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China: nuclear and coal giants go solar

Oliver Tickell

10th January 2014

Chinese coal and nuclear energy giants are suddenly piling into the solar industry. Is this the way of the future, not only in China but around the world?

Solar is quick to deploy, investments can be yielding returns within 12 months, the export market is increasingly buoyant in sunny developing countries, and costs are constantly falling.

First the Datong Coal Mine Group, China’s third-largest coal-mining company, announced its joint venture with PV giant Yingli Green Energy to develop and construct solar power plants in the city of Shuozhou in China’s Shanxi Province.

Chengsheng Li, chairman of the new joint venture as well as Shuozhou Coal Power, said: "Our joint venture echoes the national target for the building of a beautiful China and will help to meet our national targets for clean electricity generation.

"Additionally, the joint venture is in line with the strategy of Datong Coal Mine Group's sustainable development."

The nuclear option

Now Yingli has struck up a new alliance - with the China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC) to develop distributed generation solar projects across the country. Their joint venture is to develop 500 MW of distributed generation solar projects across the country, of which 200 MW will be installed on CNNC sites.

"While CNNC remains committed to nuclear power development, we are increasing our activities in the renewable energy space, in order to expand our development space", said Hongchao Xu, deputy general manager of CNNC subsidiary China Rich Energy.

"The cooperation with Yingli Solar reflects our strategy and is in line with the strategic targets of the Chinese government to promote ecological civilization and sustainable development." Under their agreed strategy, the distributed generation systems will be built close to the electricity end-users.

Government commitment

These moves into solar PV by China's biggest energy players reflects the Government's commitment to the sector and its enormous growth potential.

Faced with disappointing 2012 solar sales in Europe, the main export market, and consequent manufacturing over-capacity, China has now resolved to accelerate its domestic deployment of solar PV.

According to recent statement by China's State Council, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology is taking measures to "promote the healthy development of the photovoltaic industry."

This will mean more standardisation and consolidation  and implementing a government directive to more than quadruple solar power capacity to 35 GW by 2015. 

China's solar industry experienced a recovery 2013, the State Council added: total installed solar power capacity increased by around 8 GW. Of this 6 GW comprised large power plants feeding the grid and 2 GW were decentralized installations, according to estimates from the China Photovoltaic Industry Alliance.

Yingli has also scored some notable recent export successes: together with two other Chinese renewable energy firms, the company has just won the contract for 233 MW of PV projects in Algeria. In 2013 it achieved a 20% market share of Jordan's growing solar industry.

The new energy reality

The coal and nuclear industries moves into solar reflect the reality that they are capital rich from power sale revenues, but opportunity poor given the low long term profitability of coal and nuclear investments, and the dangerously long-term returns required to make such investments economic. Export opportunities are also limited.

By contrast solar is quick to deploy, investments can be yielding returns within 12 months, the export market is increasingly buoyant in sunny developing countries, and costs are constantly falling.

And as they say: "If you can't beat them, join them!"


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