China's Renewables Strategy Shines in Massive Solar Park

Splash - China NEA - HHDC Longyangxia Dam Solar Park

The Longyangxia Dam Solar Park, part of a hydro-solar integration in the high desert on the Tibetan Plateau, has helped the country move toward its ambitious targets for increasing generation from cleaner fuel sources and reducing its reliance on coal-fired power.

Renewable energy is big business in China. A country that for more than a decade has led the world in greenhouse gas emissions, where coal-fired power has long dominated the energy mix, has today embraced renewables in a big way.

The country leads the world in investments in clean energy, already reaching its 2020 goal of producing 110 GW of solar power; it also wants to generate at least 210 GW of wind power by 2020, and the International Energy Agency (IEA) has said it’s likely to hit that target in 2019. China has pledged to get at least 20% of its electricity from non-fossil fuel sources by 2030.

In January of this year, as part of the country’s latest five-year plan for energy development, China’s National Energy Administration (NEA) said it would spend more than $360 billion on renewable energy projects through year-end 2020, with a plan to create more than 13 million jobs in the sector. It’s a major philosophical change for the country of nearly 1.4 billion people, where just a few years ago development of renewable energy was considered too costly to pursue.

That changed as Chinese manufacturers began to dominate solar panel manufacturing. According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado, and San Francisco, California-based SPV Market Research, six of the top 10 global solar panel manufacturers in 2017 are located in China. The IEA says 60% of the world’s solar panels are now manufactured in China. That has allowed the Chinese government to reduce project costs for solar developers—by some estimates as much as a 40%—and is a big reason IEA says three of the world’s five largest solar farms are in China, as of October 2017.

That includes the massive 850-MW Longyangxia Dam Solar Park, part of the Longyangxia Hybrid Hydro-Solar Project in Qinghai Province that includes the 1,280-MW Longyangxia Dam on the Yellow River. Construction of the solar park began in 2013; today, it features more than 4 million solar panels, spread across more than 10 square miles of high desert on the Tibetan Plateau in eastern China (Figure 1). It has been built at a cost of 6 billion yuan ($911 million), with a continual expansion over the past few years that, at least for a brief period, made it the world’s largest solar farm, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA).

1. The view from space. This image of the Longyangxia Dam Solar Park taken from space provides a look at the size of the solar array, which covers more than 10 square miles and includes more than 4 million solar panels. Courtesy: NASA Earth Observatory

Solar Development Part of Keeping Promises

The Longyangxia project has been developed by Huanghe Hydropower Development Co. (HHDC), whose chairman, Xie Xiaoping, is a staunch advocate of renewable energy. “The development of clean energy is very important if we are to keep the promises made in the Paris [climate] agreement,” Xiaoping told Britain’s The Guardian newspaper earlier this year. “The Chinese government will carry out and fulfill its international commitments.”

In that same interview Xiaoping took on U.S. President Donald Trump, who famously said on Twitter that “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.” Xiaoping told the newspaper: “I don’t care what Mr. Trump says … I think what he says is nonsense.”

Xiaoping leads a company that also has solar and hydro projects in development in Africa, with plans for a global expansion of its business. HHDC subsidiary SPIC Solar Power supplied the solar technology for the Longyangxia project, among many others in China, and HHDC earlier this year signed an agreement with DuPont to establish a joint lab to develop advanced photovoltaic (PV) technology. Xiaoping at the time said DuPont’s experience in PV technology research and development would enable HHDC to install another 20 GW of solar power by 2025, as the company seeks to have the world’s largest capacity of solar generation.

The first phase of the Longyangxia solar park was completed in 2013, with generation capacity of 320 MW. Operation of the now 530-MW second phase began in 2015. The solar park is considered the fifth, sixth, and seventh units by extension of the 1,280-MW Longyangxia hydropower plant, which has four 320-MW units.

