China's big bet on solar over smog holds promise for Canada's PV makers

Beijing Smog - Hjorth

By JUSTIN BULL

May 22, 2014

China is the world’s biggest emitter of carbon. It also sets some of the most aggressive clean energy commitments in the world. Using the central governments considerable power, not to mention financial heft, China sets targets and has a tendency to meet them.

Its latest push is to increase solar capacity to 70 gigawatts (GW) by 2017, doubling an earlier target of 35 GW by 2015. Currently the country has around 30 GW of installed capacity.

Worldwide, solar panels are getting cheaper and more popular. With competition in the market increasing and additional manufacturing capacity coming online, solar is in a virtuous cycle of rising market penetration and declining prices.

Beijing’s targets aren’t limited to solar panels. As part of a broader effort to reduce reliance on coal, the government has committed to providing 150 GW of wind, 11 GW of biomass and 330 GW of hydropower by 2017. Nuclear is part of the mix too, with a target of 50 GW of capacity over the same timeframe.

If the data provided by the National Development and Reform Commission is to be trusted, China will have 611 GW of non-fossil fuel capacity by 2017. In comparison, Canada has about 130 GW of total capacity. But even China’s target of 611 GW would result in only 13 percent of the country’s electricity coming from non-fossil fuels.

This reveals the staggering scale of China’s challenge. It needs to keep its economy growing at a steady clip to maintain social stability. But air pollution, primarily from coal-fired power plants, has blanketed Beijing in smog, creating conflict between different layers of government and sewing seeds of unrest. And if the Chinese people are upset, it should be no surprise. Recent studies have found that Beijing’s toxic air might reduce life expectancy by as much as 15 years.

The government is trying to address that problem too, setting up an investment fund worth $1.65 billion to develop new measures to control air pollution. The question remains, will it be enough? Sure, China can develop massive amounts of renewable energy. But can it do so quickly enough to address its pollution crisis?

With China spending billions cleaning up pollution and tens of billions on energy projects, Canadian clean tech innovators have an obvious opportunity before them. With so many of Canada’s clean tech innovators already export-focused, being a part of the solution to China’s energy problem holds profit and promise.



Photo Credit: Theis Kofoed Hjorth