China and India Building Giant New Solar Projects

January 6, 2011

By: Nick Engelfried 

Two of the fastest-growing economies on the planet have recently made progress toward beginning work on major new solar energy projects that will provide their populations with clean, low-carbon electricity. China is poised to begin work on what may be the biggest solar photovoltaic energy project in the world, while the state government of Gujarat, India has announced plans to build a solar farm that will be the first of its kind in Asia. Both projects are promising for the growth of the global solar industry, and may be a preview of things to come for the developing world.

On Wednesday Arizona-based First Solar and the China Guangdong Nuclear Solar Energy Development Company signed a memorandum of understanding to build the first phase of a solar photovoltaic power plant in Ordos City, Inner Mongolia. Inner Mongolia is a part of China, not to be confused with the nation of Mongolia to the north. This first phase of the solar project will have an electricity generating capacity of thirty megawatts, and will serve as a demonstration project. The fully completed solar power plant, which the companies involved hope to finish by 2019 will be able to generate 2,000 megawatts of electricity.

The idea for the Ordos solar plant was first announced in 2009, at which time First Solar said it wanted to begin work on the project by June of 2010. However after that initial progress stalled, as the Ordos project cleared regulatory hurdles and First Solar searched for financial collaborators. The news that China Guangdong Nuclear Solar Energy Development will be partnering with First Solar to build the solar plant is an encouraging sign that the Ordos project is finally ready to move forward. The Chinese company started as the China Guangdong Nuclear Power Group, but more recently has begun investing in other energy sources like solar power. The Ordos plant is the biggest solar project China Guangdong has agreed to work on so far.

Meanwhile the state of Gujarat in western India has unveiled plans to build a 500 megawatt solar farm that will provide electricity and spur economic development in the local area. Gujarat has become an attractive site for solar developers since 2009, when the state government passed a series of policies designed to encourage solar development. The state is investing 109 billion rupees in the newly announced solar far, equivalent to about US $2.3 billion. Gujarat’s sunny weather is also contributes to it being a prime solar hot spot; developers of the new solar farm estimate it will receive about 330 days of sunlight per year.

Solar and other renewable energy projects will help China and India reach their goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, at a time when both countries’ carbon footprints are growing rapidly. China has pledged to cut its carbon intensity—the volume of greenhouse gases emitted per unit of energy produced—by 40-45% below 2005 levels by the year 2020. India’s goal is to cut its greenhouse gas intensity 20-25% by 2020. Achieving these goals will likely mean both these countries need to reduce their dependence on coal for generating electricity, as coal is the most carbon-heavy of all commonly used fuels.

Solar projects like the Ordos power plant in China and the Gujarat solar farm present an alternative to coal-fired power plants, and can help developing countries generate more electricity with fewer carbon emissions. Renewable energy development also offers nations with high levels of poverty a way to increase access to electricity without growing their carbon emissions even further. If the Gujarat and Ordos projects are successful, energy companies may be tempted to invest in more such ventures in the developing world.

Photo credit: Wayne National Forest

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