The construction of Asia’s largest solar energy photovoltaic power station located at Stone Forest, 70 kilometers southeast of Kunming, started at the end of 2008. On May 25, the first-stage construction of an installed capacity of 20 MW has been put into operation. However, during my visit to the PV Station in early May, only 7 MW was connected to the grid, due to the lack of subsidies from the government. Upon completion in 2015, the total installed capacity will be 166 MW and a total investment of 9 billion yuan, which is equivalent to about 1.3 billion dollars.
The 166 MW PV power station is divided into two sections. The 66 MW area will serve as a science education site for students and visitors of Stone Forest, which is known for its karst formations and being a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The 100 MW area will serve as an experiment and demonstration area. The station is expected to be fully completed by 2015, and with an annual energy production of 188 million kWh, and annual reduction of 175,400 tons in carbon dioxide emissions.
The solar panels are designed with solar trackers to follow the movement of the sun to maximize the amount of solar radiation absorbed and thus the total amount of power produced. The single axis tracker tilts the solar panel north to south, and the double axis tracker has an additional function of angling the panel higher or lower. During the summer, the panel is angled higher in the sky and further northward, while in the winter, the panel is angled lower and further southward.
Due to its high altitude and sunshine, Yunnan is an ideal place to utilize solar energy. After Tibet and Xinjiang Province, Yunnan is ranked third for the highest amount of solar radiation. Yunnan is known for being the province having the largest number of enterprises producing solar hot water heaters, amounting to over 200 different companies. Kunming’s city government has introduced policies to show its increased emphasis on utilizing solar energy. In its 12th five year plan, the government aims to integrate solar water heating into at least 90% of buildings, and for solar thermal heating to reach at least 50% of residential buildings, and for solar photovoltaic to reach 5 MW. All these initiatives aim to attract the country’s attention to Yunnan as a solar energy research and investment destination.
While Yunnan is abundant in sunshine, many challenges still lie ahead for the promise of solar energy to be fully realized. Connecting to the grid through the PV power station is 4-8 times more costly than through using traditional sources such as thermal power. Without government subsidies, companies would not be able to keep this sector afloat. However, Professor Xie at Yunnan Normal University’s Solar Energy Institute is optimistic that in the next 5-10 years, the price of solar energy and electricity will level out to be about the same. As the market for PV expands and technology improves, the cost of producing PV will drop, and as traditional resources become scarcer, the price of electricity will rise, which will lead to a leveling off of energy prices.