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China just built a solar power array that looks like a panda

It’s the first of many planned panda power plants meant to get kids interested in green energy.

Artist’s rendering of Panda Power Plant in Datong, China

A Chinese solar power company has just completed the first phase of an ingenious PR stunt: building a 100MW solar power plant in the shape of a panda bear.

According to a release from the company, Panda Green Energy, and the Chinese state press Xinhua News Agency, the first half of the plant, with 50MW of installed capacity, was connected to the electricity grid in Datong, China, on June 29.

The image above of the project, which has gone viral, is not an actual photograph but an artist’s conceptual rendering pre-construction. Snopes acquired a drone photo of the actual solar farm, seen below.

An actual photo of the Panda Power Plant in Datong, China.
(UNDP China via Snopes)

Panda Green Energy used a combination of darker monocrystalline silicon (the light-absorbing material in most solar cells) and lighter-colored thin film solar cells to design the solar farm in the likeness of China’s national animal. (The panda, as China has long demonstrated, is great for both PR and diplomacy.)

While the actual plant isn’t quite as vivid as the sketch, it is nonetheless a significant addition to China’s solar fleet. According to the company, the new plant will avert the need to burn 1 million tons of coal over the next 25 years.

The plant was first proposed in May 2016 by China Merchants New Energy, Panda Green Energy’s largest shareholder, and was announced in September as part of a project with the United Nations Development Program to engage more youth in sustainable development issues.

Design sketch of Fiji Panda Power Plant.
(Panda Green Energy Group Limited)

The Panda Power Plant initiative was also incorporated earlier this year into the “Belt and Road” initiative, China’s ambitious plan to invest in development projects in countries along the old Silk Road. The new plant in Datong is expected to be the first of 100 plants in the shape of pandas and other animals to be built in China and elsewhere as part of that effort. Another one, in Fiji, was announced in May.

The new Panda Power Plant is also just the latest showy example of China’s commitment to scaling up solar and other forms of renewable energy while cleaning up coal before eventually phasing it out. Unlike the US, China is on track to exceed its Paris carbon reduction commitments, as Vox’s David Roberts has reported.

The latest Global Status Report from Renewable Energy Policy Network for the 21st Century (REN21) shows that China continues to lead in renewable energy investment, capacity, and generation. In particular, solar is booming, and last year China contributed almost half the additions to global solar capacity.

In 2016, China’s share of global solar capacity additions was 46 percent. (75 GW total of solar capacity was added by all countries in 2016.)

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