According to HHDC, the solar park is connected to the hydropower plant by a one-circuit 330-kV line that stretches for 33 miles. The solar park is coupled to one of the hydro plant’s quick-response turbines, which smooths the output curve of the PV power caused by fluctuations in sunlight due to cloud cover and time of day. Balancing the variable generation is key to enabling reliable power transmission to the grid via the hydropower plant.

“The combination of a major hydroelectric dam and a solar project enables the solar power production to overcome its inherent challenges of being a variable resource, by being integrated with a dispatchable resource,” Philip Mihlmester, executive vice president of Global Energy for ICF, a global consulting company based in Fairfax, Virginia, told POWER. “This can be seen as part of a global trend toward creativity in integrating higher volumes of variable [solar and wind] renewables onto grids. Hybrid power projects like Longyangxia are one option.”

The solar park also has served to increase the operational efficiency of the hydroelectric plant. Because of its desert location, the dam has been judicious with its water releases; with the solar power generation online, the hydropower station has increased its annual capacity utilization.

According to information from an HHDC report, “By mixing water energy and solar energy and relying on the quick regulation capability of [the] water turbine generator set and regulation capability of the reservoir of hydropower plant, the active power output of PV is adjusted and the hydropower-solar power mix power generation is performed, to achieve a smooth and stable PV curve, effectively compensate for the deficiency of an independent PV power plant, improve the security and stability of the power system, and make the PV power generation become the high-quality power energy that is comparable to the hydropower.”

World Leader in Solar Generation

China’s solar success is remarkable, particularly for a country long known for its reliance on coal-fired power generation. With this year’s additions, China—which had 77.4 GW of solar capacity at the end of 2016, according to its NEA—will have about three times as much solar generation capacity as the U.S., which had about 40 GW of generation capacity in 2016, according to the EIA.

“China’s massive new solar deployment this year has cemented its status as the world’s leading nation [in solar generation],” Amit Ronen, director of the GW Solar Institute at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., told POWER. “In the first half of 2017, China installed almost 25 gigawatts of solar capacity, more than all of Europe combined, and that number is likely to reach 45 gigawatts by year’s end, which is as much as all of [European] solar leader Germany’s current capacity.

“Several factors came together that caused the central government authorities to radically pivot China’s energy future, including the untenable smog situation in China’s largest cities, the ability of renewables to quickly meet China’s voracious appetite for new electricity supplies, and the recognition that solar in particular could be a major new source of manufacturing jobs,” said Ronen, who saw first-hand the scope of China’s solar industry as he toured the country in the past year.

However, China’s 110-GW goal by 2020 was actually 27% below an earlier target, according to Bloomberg. The country has had problems adapting some new projects into the country’s power grid, leading to slower expansion that expected.

“An estimated 11% of China’s solar power is wasted, as transmission line construction has not kept pace with soaring capacity and markets do not always accurately price the value of solar power,” said Ronen.

“The hydropower surplus and transmission difficulty problem has existed for a long time [in China],” Wenxue Li, president of LONGi Solar, told POWER. Li said his company is among those, including HHDC, thinking critically about the layout of energy projects and how to adapt hybrid solar/hydro projects such as Longyangxia to the grid. Projects such as Longyangxia, with the “practice of producing clean energy [solar] with clean energy [hydropower] not only establishes a model for China’s PV industry, but also provides a new way of thinking about the energy transformation in China.”

Even with the solar expansions such as Longyangxia, solar power still accounts for only about 1% of China’s electricity, according to China Energy Portal, which says about 65% of the country’s power in 2016 came from coal-fired power plants, with about 19% from hydropower, 4% from wind, and 3% from nuclear.

“A more robust and smarter grid is certainly a key investment needed to integrate more solar into the electricity grid,” said Ronen.

The Longyangxia park’s status as the world’s largest solar farm has been brief; the 1-GW Kurnool Ultra Mega Solar Park in Andhra Pradesh, India, already is being commissioned. And it too will soon be knocked from the top spot, as a 2-GW project in China’s Ningxia region is being developed by China Minsheng New Energy Investment Co., the country’s largest private investor group. ■

Darrell Proctor is a POWER associate editor. 

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