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China's Solar Dragon Awakens

Even if you've been paying attention to China's growing appetite for renewable energy, and especially solar energy, these latest statistics deserve emphasis.

China likely fulfilled, and maybe well exceeded, its goals for 10 GW of solar PV installations in 2013. Reports suggest anywhere from 9.5 GW to 11 GW or or even 12 GW and maybe even as high as 14 GW once final numbers are in. As has been typical in other incentive-driven markets, an expiring feed-in tariff for large grid-connected PV projects caused a year-end surge to drive up the numbers, so estimates are far from final. Those numbers also might shift dramatically depending on grid connectivity, which is a major challenge for solar PV, much as it has been for China's wind industry. (About 16 GW of new capacity was added in 2013 but less than 8 GW was integrated into the grid, according to Yu Guiyong from the China Wind Energy Association.)

Whatever the final number is, keep in mind only five countries have installed 10 GW cumulatively, and nobody's ever installed that much PV in a single year. Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) estimates the entire global PV market in 2013 was around 39GW, meaning China alone accounted for roughly third of it. And thanks to an emphasis on large-scale transmission-grid-connected solar PV, state-owned utilities China Power Investment, China Three Gorges, and China Huadian are now the world's largest solar asset owners.

"Now the sleeping dragon has awoken," proclaimed Jenny Chase, BNEF's head of solar analysis .As installations have become simpler and less expensive, "China's government has been as surprised as European governments by how quickly it can be deployed in response to incentives."

Note China's surge in PV installations comes as the country seems serious about finally trimming its famously overcrowded solar manufacturing base and eliminating "zombie solar companies." That could help realign supply with demand, though with those operations often tightly tied to municipalities for funding and even ownership there's some uncertainty how that will all play out.

This year China's government wants most of its solar growth to be in rooftop solar PV and distribution-grid-connected, which could slow the annual pace from a projected 2014, but likely rev up again in 2015, suggests BNEF. China's own 2014 projections aren't exactly clear, with an official target of 10 GW but rumors that 14 GW might be expected. "China is playing fast and loose with solar targets at the moment," BNEF's Chase suggested. BNEF projects another 20 percent growth in global solar PV demand in 2014 to nearly 47 GW, equaling everything cumulatively installed up to 2010. NPD SolarBuzz predicts 49 GW.

Lead image: Giant golden Chinese dragon on sun, via Shutterstock

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