China is the largest market in the world for both photovoltaics and solar thermal energy. China's photovoltaic industry began as development for space satellites and transitioned to domestic energy use in the late 1990s. After heavy government incentives introduced in 2011, China's solar power market grew dramatically, becoming the leading installer in the world for photovoltaics in 2013. In 2015, China surpassed Germany as the world's largest producer of photovoltaic energy and became the first country to have over 100 GW of total installed photovoltaic capacity in 2017. At the end of 2020, China's total installed photovoltaic capacity was 253 GW, accounting for one-third of the world's total installed photovoltaic capacity (760.4 GW). Most of China's solar power is generated within its western provinces and is transferred to other regions of the country. In 2011, China owned the largest solar power plant in the world at the time, the Huanghe Hydropower Golmud Solar Park, which had a photovoltaic capacity of 200 MW. In 2018, it held the record again with the Tengger Desert Solar Park with its photovoltaic capacity of 1.5 GW. China currently owns the second-largest solar plant in the world, the Huanghe Hydropower Hainan Solar Park, which has a capacity of 2.2 GW. Solar power contributes to a small portion of China's total energy use, accounting for 3.5% of China's total energy capacity in 2020. Chinese Communist Party general secretary Xi Jinping announced at the 2020 Climate Ambition Summit that China plans to have 1,200 GW of combined solar and wind energy capacity by 2030.
Solar water heating is also extensively implemented, with a total installed capacity of 290 GWth at the end of 2014, representing about 70% of world's total installed solar thermal capacity.
The expansion of the solar sector in China has been criticized due to the large quantities of waste being produced and improperly disposed of from the production of photovoltaic cells. Criticism over large amounts of unused energy being produced has appeared along with criticism over the forced removal of native populations for development land and the usage of forced labor in the production of photovoltaic cells.
Photovoltaic research in China began in 1958 with the development of China's first piece of monocrystalline silicon. Research continued with the development of solar cells for space satellites in 1968. The Institute of Semiconductors of the Chinese Academy of Sciences led this research for a year, stopping after batteries failed to operate. Other research institutions continued the development and research of solar cells for Dongfanghong satellites. In 1975, domestic solar cell production began with factories in Ningbo and Kaifeng. These cells were produced in a similar fashion to the satellite cells of the past. Annual solar capacity installations were still low, as only 0.5 kW of photovoltaic capacity was installed. This increased to 8 kW in 1980, 70 kW in 1985, 500 kW in 1990, and 1550 kW in 1995.
In 1998, demonstration projects for solar energy production began to appear, starting with a 3W polysilicon battery and applications for the energy. Yingli became one of the first producers of this new solar energy. However, annual capacity did not increase much until 2002 when a 10 MW solar cell production line was put into operation by Suntech Power. That year, a program aimed to install more solar and wind energy in Tibet, Xinjiang, Qinghai, Gansu, Inner Mongolia, Shanxi, and Sichuan was introduced by the National Development and Planning Commission. This spurred solar cell production and annual installations skyrocketed from 3.3 MW in 2000 to 20.3 MW in 2002. Photovoltaic cell production expanded in the following years, with 140 MW manufactured in 2005. Only 5 MW of solar energy was installed in China that year, however, as most of the manufactured photovoltaic cells were sold to European countries, with Germany being the largest buyer. China's annual solar energy installations grew to 10 MW installed in 2006, increasing China's total installed solar energy capacity to 80 MW. Annual solar energy installations continued to grow, with 20 MW of energy capacity installed in 2007 and 40 MW installed in 2008.
In 2007, the National Development and Reform Commission planned to have China's solar capacity increase to 1,800 MW by 2020. However, according to Wang Zhongying, the head of the National Development and Reform Commission's renewable energy development, stated that China would far exceed this goal, predicting that at least 10 GW can be installed by 2020, with 20 GW of installed capacity within the realm of possibility. Despite these predictions, solar energy accounted for a only small fraction of China's total installed energy in 2008.
