switching to solar energy in a big way, partly because its coal-fired plants have become a leading cause of the severe pollution plaguing the country. Up until recently, according to Climate Progress, China was a leading coal-producing and coal-using country. The Chinese government is starting to switch from a coal-fired economy to one based on low- and no-carbon energy sources, such as natural gas, hydroelectric, wind power, nuclear and, of course, solar.

China Has Exported Solar Panels for Years

China has long been an exporter of solar photovoltaic panels, dominating the world market by undercutting the prices of manufacturers in the West, thanks to the availability of low-cost government loans that have allowed manufacturers to expand capacity greatly. This led to a worldwide plunge in the prices of solar panels in 2011-2012, which caused western manufacturers to cry foul and demand tariffs, according to Pacific Standard.

Perversely, that prospect led Chinese companies to flood the American market with solar panels before the tariffs were put into effect, with many going straight to warehouses where they were stockpiled for years. Not only that, these panels were stockpiled for so long that they became obsolete, thanks to subsequent advances in solar cell efficiency. Many Chinese solar panel manufacturers went bankrupt as a result.

Now China Is Becoming its Own Best Customer for Solar Panels

Now, thanks to Beijing’s policies to lower carbon usage, China has become its own best customer, according to a recent piece in Fortune. In 2014, one-third of China’s solar panel output went to domestic projects. This shift has provided a stable market for China’s solar panel manufacturing industry.

In the West, solar panels are mostly used to create residential rooftop units, in effect lowering or even eliminating a home’s or business’ dependence on the electrical power grid. China, on the other hand, is focusing on large solar farms that collect sunlight and transmit electricity to the grid. Of the 28.05 gigawatts of solar capacity that was added by China in 2014, 23.38 gigawatts were built in the form of ground-mounted units in vast, sprawling farms.

In the meantime, China has started to close coal-fired plants as a way to combat pollution. It has closed 18 gigawatts of coal capacity so far, with three gigawatts closed in 2014 alone. China intends to shut down 20 more gigawatts of coal capacity over the next five years, replacing it with renewables such as solar power.

A Massive Solar Farm Is Rising in the Gobi Desert

To illustrate the seriousness with which China regards solar energy, one need look no further than the commercial solar power plant being constructed in the Gobi Desert. Unlike most Chinese solar power projects, the Gobi plant uses concentrated solar power, using mirrors to focus sunlight that heats a liquid, turning it into a steam that turns an electricity-generating turbine.

The Gobi solar plant will initially consist of two solar towers surrounded by mirrors that will focus the sun’s energy to create power. Each solar tower will be capable of generating 135 megawatts of electricity, enough to provide power to half a million Chinese homes. Eventually, six towers will rise over the Gobi Desert, harvesting the sun. The plant is a joint venture by Shanghai Electric Group and BrightSource Energy, the latter of which was involved in the construction of a similar solar power plant in the Mojave Desert, capable of generating 392 megawatts of electricity.

China’s Future in Renewables

China plans to shift even further away from coal, with the goal of generating 20 percent of its power from renewable sources by 2030. Whether it succeeds is largely dependent on the state of China’s economy going forward. As long as China’s economy continues to grow, it will need more power to sustain it. For the foreseeable future, solar is a crucial part of that growth.