In late May, news outlets from around the globe were reporting on an announcement from the Chinese government that the country had completed the construction of, and had started drawing power from, the world’s largest floating solar farm. The farm, constructed by Sungrow Power Supply, has a reported capacity of 40 megawatts (MW) and floats in a section of China’s Anhui province above a former coal mining town which has flooded over.
The Anhui solar farm is the world’s largest floating farm but its 40 MW capacity is much lower than other large photovoltaic power stations across the world. However, news reports have focused on the fact that the Anhui farm is the latest in a string of renewable energy plant construction projects, which have been ramping up in China. In recent years, that country’s central government has made steps towards building massive solar farms on land, including a 2,550-hectare plant in the Gobi Desert.
In the context of the current global debate on climate change, the timing of the announcement is almost as poetic as the setting of the solar farm floating above a former coal mining town. In early June, President Donald Trump announced that the U.S. would withdraw from the Paris climate accord, a decision that gives a victory to critics of the deal’s effects on America’s lawmaking authority despite garnering widespread criticism from foreign leaders and U.S. business executives. The current White House’s step back from this international agreement has led many news outlets to opine that China has taken on a new leadership role in global efforts to minimize the impacts of climate change.
The concept that China would be a global leader in an environmental cause is made very ironic by the fact that, traditionally, China has been seen as one of the world’s largest polluters. In August 2015, major news outlets were reporting on a study of the health effects of China’s air quality which found that 1.6 million Chinese deaths per year were attributable to poor air quality. A World Health Organization (WHO) report from last September found that China was the deadliest country in terms of deaths from poor air quality. This March, Chinese political officials announced new targets for pollution reduction of soil, water and air pollution. Concerns over pollution continue to galvanize the Chinese populace, as reflected by this article published in late May by The Globe and Mail.
How can China be both a leader in renewable energy development while it continues to have such concerns over pollution? There may be one perspective from which this question can be answered which can respond to concerns from environmentalists across the world without being highly critical of U.S. isolationism on the Paris climate accord. From an innovation standpoint, it makes perfect sense that the strongest solutions to problems would come from the regions where those problems are felt so acutely. The difficulty of transporting goods coast-to-coast is exactly why the railroad explosion in the U.S. during the late-19th century was so valuable to American society. From an individual perspective, this pattern is repeated in examples like that of Dr. Hugh Herr, a double amputee and inventor of the bionic foot and calf system. Time and time again, the history of innovation shows that truly revolutionary solutions to incredible problems are better answered by private individuals and entities rather than by government decree.