Climate stories out of China often involve big numbers, both positive and negative. This one caught my attention recently though. The latest state energy announcement is for 455GW of new renewable energy by 2030.
That’s 10% of the entire globe’s renewable energy capacity right now, but it wasn’t the big number that I was interested in, but where China intends to place it. The country is turning to its desert regions to provide solar and wind power, with large amounts set to be installed in the Gobi desert in particular. Former coal mining land will also be turned over to renewable energy as mines are shut down.
This isn’t just a matter of putting energy infrastructure out of the way, and where land is cheap – although both of those things would be true. It’s also about land restoration and combating desertification. According to a report from the Xinhua News Agency, ecological co-benefits are a major reason for focusing on deserts.
Solar farms have a number of positive effects on desert land. First of all, they provide shade. Just a little respite from the blazing sun, and plants suddenly have a chance. Earlier solar projects found that grass started to spontaneously grow under the panels. If you raise the panels up off the ground, you can turn the area underneath into viable agricultural land and grow something more interesting than grass.
Secondly, the panels help to reduce wind speeds at ground level. This helps to control the movement of sand dunes, stabilising the landscape. It also reduces the amount of dust picked up by the winds, which improves air quality and also gives plants a better chance. If the wind isn’t blowing away the soil, then you can start rebuilding it.
One plant that has proved useful here is liquorice, which grows in the shaded sand under the solar panels. As it is nitrogen fixing, it draws nitrogen out of the air, adds organic matter, and slowly restores the fertility of the ground under the panels. Once the soil improves, all kinds of other crops can be grown, including tomatoes or melons. The most advanced solar farms in Chinese deserts have elevated solar panels with high tech farms underneath in irrigated greenhouses.
There are disadvantages of course. Sand is a constant challenge, with regular cleaning needed to keep PV production flowing. And if you put energy generation infrastructure in remote areas, you need expensive high capacity cables to get it to where you need it. But if you can make the most of those co-benefits, it still makes economic sense. And what’s more, as the soil is restored and plants are growing, the desert becomes a carbon sink, adding to the carbon reductions from the renewable energy.
This is renewable energy not just reducing emissions, but transforming the landscape and unlocking productive uses for marginalised regions.
If you want to see what this looks like in practice, the documentary below explains how a huge solar farm has combined energy generation with land restoration in Kubuqi. It works, and China just announced that it wants to do this with another 200GW by 2030.