In 2011, feed-in-tariffs for solar power projects completed before a certain deadline were introduced. These feed-in tariffs were extremely successful at expanding China's solar power sector, largely exceeding the Chinese government's expectations for growth. The Huanghe Hydropower Golmud Solar Park was also completed in 2011 in Golmud, a county-level city in Qinghai province. The solar park contains 200 MW of installed photovoltaic capacity and was the largest individual solar plant in the world on its completion. Other solar parks such as the 20 MW Qinghai Golmud Solar Park were also installed in Golmud, with 570 MW of capacity installed in total at the end of 2011.
The Chinese PV production system faced severe external shocks since 2010. A sharp recession in the global demand due to institutional alterations in the German market in 2010, followed by anti-dumping duties and anti-subsidy countervailing duties on Chinese PV products enforced in both USA and EU. Chinese PV manufacturers, which were already running at full capacity, faced a difficult situation in 2011 and 2012 with huge financial losses that led to the bankruptcy of some important companies, such as SunTech Power in 2013 which defaulted on $541 million of convertible bonds. To rescue the huge PV industry with its large labor market and assets, a comprehensive set of policies was introduced by the Chinese government mainly to stimulate the domestic market. Accordingly, the annual installed capacity in China experienced notable growth since 2011. This growth was mainly due to the construction of several PV power plants around the country.
In May 2011, the 11th National People's Congress (NPC) revised the solar target again, setting 5 GW as an official minimum PV target for 2015, with a longer-term target of 20–30 GW by 2020. According to a 2012 forecast by the European Photovoltaic Industry Association, the total installed capacity was predicted to reach between 47 GW and 66 GW by 2017.:p. 35
In 2014, the National Development and Reform Commission increased the solar capacity target to 70 GW by 2017. The National Energy Administration also announced plans to install 100 GW of solar power along with other renewable energy sources and nuclear energy by 2020 in 2014. However, market analysts expected for 110 GW to be installed by 2018 and that by 2020, more solar energy could be installed than planned. In 2015, the solar capacity target was initially planned to be 15 GW but was increased in March 2015 by the National Energy Administration to 17.8 GW of installed solar capacity for the year. This target was increased again to 23.1 GW in October, a very ambitious goal considering that the annual solar energy installations for the entire world in 2010 were less than 20 GW. Despite these ambitious goals, China only 7.73 GW of solar energy in the first half of 2015. By the end of 2015, China installed 15.1 GW of solar energy, failing to meet both of the raised goals, but meeting the original goal. The plan for annual solar capacity for 2020 was also increased in October 2015 to 150 GW.
In 2016, China added 34.5 GW of solar energy. The first 105 GW solar capacity by 2020 goal set by Chinese authorities was met in July 2017. In the first nine months of 2017, China saw 43 GW of solar energy installed in the first nine months of the year and saw a total of 52.8 GW of solar energy installed for the entire year. 2017 is currently the year with the largest addition of solar energy capacity in China. China's total photovoltaic energy capacity at the end of 2017 was 130 GW, surpassing Germany as the world's largest producer of solar energy. In 2018, China saw a decrease in annual solar energy, dropping down to 44.4 GW. In 2019, annual solar energy installation further dropped to 30.1 GW, even lower than the installations made in 2016. This decline in growth is attributed to the Chinese government restructuring government incentives to start solar energy projects in May 2018. Despite this decline in growth, China remained the largest market for solar energy with 205 TW generated from solar power in 2019, which was almost as much as the solar power generated in the European Union (132 TW) and the United States (76 TW) combined. However, from all of the total energy produced by China in 2019, only 3.9% of that energy was produced by solar energy. This was lower than the percent energy production from solar power of the European Union (4.9%) but greater than the percent share in the United States (2.8%).
