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Which Country Has More Solar Energy Capacity than the Rest of the World Combined?

Lindsay Wilson's picture
Shrink That Footprint
  • Member since 2018
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  • Feb 26, 2014

In 2013 China installed a record 12GW of solar power capacity, considerably more than Germany ever has in one year.  I read stories about it all over the place.  It was big news for renewable energy watchers.

What I didn’t read in any of those stories was that in the same year China installed about 40 GW of solar water heating capacity. You see solar hot water may be quite boring, but it still owns solar power in terms of installed capacity.

The Other Solar Energy: Solar Hot Water

For a little perspective let’s compare the global installed capacity of solar water heating (WH) and solar photovoltaics (PV).


In the graph above the blue line shows the growth of global solar water heating in GWth.  The figures are only for glazed hot water systems from the Renewables 2013 Global Status Report.  By 2012 around 70% the 255 GWth of global capacity was installed China.  A testament to how cheaply China produces and installs solar hot water.

The red line shows the growth of solar PV.  The sharp growth in installed capacity since 2007 reflects falling costs and growing enthusiasm for solar PV around the world.  By 2012 total installed capacity was up to 100 GWe. You can see more about the data in our Top 10 Solar Countries post.

Although the scale is the same I’ve put the data for each on separate axes because thermal and electric capacity are not directly comparable.  But lets not let that spoil our fun for a minute or two.

Solar Hot Water is Big in China

Instead why don’t we compare Chinese solar hot water capacity to all the solar PV installed globally by the end of 2012.


That’s quite a chart isn’t it?

By the end of 2012 all the solar PV capacity in the world totaled about 100 GWe.  Meanwhile in China solar water heating capacity had reached roughly 178 GWth.  The Chinese are seriously loving their vacuum tubes!!

It gets better.  If you look at the combined capacity for solar water and photovoltaics China actually has about 20 GW more installed solar than the rest of the world combined.  So much for Germany leading the world in solar?!

Mixing thermal and electric?

Now . . . if you are a bit of an energy wonk you’ll have been twitching from the start that not only am I mixing thermal and electric capacity but that I’m also comparing capacity rather than energy generated.  Of course you’ve got a very good point, but I didn’t want to let that spoil the fun.

Lets deal with capacity first, for the whole world.  100 GWof the solar PV is good for about 110  TWhe  of electricity over a year.  In contrast 255 GWth of capacity produces about 220 TWhth of hot water.  So the amount of solar hot water energy produced globally is about double the amount of electric energy produced.

Now in terms of economic value it is clear  that a kWh of heating is worth less than a kWh of electricity.  How different that value is depends very much on the fuel displaced, the heating system efficiency and relative prices of local fuel and electricity.

All that aside, you’ve got to give it to the Chinese. That is a whole lot of cheap hot water!! It reminds me a little of their 200 million electric bikes no one knows about.

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Robert Wilson's picture
Robert Wilson on Feb 26, 2014


A secondary issue not touched on here is how many TWh of primary energy solar PV and solar heating displace. Production of heat in houses is much more efficient than production of electricity. Chinese power plant average is I guess around 40%. But if I was to heat a house it might be over 80%. So, the primary energy consumption saved will be much higher for solar PV than for solar heating. The same would go for emissions, but again this is somewhat dependent on whether the solar PV and solar heating is displacing coal or gas, so actual figures are uncertain.

But per TWh solar PV might save two times more in emissions, assuming that we are looking purely at displacement of coal.

Thomas Garven's picture
Thomas Garven on Feb 26, 2014

 So true Robert:

The average coal or nuclear power plant in America is about 35% efficient in the conversion of BTUs of heat energy [MWt] to electricity [MWe].  That means we are dumping about 65% of every BTU of heat energy we create as waste heat into some ocean, river or the air.  This of course is contributing to the effects currently being discussed in the below links.  Only a few locations in the America are using some of this waste heat for things like process and domestic heating.

I seriously wonder how much longer we can continue to waste all of this energy.  

