China, Solar and ‘Soft Power’

By Bruce E. Johansen, Frederick W. Kayser Professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, and the author of the forthcoming Climate Change: An Encyclopedia of Science, Society, and Solutions.

China has gone on a solar-power building binge meant explicitly to show the world that it now leads on climate change, and that the United States under President Donald Trump is on its way to global irrelevance. Trump, as has been his custom, is doubling down on stupidity.

In less than a decade after 2008, China has become the world’s predominant producer and user of solar power on a mass scale, a trend that accelerated after Donald J. Trump was elected president of the United States. Trump’s description of global warming as a Chinese “hoax” has been highly resented in China, which has been using solar power as part of a global propaganda offensive to show the world that it is a leader in combatting climate change, under the direction of its president Xi Jinping.

China’s solar-power surge includes the world’s largest array, on the Tibetan plateau, which, with 4 million panels across 27 square kilometers, is the size of a small city. By 2015, even before Trump was elected, China was adding 15 to 20 gigawatts of solar capacity per year, having surpassed Germany as the largest solar-power market in the world. By early 2016, China had 43.2 gigawatts of solar capacity, compared to 38.4 gw in Germany and 27.8 in the United States. World capacity reached 200 gw in 2015 and 320 gw in at the end of 2016 (Martin, 2016). Even with China’s unprecedented growth, however, its solar plants generated only one percent of the country’s total power generation in 2016—66.2 billion kilowatt-hours.

Growing Chinese dominance of solar-panel manufacturing was a major reason why world prices fell by 80 percent between 2008 and 2013. John Fialka, writing in Scientific American, said that “China had leapfrogged from nursing a tiny, rural-oriented solar program in the 1990s to become the globe’s leader in what may soon be the world’s largest renewable energy source.”

“They fundamentally changed the economics of solar all over the world,” said Amit Ronen, director of the Solar Institute of George Washington University, one of many scholars following the intense competition in the emerging $100 billion industry that supports the world’s growing solar-energy demands. The U.S. solar industry may have invented the technology, and holds most of the patents, but China by 2015 had assumed world leadership in production and use. Two-thirds of the solar panels installed in the United States were being made in China by 2016.

“The Chinese took it and basically ran with it,” said Donald Chung, one of the authors of a U.S. Department of Energy report, who studies the solar industry for DOE’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado. China bought solar companies and invited others to move to China, where skilled labor was supplied at relatively low wages. Solar was designated as one of seven favored industries in the national government’s five-year plans. China thus found itself with a glut of solar panels (with twice as much production as overseas sales), which was absorbed within the country by policies that favored installation of roof-top solar collectors.

China’s advanced thinking regarding solar power includes anticipation of an international grid in which it will be the main advocate and supplier, as a backward-looking United States fades into irrelevance under Trump, with his reliance on outdated fossil-fuel technology. According to a report in Scientific American. “In October, Liu Zhenya, former chairman of China’s state-owned power company, State Grid Corp., came to the United Nations to shed more light on his nation’s evolving solar ambitions, which he said are part of a plan aimed at organizing a global power grid [which he calls the Global Energy Interconnection] that could transmit 80 percent renewable energy by 2050.” The Chinese have invited the nations of the world to support a Global Energy Interconnection Development and Cooperation Organization (GEIDCO), to be chaired by Liu, “a global grid that would transmit solar, wind and hydroelectric-generated power from places on Earth where they are abundant to major population centers…”

Tom Phillips reported from the Longyangxia Dam Solar Park in the western province of Qinghai, Tibet for London’s Guardian, illustrating just how closely China’s leadership identifies with solar power’s potential for international influence: “High on the Tibetan plateau, a giant poster of the Chinese president, Xi Jinping has been hung near the entrance to one of the greatest monuments to Beijing’s quest to become a clean energy colossus. To Xi’s right, on the road leading to what is reputedly the biggest solar farm on earth, a billboard greets visitors with the slogan: ‘Promote green development! Develop clean energy!’ Behind him, a sea of nearly 4 million deep-blue panels flows towards a spectacular horizon of snow-capped mountains—mile after mile of silicon cells tilting skywards from what was once a barren, wind-swept cattle ranch.”

According to the Guardian report, “Xi said that unlike Donald Trump, a climate denier whose election as U.S. president has alarmed scientists and campaigners, he was convinced global warming was a real and present danger that would wreak havoc on the world unless urgent action was taken.”

“Our response to climate change bears on the future of our people and the well-being of mankind,” Xi said, vowing to “unwaveringly pursue sustainable development.” Sam Geall, the executive editor of China Dialogue, a bilingual website on the environment, said that Beijing sees Trump’s election and his ignorant denial of climate change “as a rare and unexpected opportunity to boost Chinese soft power by positioning itself as the world’s premier climate-change fighter.”


Martin, Richard. “China Is on an Epic Solar Power Binge.” MIT Technology Review, March 22, 2016.
Fialka, John. “Why China Is Dominating the Solar Industry.” Scientific American, December 19, 2016.
Phillips, Tom. “China Builds World’s Biggest Solar Farm in Journey to Become Green Superpower.” The Guardian (U.K.), January 19, 2017.
Woo, Ryan. China’s Solar Power Capacity More than Doubles in 2016.” Reuters. February 4, 2017. 

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