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Page added on February 26, 2014

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

Alternative Energy

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.

shrink that footprint

13 Comments on "Which Country Has More Solar Energy Capacity than the Rest of the World Combined?"

  1. Makati1 on Wed, 26th Feb 2014 2:07 pm 

    Part of our farm preps is solar panels and solar hot water. If you don’t think your water heater is one of the biggest guzzlers of electric, try turning it off between electric bills and see the difference. It takes a lot of energy to have standby hot water for bathing, dishes and laundry. Then again, we have one of those ‘on demand’ inline electric heaters in our condo. It is rarely used.

    Yep, the Chinese are not dumb…

  2. Davy, Hermann, MO on Wed, 26th Feb 2014 2:17 pm 

    I would like to have a small unit for the farm about 1/2 the capacity of the typical residential unit. This would be for the future in the event of fuel and grid instability. This is for resilience because the economics are not there at the moment around here.

  3. meld on Wed, 26th Feb 2014 2:20 pm 

    Now THIS is something worth doing. Hot water is a luxury worth having. I’d much rather have solar water heaters than PV to power some crappy iwank product.

  4. Kenz300 on Wed, 26th Feb 2014 2:55 pm 

    The price of wind and solar keeps dropping every year.

    The price of oil, coal and nuclear keeps rising and causing environmental damage.

    Easy Choice.

  5. Northwest Resident on Wed, 26th Feb 2014 4:43 pm 

    “the Chinese are not dumb…”

    “Unbridled air pollution has reached such concentrations in Beijing and six of China’s northern provinces that breathing and photosynthesis have become almost impossible. In addition, landing airplanes, driving cars, and seeing anything, have become extremely difficult in an epic smog concentration that has persisted for more than a week. According to the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences — the second largest academic institution in the country — the capital city is virtually “uninhabitable for human beings.”

    And it gets worse. Not only the smog, but comprehension of the damage it’s doing. A study by the China Agricultural University shows that when smog is as thick as it is now, photosynthesis virtually stops. Unless pollution is reduced dramatically and immediately, according to the lead researcher, Chinese agriculture will be crippled and conditions in much of the country will resemble “nuclear winter” — the aftermath of a global nuclear war.

    No, the Chinese aren’t dumb. Just totally, irrevocably f*cked.

  6. MSN on Wed, 26th Feb 2014 4:46 pm 

    Kenz300 renewables also damage the environment 😛 (Hint: Production)
    When I see mining/distribution/manufacturing equipment built without fossil fuels I will agree.
    Also the humans that operating them leading fossil fuel free lives.
    Point is… it isn’t an easy choice, unless you lie to yourself, but who ever cared about self-deceit.

  7. J-Gav on Wed, 26th Feb 2014 6:22 pm 

    I wouldn’t say the Chinese are dumb. I don’t think they’re “totally” F’d yet either, but if they don’t institute some major policy changes soon, their health care costs are going to sky-rocket to unimaginable proportions. The half-wits who go on and on about them becoming the global hegemon of the 21st century tend to forget that even world-beaters need to do one thing that everybody does – i.e. Breathe!

  8. Northwest Resident on Wed, 26th Feb 2014 7:03 pm 

    Not “totally” F’d — just “irrevocably” f*cked. Big difference. Irrevocably of course means that the damage has been done, there is no turning back, the damage has been carved in stone, so to speak. But once an individual is “irrevocably” f*cked, there are still levels of just how “irrevocably” f*cked he is. In the case of the Chinese, they may not yet be “totally” f*cked, but they are well on their way. Given the looming shadow banking crashes, the toxic wastelands that once were farmland, the ripping of peasants from their traditional and sustainable lives to work for nickels and dimes in IPhone factories deep in the polluted cities, the climate changes coming up which are going to hit China very hard — given all that, they may not yet be “totally” f*cked. But can we agree that they are at the minimum “almost totally” f*cked? Except for the elites, of course, who are bailing out of the country to live elsewhere as fast as they can — they’re doing just fine.

  9. DC on Wed, 26th Feb 2014 11:05 pm 

    Are all those solar panels helping China? Or do people keep thinking our ‘problem’ is strictly how we produce energy-rather than how we actually use it?

  10. Makati1 on Thu, 27th Feb 2014 1:35 am 

    @Northwest, those ‘changes’ are universal today. The fact that their pollution is from making our junk is irrelevant. The temperatures are going to go up all over the world from that ‘production’. And, have you looked close at the soil, air and water conditions in the US today? Not much that is not polluted or worthless without high energy input to be productive/usable.

  11. ghung on Thu, 27th Feb 2014 1:44 am 

    “Are all those solar panels helping China?”

    Virtually all of China’s renewable gains are being sucked into their consumption growth vortex. Their consumption of fossil fuels continues to grow, and it depends on how you define ‘help’. It’s a Jevons thing.

    “…do people keep thinking our ‘problem’ is strictly how we produce energy-rather than how we actually use it?”

    It’s both. We don’t live in an either/or world.

    Solar thermal is low-hanging fruit. Even if it doesn’t provide all of your hot water or space heat, in most locations it can provide a good base to work from. Most of our space heat is passive solar and our hot water is solar thermal, surplus solar electric, and recovered wood heat. We produce and use a lot of hot water with virtually no additional overhead.

  12. Jerry L on Thu, 27th Feb 2014 9:27 am 

    Its not all about generating heat or electricity. I wonder who is leading the world in installing insulation on houses. Does anyone know? Rockwool claims that their insulation saves 100 times as much energy as went into producing it.

  13. Davy, Hermann, MO on Thu, 27th Feb 2014 11:45 am 

    N/R said:
    In the case of the Chinese, they may not yet be “totally” f*cked, but they are well on their way.

    I agree I know plenty enough about ecology and social sciences to understand where China is and that is a runaway train of pollution, wealth transfer, and overshoot of their carrying capacity. Nowhere is this more so in such a large geographic area than China. This is very bad for the rest of the global system because of the interconnectedness of the global economic system. Witness the 15,000 parts that go into a typical car construction or related manufacturing process. How many of those parts are made indigenously anywhere in the world in a car manufacturing operation? China is a major player in the world economy and corrections there will reverberate through the rest of the global economy.

    @Makati said:
    And, have you looked close at the soil, air and water conditions in the US today? Not much that is not polluted or worthless without high energy input to be productive/usable.

    Simplistic view of the environment state of the US agricultural situation. I agree the US agricultural system has been damaged by industrial production agriculture in the form of erosion and sterilization of the top soil. US agricultural land is in a much better state then China. Ag land in the US is an expensive asset. It is in the interest of farms and investors to maintain productivity. The production agricultural model cannot avoid degradation but it can be manage to minimize damage. China on the other hand is hell bent on development. Development and industry take priority in China. That is changing now because they are looking around and seeing the extensive damage that has been wrought by their leap forward. The US has its share of pollution but there has been a big effort to remediate and implement policies from our Subaru environmentalist. I am poking fun at our environmentalist because they are hypocrites about the car culture and environmentalism. Any car use is not green or environment.

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