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Feb 26, 2014

Thomas, we can afford to waste clean energy until the end of time.

99.9976% of waste heat from generation is radiated harmlessly out to space, and that energy makes up an infinitesimal fraction of the radiative energy the Earth receives every day from the sun.

Thomas Garven's picture
Thomas Garven on Feb 26, 2014

Hi Bob:

You are correct when it comes to clean energy.  Solar PV panels and wind turbines for example do not waste 35% of every breeze or proton hitting their surfaces, LOL.  However, while we are making some progress on the renewable energy front which I am quite sure you know I support, others seem determined to continue the use of coal and nuclear power.  It is the waste heat from those existing units AND future units that I think we need to address.   

Last year we curtailed the power output from a couple of nuclear units due to high river water temperatures.  And the nuclear units I once worked at needed to carefully watch the condenser discharge temperatures to ensure we met federal water temperature regulations.  

It is this waste heat that goes into our environment that is going to get us into further trouble when we build another 100 or so large nuclear units or 500 or so small modular reactors if we ever do.  If these new units are to become cost competitive and find support in our society then a nuclear plant that produces two products instead of one might be considered more acceptable in the eyes of the public.  

There are ways of using the low temperature waste heat to do other work.  Oasys water has developed a low temperature desalination process.  Also many industries like canning, food preparation and others might enjoy some almost free process heat.  And some low temperature waste heat might be appreciated in Minneapolis or Chicago when is -10F outside.  We just aren’t being very creative and we certainly aren’t trying to make nuclear power competitively priced.     

In other words; while we are making progress when it comes to energy efficiency as in building design, furnace and heat pump efficiencies, mass transit and vehicle efficiency we seem to be doing almost nothing when it comes to energy production.  We keep designing the same old Gen III and III+ plants and somehow expect them to be acceptable to society.  We also need to be thinking about III+, IV  reactors AND their efficiency by the creation of secondary products to reduce costs.  Whats better; a nuclear plant creating 1000 MWe or one that ALSO produces 500,000 gallons of fresh water every day.     

And of course we haven’t even begun to talk about water use.  Coal and nuclear plants use lots of water to transport the waste heat someplace else.  I don’t know about where you live but I haven’t been able to wash down my driveway for years and California could certainly use some additional water right about now.  And have you checked with your local waste water treatment plant lately to find out what they are doing with their excess treated water?  How many cities are already blending this waste water and we want to build how many more nuclear power and coal plants that use water?  

But in the end you are correct; every kWh of energy we create ends up as waste heat someplace.  You can use the heat from a reactor to  produce electricity which you then use in your toaster or electric vehicle and both in the end expel that energy as some form of heat.  OR you can sit some solar PV panels in the sun and they will start producing power ever morning when the sun comes up  and then shut themselves down automatically when the sun goes down.  They do this without any intervention from licensed operators or nuclear  engineers.  Oh and did I mention that those solar PV panels have zero waste output during their 30+ year life expectancy.

I worked in the nuclear power field for about 22 years and enjoyed going to work every morning but todays social environment is significantly different that what we were dealing with then.  People are becoming more aware that wasting 65% of anything no longer makes much sense.  

Have a great day.  

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Feb 27, 2014


“...the use of coal and nuclear power.  It is the waste heat from those existing units AND future units that I think we need to address. “

This is a widespread misunderstanding in the environment community which for years has seriously impaired society’s ability to address pollution and CO2 emissions.  While there are a few location with localized waste heat problem part of the year, the most serious problems (in terms of human health and natural ecosystems) are clearly particulate pollution, sulfur dioxide, smog, mercury, and CO2.

The notion that man-made heat and radiation some how need to be at the top of the list is just propaganda from fossil fuel companies which is meant to distract society.  CO2 emissions from fossil energy use cause the Earth to retain a much larger amount of solar heat than the amount of waste heat from an equivalent amount of nuclear energy (the CO2 effect continues for centuries).

” Solar PV panels and wind turbines for example do not waste 35% of every breeze or proton hitting their surfaces, LOL.

