Global Energy Monitor
  • Aiqun Yu, Sophie Lu, Kasandra O’Malia, and Shradhey Prasad
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China is cementing its position as the global leader in renewables development with
180 GW of utility-scale solar and 159 GW of wind power already under construction1 .
The total of the two is nearly twice as much as the rest of the world combined, and
enough to power all of South Korea, according to new data from Global Energy Monitor
(GEM). The 339 GW of utility-scale solar and wind that have reached the construction
stage accounts for one-third of all proposed wind and solar capacity in China, far
surpassing the global construction rate of just 7%, according to GEM’s latest Global
Solar Power Tracker and Global Wind Power Tracker updates2. The stark contrast in construction rates illustrates the active nature of China’s commitment to building
renewables projects.

China is home to almost two-thirds of world's utility-scale solar and wind power in construction

Utility-scale solar and wind power capacity in construction, by country

What happened in the past year?

China added almost twice as much utility-scale solar and wind power capacity in 2023 than in any other year. By the first quarter of 2024, China’s total utility-scale solar and wind capacity reached 758 GW, though data from China Electricity Council put the total capacity, including distributed solar, at 1,120 GW.  Wind and solar now account for 37% of the total power capacity in the country, an 8% increase from 2022, and widely expected to surpass coal capacity, which is 39% of the total right now, in 2024.

Between March 2023 and March 2024, China installed more solar than it had in the previous three years combined, and more than the rest of the world combined for 2023. Solar capacity first surpassed wind in 2022, and the gap has grown significantly larger, thanks to the massive expansion of distributed solar. Nearly half of the distributed solar added in 2023 was installed on residential rooftops, largely driven by China’s “whole county solar” model. Distributed solar accounts for 41% of the total solar capacity and has experienced a higher growth rate than centralized solar since 2021. The growth is attributed to the advantages of lower investment costs, easy installation, and strong policy support, making it more popular in the market.

Newly installed wind also doubled in growth over the 12 months year on year. After a brief slowdown in 2022 due to the end of central government feed-in tariff subsidies, they bounced back in 2023. GEM’s Global Wind Power Tracker has documented a 51 GW wind capacity increase since 2023 — this growth itself exceeds the total operating capacity of any country, except the United States.

The combined capacity at pre-construction and announced stages for utility-scale solar power reaches 387 GW and 336 GW for wind. This includes the second and third waves of “mega wind & solar bases” with a combined capacity of approximately 503 GW, which will come online between 2025 and 2030. The first wave of "mega wind and solar bases" was announced in 2021 and spanned across 19 provinces. Most of the 97 GW in this first wave began operating in 2023 as scheduled, accounting for a third of China’s newly-operating capacity, pointing to a promising future for the second and third waves.

On the province level, GEM’s data reveals that the northwest and north provinces
continue dominating large-scale solar and wind installation. Meanwhile, distributed
solar is rapidly transforming the landscape in central and southern provinces.
According to the National Energy Administration, this trend has elevated Henan, Jiangsu, and Zhejiang, into the top five for solar capacity compared to the beginning of
2023.

The top six provinces for wind installation, Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang, Hebei, Shanxi, Shandong, and Gansu account for 43% of the total in the country, according to GEM. Although the onshore wind’s distribution among provinces has seen minimal change, offshore wind is rapidly advancing, with Jiangsu continuing to lead the country. Fujian witnessed eleven 16 MW wind turbines, the largest capacity for a single wind turbine in the world, go into operation in the Pingtan offshore wind farm in 2023. The rapid growth offshore wind capacity in Guangdong, Zhejiang, Fujian and Hainan is expected to shift the provincial ranking, potentially replacing Jiangsu as the number one offshore wind province within the next five years.

What is China on track for?

Looking ahead, if all proposed utility scale solar and wind projects come online as
intended, China could easily reach 1,200 GW of installed wind and solar capacity by the
end of 2024, six years ahead of the pledge made by President Xi Jinping and one year
earlier than GEM’s forecast last year.

