Solar panels spread across the Tibetan Plateau near Golmud, China from November 4, 2015, to February 27, 2016. Images ©2016 Planet Labs, Inc. cc-by-sa 4.0.

From the Firehose: The Explosive Growth of Solar Power in China

China is adopting solar power faster than any other country. According to Reuters, China added 15 gigawatts of solar power in 2015. For comparison, the total installed solar capacity in the United States is 24.1 gigawatts. China’s total capacity was 43 gigawatts by the end of 2015.

The epicenter of the Chinese solar industry is in Qinghai Province near the city of Golmud, under the clear, dry skies of the Tibetan Plateau. Construction of solar parks in the region began in 2009, and the first facilities began operating in 2011. By 2013, solar panels had spread over a wide expanse of the high desert to the east of the city.

Take a look at this Landsat 8 image of the area from 2013:

Now let’s zoom in, and look at a detail of this scene, captured by Planet Labs three years later, in 2016:

Solar parks began to spread over the desert floor near Golmud in mid-June, 2013 (top). By early 2016, space between the scattered banks of solar panels filled in. 30-meter-per-pixel Landsat 8 satellite image based on data provided by NASA and the USGS. 3-meter-per-pixel Planet Labs image ©2016. cc-by-sa 4.0.

NASA’s Landsat 8 and the ESA’s Sentinel-2a satellites provide a wide-angle view of infrastructure projects like China’s rapidly expanding solar farms. Their well-calibrated, multispectral sensors enable precision measurements every few weeks.

Planet’s constellation of high-resolution satellites collects a complementary data set. Frequent, high-resolution data from our constellation gives you a detailed look at these projects more often. Individual rows of panels are visible in the imagery, as well as the long shadows cast by the towers holding up transmission lines.

In recent months, construction hasn’t slowed. Take a look at how this solar farm changes over a four month period:

Growth of Golmund solar farms from November 2015 through February 2016. The shifting angle between sun, solar panel, and satellite result in subtle (and not-so-subtle) changes in panel colors. Images ©2016 Planet Labs, Inc. cc-by-sa 4.0.

And more construction is just around the corner. China expects to add an additional 15 gigawatts of solar power this year. As our fleet of on-orbit satellites grows in 2016, we’ll be able to monitor these solar farms even more acutely as they expand into the desert.

In the meantime, we’ll keep our eyes on our imagery firehose for more interesting stories.

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