South Africa’s Khi Solar One plant, captured on May 11, 2016. Images ©2017 Planet Labs, Inc. cc-by-sa 4.0

Renewable Solar Energy is Spreading Across the Globe, and it’s Visible from Space

Solar fields are really easy to image from space. They’re built in wide open areas, free of fog and cloud cover. And once the infrastructure is laid, it’s not uncommon to see hundreds of hectares of modular panels erected over the period of just a few months. Couple that with a constellation of satellites that images daily, and you can get a fine-grained picture of the construction of every solar field on the planet…seriously.


China has embraced solar power as a reliable, renewable energy source, more than doubling its solar capacity in 2016. This year, the boom continues.

Recently, construction of the world’s largest floating solar plant was completed in May 2017. The 40 mega-watt solar field now supplies power to thousands in the Huainan area.

The world’s largest floating power station floats on top of a former coal mine in Huainan, China. Images ©2017 Planet Labs, Inc. cc-by-sa 4.0

Elsewhere in China—in Shanxi Province, another unique solar plant has just come online. Just south of Datong, an enormous 50 mega-watt solar station, designed to resemble two panda bears, stands in stark contrast to the surrounding farms and fields. The unique (and simply *adorable*) design of Panda Solar Station is intended to promote green energy to a generation of young people across China. Here’s a high resolution image of the solar station captured on July 10, 2017 by a SkySat in Low Earth Orbit:

A high resolution SkySat captured this image of the Panda Solar Station on July 9, 2017. Images ©2017 Planet Labs, Inc. cc-by-sa 4.0

In this image we can see the individual rows of solar panels, water ponds, and even a small green sports court at the main complex.

Let’s learn a little more about this complex by digging back into our medium resolution archive. If we travel back in time to April 2017, you’ll see that most of the solar field had not yet been built. Take a look at the station’s construction below:

The Datong Solar Station is erected over the course of two months in Shanxi, China. Images in this sequence range from April 18, 2017 — July 5, 2017. Images ©2017 Planet Labs, Inc. cc-by-sa 4.0

In the animation above, modular panels are installed by the hundreds over a period of 3 months. In all, the panels cover over 240 hectares.

Images captured between March and July, 2017. Images ©2017 Planet Labs, Inc. cc-by-sa 4.0

To truly appreciate the speed at which this solar station has been constructed—and see the granular change— we’ll need to bust out the hyper-gif.

In this series of over 30 images captured between March and July, 2017, we can see service roads, buildings and solar cells quickly spread across the landscape panel-by-panel.

In addition to monitoring the construction of these fields in Planet Explorer, geo-detectives can use Descartes Lab’s visual search tool to find similar solar fields throughout the country. Here’s hoping there are more pandas in the works.


This explosion in solar power is not unique to China, however. In northern Morocco, a larger solar field is under construction.

Images used in this animation were captured between February 2016 and July 2017. Images ©2017 Planet Labs, Inc. cc-by-sa 4.0

The 200 mega-watt Noor 1 solar field, part of the larger Ouarzazate Solar Power Station complex costs an estimated 9 billion US dollars in total. The station covers 450 hectares and is expected to have 3 hours of low light energy storage.

Like the solar stations of China, Noor 1 was erected quickly. Watch as over half a million modular mirrors are installed across the desert floor over time. Images used in this animation were captured between February 2016 and July 2017.

Satellites in different orbits have captured the station at varying times throughout the day, which causes the central boiler tower’s shadow to travel across the field.

To check out our enormous, growing archive of 3–5 meter imagery, visit planet.com/products/archive.