What?  Of course they do.  PV is only about 20% efficient (producing local heat from sun light that would have reflected into space – PV panels are much darker than plants or deserts, the Earth’s average albedo or reflectivity is 39%, for PV panels is probably around 10%), and wind also has losses.  Not that it matters.  The important thing is reducing fossil fuel use and controlling emissions from biomass burning.

Joris van Dorp's picture
Joris van Dorp on Feb 28, 2014

In 2013, China installed solar energy with an annual energy production capacity of almosts 20 TWh. That is a huge amount of energy, to be sure, and well worth mentioning. For example, it is equivalent to about 20% of the entire electricity demand of my country, The Netherlands.

However, in 2013 China also started operating new coal fired power plants with an annual energy production capacity of almost 240 TWh, i.e. more than 10 times as much as the solar they installed in that year.


So whenever China’s solar power additions are pointed to as an example of remarkable sustainability leadership, let us not think it is now time to sit back and relax. Clearly, China needs to do much more and other countries need to work with China in order to help them succeed. Cheering their solar PV additions should be accompanied with a realisation that there is a heck of a lot of work to do.

I got the figures on China’s power generation addition for 2013 from this source (page 7)


Peter Lang's picture
Peter Lang on Feb 28, 2014

Good article.  But the title of the article and the first sentence of the article: “In 2013 China installed a record 12GW of solar power capacity, considerably more than Germany ever has in one year” prompts me to ask (regarding solar electricity generation capcity): How much firm capacity does China, Germany or anyone else have?


The answer is: Near Zero!!!


That ‘s the inconvenient factt the solar power advocates love to ingnore.

Thomas Garven's picture
Thomas Garven on Mar 1, 2014

seth dayal:

Try doing a Google search for “pvt solar”.  

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Mar 1, 2014

Of course there are a few exceptions that don’t get nearly the attention of PV.  The Solana Solar plant in Arizona (see NREL article), the Andusol 1,2, &3 plants, and the Gemasolar plant all use thermal energy storage to allow continued energy storage until the evening demand peak subsides, and they are all located in deserts.  Also, they are all connected to grids in which the summer electrical demand is much higher than the rest of the year, and their grids have enough firm fossil fuel capacity to completely cover the non-summer demand maximum.  For these reasons, these plants are considered firm capacity (even in these locations, solar would not be firm if it exceeded about 10% of grid capacity, due to the potential for cloud-induced common mode failures).

Of course, in developed countries, few people live in deserts, since food grows best in cloudy rainy places; places which are poorly suited to CSP with thermal energy storage and places which tend to have very high winter energy consumption and very weak winter sun.

Bas Gresnigt's picture
Bas Gresnigt on Mar 3, 2014

Germany has ~35 pumped storage facilities and is connected to countries that have lots of additional pumped storage (which also serve Germany in order to earn money).

Germany’s pumped storage facilities make losses as there is little need for it untile the share of wind+solar surpasses 30-50% (predicted by scenario studies). That is because the incumbent utilities have installed highly flexible power plants, and closed base load plants, in the last few years as they saw that there will be no need for baseload plants in a country with an high share of renewable.
Those plants are circulating fluidized bed plants that can burn nearly all types of fuel incl. waste and biomass which gives them some future.

In ~2027 when wind+solar produce ~40% and storage is needed, expectations are that batteries are then so cheap that pumped storage will loose competition against those. So German investors stopped building pumped storage facilities.

Germany already started a subsidy program last year for small rooftop solar owners to install batteries, expecting the market grow will drive costs substantially down (which is happening now in Germany). 

Jenny Sommer's picture
Jenny Sommer on Aug 15, 2014

PV can provide all the energy that is needed.
You should consult the Greenpeace forecast, they have shown to hit future trends in PV and wind spot on.
Also China is boosting PV to replace coal. Massive employment will start around 2020. By 2050 they will meet their whole demand by solar generation.
It is easy, all just economics and planning. Invest money and you get what you need. Germany has shown the way and china took the lead.

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