While China never signed the tripling renewables commitment at COP28, it did support
the pledge in the Sunnylands Statement between China and the U.S. government in
early 2023 to triple renewables energy capacity globally, and intends to sufficiently
accelerate renewable energy deployment in their respective economies through 2030
from 2020 levels. If wind and solar keep adding 200 GW annually as the authorities
planned for 2024
, tripling renewable capacity by the end of 2030, based on the 2020
baseline of 934 GW
, is well within reach even without any new hydropower additions.
Tripling on the 2022 baseline, as advocated by the International Renewable Energy
Agency (IRENA)
, can also be achieved if they are installed at a slightly higher growth
rate in 2023 as the authority announced. China should consider a more ambitious
renewable target in its Nationally Determined Contributions to the Paris Agreement
submission to the UN next year.

The sheer amount of prospective capacity under development in China provides
further evidence for the forecast that the power sector’s carbon emissions may peak
earlier
than the promised timeline, which is “before 2030.” In fact, the May 2024 study
by Lauri Myllyvirta
, a senior fellow at Asia Society Policy Institute and lead analyst at the
Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air, even suggests that China’s overall CO2
emissions may have already peaked in 2023, citing that 90% of power demand
increases have been met by wind and solar generation, as well as the decline in
housing construction activity.

China’s energy officials, however, have expressed no intention to reach the peak earlier than 2030. Some argued that the power sector’s postponed peak would help other sectors’ electrification and avoid early sunk costs from the coal power industry.

What are the obstacles?

Despite progress in installations, the question of how China’s coal-centered grid
absorbs the unprecedented renewable surge and delivers the additional power to the
demand region remains a challenge. Although there is fast growth in power storage
capacity
, China’s grid heavily relies on coal power to mitigate the intermittency of
renewables, casting a shadow on wind and solar’s achievements.

For example, in the plan for the second wave of mega wind and solar bases for the
period of the 14th Five Year Plan (2021-2025), 30% of the proposed capacity is actually
from coal power, including 28 GW of new coal, among which 10 GW are already under construction according to GEM’s Global Coal Plant Tracker. These coal projects are
happening under the name of intermittency mitigation for wind and solar.

Transmission of electricity presents another potential challenge: Utility-scale solar and
wind power are largely deployed in north and northwest regions and heavily rely on
Ultra High Voltage (UHV) transmission lines to deliver the power to the demand centers
in central, southern and east China. Currently, ten UHV transmission lines are under
construction or preparing to enter construction
, but they are far from enough for a
continuous surge in renewable power. The lags in transmission line completion also
bottleneck the transmission of wind and solar power.

Due to the limitation of the transmission capacity and the intermittency mitigation ability, curtailment resurfaced after some years of calm. In March 2024, the curtailment rate of solar power exceeded 5% nationwide, an alarming line set by the government in 2018. Seven provinces and regions, most with large wind and solar capacity in the northwest and north, exceeded 10% of curtailment in February 2024, according to the National Renewable Energy Monitor Center (全国新能源消纳监测预警中心).

In the East China region, where distributed solar is widespread, the regional grid and
power distribution network are unprepared
for the distributed solar boom. Since late
2023, the curtailment and temporary suspension of distributed solar applications has
risen significantly in several of the eastern provinces, which could constrain future
distributed solar installations if the ability to absorb solar power is not improved
quickly.

All told, 2023 saw unprecedented wind and solar growth in China. The unabated wave of construction guarantees that China will continue leading in wind and solar installation in the near future, far ahead of the rest of the world. However, China still needs to turn the massive renewables buildup into power generation, replace fossil fuels, and reach the “tipping point” so as to peak its carbon emissions as early as possible.

1 GEM’s solar tracker includes large utility-scale solar farm phases with a capacity of 20 MW or greater and wind tracker is specifically focused on wind projects with a capacity threshold of 10 MW or greater.

2 The solar figures under construction could be even higher, since GEM’s utility-scale solar data does not include small scale distributed solar, which has experienced a boom since 2021, and now accounts for 41% of the total solar capacity.

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