China has solar power plants that cumulatively produce more than four times our total electricity needs.
As a South African, looking at statistics like this, it is difficult not to feel that something is horribly amiss in our country.
Whereas we are in the grips of “load shedding” blackouts that are crippling an already-fragile economy; other countries are making massive strides in power production technology. China is a good example. From a virtual non-contender in the field of renewable energy production just over 10 years ago, the country has now become a world leader in renewables.
China’s massive economic growth has always been driven by coal-powered electricity plants.
Coal was an obvious choice, since they have an abundance of it.
But coal is the dirtiest of the fossil fuels, and releases extremely high amounts of carbon and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere when burnt. The smoke from power plants also caused large-scale pollution in nearby cities, making the air, water and soil toxic.
Things became so bad, people had to wear masks throughout the day, to protect themselves from breathing in poisonous gases. Despite this and other measures, people became seriously ill, and began to protest about the unacceptable pollution levels.
China gained a nasty reputation as the world’s biggest polluter.
Something had to be done urgently, and in 2007 the National Development and Reform Commission of the People’s Republic of China (NDRC) unveiled plans to increase solar power production to 1800 megawatts (MW) by 2020.
Solar farms began to spring up all over China, like the massive 27km2 Longyangxia Dam Solar Park in north-western Qinghai province, which is the biggest solar farm in the world. The facility is installed with 4 million photovoltaic panels and has a production capacity of 850MW, enough to power 200000 average households.
China is also home to the world’s largest floating solar farm, the 40MW power plant in central Anhui province, which floats on a lake that was formed when an underground coal mine collapsed. The water in the lake is full of toxins, and hence unusable for any other purpose.
Building the plant on a lake provides two advantages: it makes use of wasted space, plus the water helps to keep the panels cool, thereby optimising performance.
But China was about to outdo itself. By 2012, China’s total solar power production was already sitting at nearly 47000MW. Consequently, the government set a new target of 100000MW by 2020. By the end of 2018, China’s cumulative solar power production was 174000MW.
Just to put that number into perspective, according to Eskom South Africa’s total electricity production is about 40000MW; so China is now producing four times South Africa’s total electricity requirement through solar power alone.
Other countries are also going all-out in adopting renewable power.
Germany, for example, has pledged to close down all its coal-powered plants by 2038.
It will be a remarkable achievement for a country that still relies on coal for about 40% of its electricity.
India is not too far behind, with aspirations to make a complete shift to renewables within a couple of decades.
India had an initial target of 20000MW capacity for 2022, but their total capacity tipped 26000MW by the end of 2018, four years ahead of schedule.
The question is, why now? Why have all these countries accelerated their solar power production in the past five years, even though solar technology was available for decades previously?
The answer has to do with the cost and efficiency of solar panels.
Every year since they were invented in the 1960s, solar panels have become cheaper and more efficient, until they reached a point about a decade ago, when solar became a strong contender to coal.
Although still in its infancy, solar power technology has tremendous potential.
According to Kunal Mushi, founder at India-based Sunrator technologies, just 500000km2 of solar cells, about the size of Northern Cape and Western Cape combined, can power the entire world with clean, renewable energy forever, ending all our energy-related problems like global warming and oil wars.
The best part about solar power for a country like South Africa, is not just that it is free and renewable, but that solar power can be generated at three levels: on a massive scale to supply the national grid; on a city, town or village scale, to provide just that area; or on a domestic level to supply power to a single home.
Clusters of villages that are far from the national grid can benefit from small-scale solar plants that are set up close by to provide them with power, without the overhead of setting up distribution lines.
The question is, why has South Africa lagged so far behind the rest of the world in solar power production?
* Bilal Kathrada is an educational technologist, speaker, author, newspaper columnist and entrepreneur. He is the founder of CompuKids, a start-up that teaches children Computer Science skills. Bilal blogs at www.bilalkat.com.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.