In 2020, China saw an increase in annual solar energy installations with 48.4 GW of solar energy capacity being added, accounting for 3.5% of China's energy capacity that year. 2020 is currently the year with the second-largest addition of solar energy capacity in China's history. Combined with wind energy, almost 10% of China's energy came from non-hydroelectric renewable power in 2020. China's total photovoltaic energy capacity at the end of 2020 was 252.5 GW. China has stated that it aims to increase the energy share of solar and wind energy to 11% by the end of 2021. Renewable energy subsidies for 2021 for increased, with subsidies for solar power having increased more than subsidies for wind energy. The Huanghe Hydropower Hainan Solar Park was also completed in 2020 in Hainan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Qinghai Province. The solar park has an installed capacity of 2.2 GW, making it the second-largest solar plant in the world as of 2021, behind the Bhadla Solar Park in India. The solar plant is connected to the world's first ultra-high voltage power line which gets all of its power from renewable energy and is capable of transferring power over 1000 km. The solar plant is planned to expand to a photovoltaic capacity of 10 GW.
At the Climate Ambition Summit in 2020, Chinese leader Xi Jinping announced that China planned to have 1,200 GW of solar and wind energy capacity by 2030.
A July 2019 report found that local air pollution (black carbon and sulfur dioxide) has decreased the available solar energy that can be harnessed today by up to 15% compared to the 1960s.
|Sources: IEA for years up to and incl 2011; China National Energy Administration for data from 2012 onwards|
A large part of the solar power capacity installed in China is in the form of large PV power plants in the west of the country, an area much less populated than the eastern part but with better solar resources and available land.
|Province||MW end of 2015||MW end of 2016||MW end of 2017||MW end of 2018|
|Tibet Autonomous Region||170||330||790||980|
|Sector||Annual MW||Cumulative MW|
In 2018 23,300 MW of utility scale power plant installations were added bring the cumulative total in this sector to 123,730 MW of power. Distributed installations rose by almost as much during 2018 at 20,960 MW bringing the cumulative total in the sector to 51,250 MW by year end 2018. Off-grid solar was the smallest component in 2018 with just 360 MW cumulatively installed.
See also: List of photovoltaics companies
China has been the world's largest manufacturer of solar panels since 2008 and, since 2011, has produced the majority of global photovoltaics on an annualized basis. Industry projections estimated that, by the end of 2017, China would have enough manufacturing capacity to produce 51 GW of PV modules per year, an amount over twice as large as 2010's global production of 24 GW.
The industry is dominated by several major manufacturers. They include CHINT Group Corporation, JA Solar Holdings, Jinniu Energy, Suntech Power, Yingli, China Sunergy and Hanwha SolarOne. Large debt challenges several manufacturers.
China has large potential for concentrated solar power (CSP), especially in the south-western part of the country. The highest daily mean values of direct normal radiation are found in the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau and Sichuan Basin, at 9 kWh/m2. Most of northern and western China has daily average direct normal radiation over 5 kWh/m2, considered the limit for economical use of CSP. Practical limitations for deployment of CSP include mountainous terrain and distance from energy load centers, mostly concentrated in the east.
The 12th five-year plan, for 2011 to 2015, called for the installation of 1,000 MW by 2015, and 3,000 MW of CSP plants by 2020. However, at the end of 2014, only 14 MW of CSP was operational in the country.
Plants planned or under construction:
China is the leading country for solar water heating capacity in the world, with 290 GWth in operation at the end of 2014, accounting for about 70% of the total world capacity. In terms of capacity per unit of population, China comes 7th in the world with 213 kWth per 1,000 people. Most of the installed capacity (92%) was evacuated tube water heaters.
See also: Growth of photovoltaics
The growth of solar power industries worldwide has been rapidly accelerated by the growth of the solar market in China. Chinese-produced photovoltaic cells have made the construction of new solar power projects much cheaper than in previous years. Domestic solar projects have also been heavily subsidized by the Chinese government, allowing for China's solar energy capacity to dramatically soar. As a result, they have become the leading country for solar energy, passing Germany's capacity in 2015. As other countries from around the world look to switch to renewable energy sources, cheap options for solar and wind have become focal points of interest for investments. China's mass production of cheap photovoltaic cells and wind energy have consequently spurred investments in Chinese products from around the world and expanded the construction of solar energy projects worldwide.
