Agriculture is the best way to ensure the roll-out of solar panels. Photo: Xinhua

How farmers can help grow China's solar power

Mark Godfrey says investors first need incentives to install panels on farms across the nation

Mark Godfrey

Judging by the circulars emanating from the agriculture ministry in Beijing, the term "solar-integrated farming" has become a priority among agricultural officials. Taking the lead from other places like Australia, Israel and Japan, they want to use the expansion of solar power to subsidise the modernisation of Chinese agriculture and its massive aquaculture sector.

China needs to add an estimated 1,000 gigawatts of carbon-neutral energy capacity, such as solar power, to meet its commitment to capping carbon emissions by 2030 under the recent climate change deal signed with the US. That means a massive increase in the installation of solar panels, among other measures.

Indeed, China has been furiously adding solar capacity, becoming the world's No 1 installer, by adding panels to roofs of buildings and also through utility-scale installations, which congregate large numbers of panels in sunny, rural areas.

As China's agriculture is getting larger in scale and more professional, the country is also figuring that agriculture is the best way to increase the roll-out of solar panels. Indeed, it will seem a no-brainer to anyone who has visited rural areas and seen the fields of corn and vegetables as well as the large ponds for breeding freshwater fish like carp and tilapia.

Labour and land tend to be cheaper in rural China but incomes there lag behind urban areas, a disparity which worries the government. Under solar-integrated schemes, farmers are being paid to allow independent parties to install solar panels - though, under different plans, the farmers themselves install the panels and get paid for the electricity produced.

The sight of thousands of solar panels fixed to metal platforms above the rows of eggplants or giant ponds for fish and shrimp would make anyone optimistic.

Aside from clean energy, China's other big priority is food security, which is in turn driving government spending on agriculture and aquaculture. Making additional money from solar power would ensure greater income stability for farmers, who often complain of low margins and weather damage.

Fish ponds are probably best suited to integrated solar power because they don't have to be ploughed or tilled every growing season. Also, the Ministry of Agriculture, which supervises the fisheries sector, has made it a priority to increase the output of fish as a more efficient way of satisfying China's growing demand for protein.

The huge scale of the fish farming-for-export business, meanwhile, means there's a huge amount of space available for solar installations. Places like Guangxi and Hubei have identified freshwater aquaculture (the breeding of tilapia fish and shrimp, in particular) as a big driver of rural incomes and have been subsidising the expansion of fish farming and fish processing enterprises to boost supplies of food, jobs and income.

While the potential of solar integration is obvious and huge, there will have to be a consistent national policy setting standards and structures so that such installations are possible for farmers while red tape is kept to a minimum.

Likewise, farmers who manage the panels will need training in the technical specifications and education on the economics of solar power.

Luckily, there are examples of success, such as a well-publicised project in which solar power installer Zhenfa New Energy has teamed up with the local government in the unlikely arid location of Dali county in Shaanxi to install solar panels above ponds in new fish farms. The 1,100 megawatt capacity generated from the project is enough to power the local village, but can also be sold to the local grid.

It's good to see that China's National Energy Administration has promised to regulate "solar-integrated agriculture" while provinces like Shaanxi are requiring all new solar installations to incorporate agriculture.

Investors like to put money into solar since the national government offers long-term security through minimum feed-in tariffs generated from solar power. But there are no national standards to guide the installation of solar panel systems on farms. Efficiencies and economies of scale are hard to achieve with regional governments setting different certifications and requirements.

There are other potential challenges, like the different topographical and climatic conditions across regions.

Meanwhile, the cyclical nature of farm and fisheries prices means some of the smaller fish farmers periodically exit when fish prices fall. This means government policy will be vital to ensure the solar installations are properly managed through lean periods.

China needs energy as badly as it does a secure food supply. Solar-integrated agriculture is a great opportunity to turn necessity into a virtue. But a coherent national policy will first have to be in place to encourage investors to install the solar panels on the farms.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Farmers can grow China's solar power to help meet energy and food needs