Solar rooftop

At 10:48 am on 17 April in Beijing, Greenpeace made a bit of history: we joined the first batch of around 50 rooftop solar PV projects that connected to the grid in China.

And to our surprise, we learned that our modest five-kilowatt solar system is actually the biggest rooftop solar power project currently in Beijing.

Our “system” is 65 square meters of solar panels at the new GP China warehouse in Shunyi, on the outskirts of Beijing. At full capacity on a day with clear weather, these panels will generate around 25 kWh of electricity. To give you a sense of scale, an average urban Chinese family consumes less than 10 kWh per day.

Screenshot

Geeky screenshot of the production monitoring system – the panels produced 61KWh in a little over two days, “it’s a powerhouse!”

After the hurrahs, and true to Confucius teaching, we reflected on the lessons we have learned so far, and what it will take to unlock the future in China of rooftop solar – also called distributed solar.

Greenpeace Beijing solar

The good news

We installed our solar system just six months after a decision by the central last October that allowed distributed solar installations to connect to the grid for free. We wanted to test out the opportunity and see how long it would take a small producer to do that. We’ve now demonstrated that it’s doable within a reasonable time. For us, the approval process took only a month and a half, and installation, when we did it, only a few days. Our small solar success highlights a much more significant milestone in solar sector development in China – the enabling of on-grid distributed, or rooftop, solar generation.

Greenpeace is a front-runner in the renewable way outside China also. Recently, Greenpeace offices have installed solar in Senegal and India. Rooftop solar offers households, small organisations and businesses the choice to be powered by renewable, especially when getting clean energy from electricity utilities is a problem, as it is in China and many other developing countries in Africa and Asia.

Greenpeace Germany is at the other end of the spectrum. There, renewable campaigners actually set up an independent company, Greenpeace Energy, an established renewable utility, and a recognized innovator in the German renewable industry.

Unleashing solar

2013 is a turning point for solar energy in China. The current crisis of overcapacity in solar PV production is actually speeding up China’s transition in domestic energy to renewables. To preserve jobs and ease the restructuring of the solar industry, the government has set ambitious renewable targets for its domestic market. The solar target for 2015, revised four times in two years, has soared from five GW to 35 GW, including a target of 10 GW for rooftop solar.

Making it possible to connect to the grid is a crucial first step – but a few key ingredients are still missing to really unlock the future of rooftop solar in China:

Feed-in tariff stability

  • Small producers are still at a significant disadvantage, only able to sell their surplus electricity at 0.35 yuan / kWh (5.65 US cent/kWh), well below the feed-in tariff (FiT) of 1 yuan/kWh for large concentrated-solar farms.

  • This means small producers need three times as long to recover their initial investment. The current FiT for small producers is interim. The government is expected to unveil a new solar feed-in tariff soon, and the level and stability will be crucial to determine the uptake.

Innovation in solar financing

  • We paid 50,000 yuan ($8,072 US) for our solar installation upfront, as an investment to be covered by cuts in our energy costs in the coming years and by selling our surplus electricity to the grid. But for many, the upfront cost is a barrier. But this can be fixed with innovative financing.  In the US, the solar industry and governments are experimenting with various schemes and financing models to get around high upfront costs, for example, with state incentives and rebates, solar power purchase agreement (PPA), even crowdfunding.

Get citizens involved in energy decisions

  • To meet its 10GW target, China needs two million more solar systems like ours. Chinese citizens can play a big role not only as consumers demanding more solar energy, but also by demanding more solar and other renewables as a meaningful action to help tackle the frightening air pollution caused by coal burning, and to reduce China’s carbon emissions.

China needs to find answers to all of the above to create an attractive price and market for solar power.  These same ingredients enabled Germany to connect its one-millionth solar PV installation to the grid in 2011, with solar producing 10 percent of Germany’s total electricity in 2012.

And given this is China, let’s see how quickly we could reach this.

Iris Cheng is an energy campaigner with Greenpeace International.

Images: Greenpeace's solar roof top project in Beijing. © Greenpeace / Kuang Yin