In 2011, new feed-in tariffs were promised to potential solar power developers to help drive investments and growth in the solar power market. The government of Qinghai province offered solar projects that were operational before September 30 1.15 yuan ($0.18) for each kWh they produced in May of 2011. The National Development and Reform Commission offered same-priced subsidies to potential solar power project operators nationwide. These tariffs were not capped. Other subsidies, such as Top Runner and Poverty Alleviation programs, were used in conjunction with feed-in tariffs to helped grow the solar power market immensely. These incentives were more successful in garnishing attention and investment into the solar power sector than the Chinese government expected. Consequently, the Chinese government has struggled to keep up with these incentives. The government incentives have also contributed to the curtailment of solar energy, as many of the solar projects have been built in northern and western regions of China where there is a low demand for electricity and a lack of infrastructure to transfer energy towards China's main power grid.
In response to the growing problems of the rapidly expanding solar power market and the need to meet promised subsidies, the National Development and Reform Commission announced in May 2018 that solar power subsidies would be slashed and feed-in tariffs would be significantly reduced in favor of an auction-based system. In 2020, the Ministry of Finance of the People's Republic of China slashed the solar energy subsidy budget down to 1.5 billion yuan ($233 billion) from 3 billion yuan in 2019. With the auction-based system, companies are to submit subsidies bids for solar power construction projects to the National Energy Administration. Companies that do not partake in competitive bidding must instead accept a largely reduced amount of subsidies for projects that are already in operation while new projects do not receive any subsidies outside of auctions. The switch to the auction system and capping of subsidies was designed to alleviate costs of solar subsidies and is attributed to the decline of the growth of the Chinese solar market in 2018 and 2019. However, the auction system has made renewable energy in western provinces cheaper than thermal energy in some cases, with Qinghai observing periods of time in which all of its energy usage was supplied through renewable energy.
China's budget for renewable energy subsidies was increased to 6 billion yuan for 2021, with solar power receiving 3.38 billion yuan. These grants are set to be distributed to 14 provinces, with Inner Mongolia receiving the majority of the funding with 5.10 billion yuan.
The government subsidies for solar power energy projects have been considered "unsustainable" as the costs of subsidizing a rapidly growing industry are massive and some of China's struggles dealing with the costs have become visible. The renewable energy fund, which is paid by consumers, has a 100 billion yuan deficit while tariff payments have occasionally been paid late. Government subsidies for solar power have also been attributed to over construction, as many solar power projects have been funded by the Chinese government but do not operate at full capacity due to the inability to transfer the full energy capacity from production sites.
Chinese green energy companies such as Luoyang Zhonggui High-Technology Co. in Henan have become large producers of polysilicon in response to growing the demand for solar cells. However, polysilicon production produces silicon tetrachloride as a byproduct. Silicon tetrachloride is a poisonous material that can make soil infertile and harm humans if it is not disposed of properly. In developed countries, silicon tetrachloride is recycled and reprocessed, preventing the substance from entering the environment. However, special technology and large amounts of energy are required to reprocess silicon tetrachloride. Chinese green energy companies have not invested in recycling this byproduct, instead opting to lower production costs and dump waste into nearby residential areas. This lack of investment into environmental safety protocols has also been attributed to Chinese factories attempting to open much sooner than it would take normally.
Some solar cells are also made with chemicals such as sulfuric acid and phosphine gas as well as metals such as lead, chromium, and cadmium. These chemicals and metals are toxic to humans through contact and contamination of resources. While many developed countries that produce photovoltaic cells have properly disposed of or repurposed wasted solar cells, many Chinese firms have not adopted the practice recycling solar panels and waste. Non-hazardous materials have also been dumped instead of repurposed, further contributing to waste.
Various protests over solar cell production pollution have been staged. In Zhejiang province, protests over the destruction of fish habitats emerged in September, 2011. Hundreds of villagers rioted in the Zhejiang Jinko Solar Co., Ltd. factory, which produces photovoltaic cells and wafers. The factory had previously failed pollution tests in April and that its waste control was inadequate despite warnings from the local environmental protection bureau. The protests occurred over multiple days, in which company property was damaged and destroyed.
