HAINING, CHINAThe squares of silicon are hardly thicker than sheets of paper, each about six inches by six, with narrow stripes of silver. They come into the factory by the thousands, stacked in cardboard boxes, and within hours, they’ll be ready to leave again.
The squares are solar cells, and in this plant two hours’ drive from Shanghai, workers in bright blue uniforms and white lab coats run the machines that assemble them, row by row, into more familiar-looking panels, ready to be installed on rooftops or in large arrays and begin turning sunlight into electricity.
Chinese manufacturing has changed the economics of renewable power around the world, making solar generation cost-competitive with electricity from fossil fuels like natural gas and even coal. It has brought change closer to home too, as China rolls out the world’s biggest investment in clean energy—motivated in part by a desire to ease the atrocious air pollution that kills an estimated 1.1 million of its people every year.
“The installation rates are absolutely mind-blowing,” says Lauri Myllyvirta, an energy and air pollution expert at Greenpeace in Beijing. China added 35 gigawatts of new solar generation in 2016 alone. “That’s almost equal to Germany’s total capacity, just in one year,” Myllyvirta says.
Every hour, China erects another wind turbine and installs enough solar panels to cover a soccer field, according to Greenpeace estimates.
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