In the heart of China’s Shaanxi province, amid green onion and wheat fields, Li Lifeng has installed a multitude of glistening solar panels atop his home’s rooftop, catching the winter sun’s rays.
For the past five years, Li, like over 2.4 million Chinese homeowners, has taken steps to contribute to the mitigation of the world’s largest source of carbon emissions driving global warming.
The surge in rooftop solar installations has predominantly occurred in the last two years, driven by China’s support for local governments to accelerate installations and elevated power rates for businesses, enhancing the allure of self-generated electricity.
This renewables surge led China to outpace other nations by constructing more small-scale solar capacity last year than the total combined clean energy capacity additions globally.
Approximately one out of every five solar panels installed worldwide in 2022 adorned the rooftops of Chinese homes or businesses.
For Li, his motivation was financial. The 52-year-old owns a noodle shop and a couple of rowhouses located about an hour from Xi’an in central China. As his sons approached marriage and college, Li and his wife aimed to secure an additional income stream for their retirement.
Since linking their first solar panel to the grid in early 2018, Li’s family has earned over 62,000 yuan ($8,963) by selling clean energy. Li remarked, “You can’t get this much return putting money in the bank.”
Despite possessing the world’s largest wind and solar capacities, China’s electricity grid still heavily relies on coal, a polluting fossil fuel. Escalating energy prices, triggered by Russia’s Ukraine invasion and prolonged droughts affecting hydroelectric power, compelled China to increase coal-fired generation last year, even as it expanded its renewable capacity.
However, achieving President Xi Jinping’s 2060 net-zero target necessitates a more substantial shift away from fossil fuels and a reduction in carbon emissions. While large-scale wind and solar farms are under construction in remote inland deserts, linking them to densely populated central and eastern cities is expensive and incomplete. Moreover, densely inhabited regions like Shandong and Hebei face limited space for utility-scale renewables.
To address these challenges, China is harnessing rooftops as a valuable asset in the fight against climate change. The nation added over 51 gigawatts of small-scale solar capacity last year, with around 40% of its total solar capacity now stemming from rooftops and backyards. This expansion has even extended power to remote villages and isolated monasteries.
Initially, the national government supported all solar projects through substantial subsidies, ensuring profitability for investors. As solar panel costs fell, the subsidy program ceased at the end of 2021, leading to reduced or eliminated local payouts.
In its place, China initiated a pilot program in 2021 where local governments pool smaller projects into larger orders, attracting more developers and decreasing costs. Cities were urged to outfit nearly a third of commercial buildings and a fifth of farmhouses with panels by the end of 2023, catalyzing an unprecedented surge in small-scale solar installations.
According to Longi Green Energy Technology Co., the world’s largest solar power equipment manufacturer, China is projected to incorporate 60 gigawatts of small-scale solar power this year, with a continuing annual expansion of around 20%. China’s buildings and rooftops have the potential to house over 1 terawatt of solar capacity, comparable to the global industry’s existing size.
As demand grows, Longi has introduced specialized rooftop solar panels that are more efficient and visually appealing. This surge isn’t confined to households; solar installations on factories and commercial buildings have also skyrocketed due to prolonged blackouts impacting production.
Amid both domestic and foreign pressure to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, Chinese businesses have embraced solar power to cut energy costs and decarbonize supply chains. With higher power rates permitted for industrial and commercial users after energy shortages in 2021, businesses are hastening their transition to renewables.
Yet, this swift expansion poses challenges for grid stability. Some regions like Shandong, housing a significant portion of China’s rooftop solar capacity, have requested homeowners to halt generation during times of excess electricity. The emergence of spot power trading programs could lead to more volatile power prices and income instability for solar power generators.
Certain coastal regions are mandating or encouraging new rooftop installations to integrate battery storage, though this comes with substantial costs. Despite local incentive schemes, the conclusion of national subsidies has impacted the profitability of new rooftop solar projects, even as equipment costs decrease.
While substantial growth is anticipated in the next few years, it’s essential that it aligns with sustainability goals. As the solar landscape evolves, individuals like Li are finding security and economic relief in rooftop solar installations, foreseeing a future where the benefits far outweigh the uncertainties.