China's recent increased investments into renewables has been accompanied by controversy regarding China's contributions to climate change in general. China has pledged to peak its carbon emissions by 2030 and has invested into renewable sources of energy, including solar power, to help meet this pledge. However, as China has been opening new plants for solar energy production, it has also opened new coal plants simultaneously. Critics of China's climate policy argue that China is not trying to replace thermal fuels with renewable sources of energy, but instead trying to increase the energy capacity of both forms of energy. Although China's solar energy capacity has increased dramatically in recent years, its carbon emissions have risen as well. Consequently, critics have seen China's pledge to peak its carbon emissions as a time window for it to increase its carbon emissions rather than reduce them, with its investments into renewable energy sources such as solar power being used as a coverup for China's plan to continue expanding with fossil fuel-powered production.
The mass government subsidy-fueled construction of solar power plants has also been linked to climate change contribution as mass construction has contributed to increases in carbon emissions while the energy produced by the projects has not been fully utilized.
China's expansion of solar power capacity has been met with criticism over implications of "green grabbing". Critics argue that China has seized land from native populations and repurposed it for its own projects, such as solar farms, using the need to protect the country from climate change as a justification for land seizure. Renewable energy projects, such as solar power plants, have been built in western regions of China where many native nomadic people have had their land taken away. As such, critics argue that investments into renewable energy sources such as solar power are means to increase the power of the central state rather than protect the environment. This argument has been complemented by China's expansion of thermal fuel plants in conjunction with solar energy.
Following claims of China has taken land from rural natives under the guise of climate protection, many rural populations have been encouraged to move to government housing or urban centers. However, as expectations for the arrival of urban citizens have risen, so has the construction of buildings infrastructure projects. This speculation of the growth of urban centers has led to a housing bubble in China, where buildings and infrastructure are being constructed at a rate in which much of the construction is unused or redundant. As these unused buildings and towns are constructed, more carbon emissions are produced due to the usage of cement and other building materials. Thus, China's "green grabbing" has also been criticized by environmentalists who see China's urban expansion as useless and damaging to the environment. The forced movement of rural populations, as critics claim that these rural populations do not receive adequate compensation for removal and face discrimination and a lack of support to thrive in urban centers in contrast to citizens who have lived in urban centers throughout their lives.
The high amount of government incentives has encouraged the mass development of solar projects, especially in the northern and western regions of China. Consequently, there has been mass investment in energy production in low-population regions where energy usage is relatively low and not enough investment in infrastructure to transfer this produced energy to China's main power grid. This has caused the curtailment of solar energy to which critics point out to argue that many of China's heavy investments in renewable energy are inefficient and will become unsustainable for the country in the future. This inability to transfer energy to regions that require it has led many critics to call for China to invest more into power transfer infrastructure instead of solely energy capacity. Although curtailment rates have lowered since 2016, dropping down from 17% to 7% in 2016, some critics argue that these rates are still too high. Critics have used solar power curtailment as an example to argue for China to change its methods for dealing with the climate crisis as they see that its current efforts are ineffective.
See also: Xinjiang internment camps
China's production of cheap photovoltaic cells has been the target of a large amount of criticism due to claims of forced labor being used to drive production costs down. Reports of large Chinese solar manufacturing companies using forced labor from Uyghurs of Xinjiang to produce photovoltaic cells have appeared. Reports for forced labor being used to acquire polysilicon, a key component of solar panels, have also emerged. Although the Chinese government claims that the labor used for material acquisition and production is voluntary, reports claim that there is substantial evidence that Uyghur laborers have been coerced to produce solar panels, threatened by internment camps. As the demand for solar power increases due to climate change, the cheap nature of Chinese photovoltaic cells has resulted in China's solar exports growing massively in recent years in spite of the labor used in production. The usage of forced labor in China has only been partially condemned globally, in part due to the fact that many countries depend on China's cheap labor and photovoltaic cells to afford the transition from thermal energy to renewable energy. Since China is responsible for 80% of the world's polysilicon production, with half of the world's polysilicon produced in Xinjiang, many critics of the forced labor usage have stated that it is difficult for many countries to avoid Chinese made solar power solutions. As a result, debates over whether or not solar energy components from China should be used have arisen.
domestic demand is not large enough to absorb the output