China wants to become the world’s leading producer of solar energy and is investing massively in solar panels that now cover huge swathes of desert.
The nation is the biggest market for solar energy in the world and home to most of the largest panel manufacturers.
When completed, the Gao Tai solar park will cover 319 square kilometres – that’s three times the size of Paris, or 80 000 solar panels per square kilometre.
“This used to be the Gobi desert, there was nothing here, just stones and wind, the earth wasn’t arable, it wasn’t profitable, but now, it’s a treasure,” says Wei Lang, director of the Gao Tai solar park.
A nearby coal factory is spewing dark smoke.
China knows its dependency on coal is no longer viable. Its towns are suffocating, pressure from the public opinion is growing.
And China has considerable natural assets according to the head of the Huineng solar plant: “It’s not always like this, we have more than 280 days of sunshine a year. Winters are very cold, but associated with a clear blue sky, this produces increased efficiency,” says Dong Zhen Qiang.
Moreover, solar panels require very little maintenance and have a lifetime expectancy of around 25 years.
The problem is that here in the desert, there is little need for electricity. It therefore needs to be transported to China’s industrial regions.
And that’s where the problem lies: the solar park has grown faster than China’s infrastructure. Today, the plant only runs at half its capacity.