China's plans to accelerate its world-leading expansion of solar and wind power face a major hurdle as floods, droughts and food supply problems present authorities with a reality check on how much valuable farmland the nation can afford to lose.
Solar and wind farms have been supercharged in the past two years since Chinese President Xi Jinping announced a 2060 target for the nation to become carbon neutral, creating an incentive for local governments to allow more large-scale renewable energy projects.
But the pandemic and recent episodes of extreme weather have shown how susceptible the nation is to disruptions in food supply. Good arable land is relatively limited considering the appetite of the nation's 1.4 billion people, and large tracts of some of the most fertile soils in the densely populated eastern and central provinces have already been swallowed up by urban sprawl.
As administrations now prioritize ecological protection and food security, plans to build large new solar projects are under increasing scrutiny.
China is already the world's largest producer of renewable energy, with capacity to generate some 679 gigawatts of wind and solar power plus another 390 gigawatts of hydropower. More than a fifth of solar and wind capacity has been added since 2020 and local government expansion plans would take the nation to its 2030 target of 1,200 gigawatts, more than five years sooner if fully implemented.
But in May, the Ministry of Water Resources issued a rule banning solar and wind projects on some waterways, lakes and reservoirs as part of measures to protect the ecology and prevent excessive development that could disrupt flood control.
Three government agencies, including the Ministry of Natural Resources, are considering a separate draft regulation that would ban new solar projects on cultivated land or forests.
Some local authorities are already cracking down on excessive development. In Jiangsu province, a 1-gigawatt floating solar plant covering 70% of a major lake was partially dismantled this year after local authorities said it was "illegally built."
The shift in priorities has put some provincial governments, especially those in the highly urbanized east, in a bind. While they have been tasked with decarbonizing quickly under China's national climate pledge, they also face a "red line" from the central government to protect farmland.
It was considered a "political achievement" to expand renewable energy and that is why some authorities have been "blindly overdeveloping solar and wind power," said Qin Yan, an analyst at financial data firm Refinitiv. "But it is inevitable that some projects will violate the rules of ecological protection and protection of cultivated land. Environmental authorities have realized the problem and are trying to regulate it."
The shift toward crop prioritization may encourage solar and wind power developers to adopt alternative strategies. One is to integrate renewable energy systems on farms in a way that does not reduce food production, such as installing solar panels on top of animal sheds and farm buildings, and placing wind turbines so they do not interfere with farming operations.
Since last year, China has launched programs such as Whole-County Rooftop Solar. The nation aims to cover more than half of newly constructed public buildings and factories with solar panels by 2025.
Another strategy is to head west to less densely populated regions, or mountainous and desert regions with less agricultural potential, or to use land that has already been degraded, such as disused coal mines. The country has begun construction of 100 gigawatts of such solar and wind projects, mainly in deserts, with plans to build another 450 gigawatts by 2030.
One area attracting the attention of solar developers is the Gobi Desert, which straddles China's northern border with Mongolia, where land is cheap and wind and sun abound. But it is thousands of miles from the country's largest cities and power-hungry industrial centers, making it expensive to transport electricity.