Intelligent Energy

Up on the roof: 500 megawatts of solar in China. That's a big roof.

Up on the roof: 500 megawatts of solar in China. That's a big roof.

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Solar installations of that size normally sprawl across the ground. But a Chinese logistics company is electrifying 33 million square feet atop warehouses. It plans to sing its song in the U.S. too.

A 500-megawatt solar project is huge. Normally, it sprawls across terra firma, wherever there is ample land to accommodate endless rows of photovoltaic panels or sun-reflecting mirrors. Rooftop installations are left for far smaller deployments.

So says common wisdom. But don't tell that to Chinese logistics and shipping company China Merchants Group. The state-owned operation has decided to make electrifying use of its 3 million square meters (33 million square feet) of warehouse rooftops on which, according to PV Tech, it plans to install photovoltaic panels over the next 5 years with a capacity of 500 megawatts. That's utility scale. It's a third to a half the size of a typical nuclear plant.

Okay, so it's not all on one rooftop. It's distributed around the country. Still, you have to like the ambition.

"We aim to bring a steady supply of solar electricity to our logistics and industrial zone operations as an innovative solution to upgrade our traditional structure and lead in low carbon development in China," says Zhenwei Lu, executive vice president of CMG subsidiary China Merchants New Energy Group (CMNE), in the PV Tech story.

The project draws on combined government subsidies of 16.5 yuan ($2.60) per watt, the story notes.

The initiative also brings together several companies in a complicated financing, management and restructuring scheme. According to a press release from one of the companies, Hong Kong-based, NASDAQ-traded GCL-Poly Energy Holdings Ltd.: China Technology Development Group Corp. (CTDC) will invest in and manage the project through its Sinofield Group subsidiary. CNME will invest in Sinofield and become a majority shareholder with 55 percent. GCL-Poly will also invest in Sinofield, taking a 20 percent share through its GCL-Poly Investment subsidiary. Sinofield will then change its name to China Merchants New Energy Holdings Company Ltd., reflecting CNME's majority ownership.

CNME and CTDC will raise funds for the project, and GCL-Poly will be responsible for providing engineering, procurement, construction and systems integration to Sinofield (which is becoming China Merchants New Energy Holding Company Ltd.).

The multi-handed back-scratching agreement also requires Sinofield's solar module manufacturing division to buy polysilicon  wafers from GCL-Poly, and for GCL-Poly to buy solar modules from Sinofield. GCL-Poly's traditional line of business is in providing polysilicon to solar panel makers, but it is expanding into the solar plant business. For instance, it's building a 1-gigawatt nuclear scale solar plant for China Guangdong Nuclear Corp. in Datong City, 165 miles west of Beijing.

The companies also have American rooftops in their sites. GCL-Poly says in the release that the agreement calls for GCL-Poly and CTDC to develop, construct and operate solar plants in the U.S., including rooftop installations.

"Through partnership with strong strategic partners to expand into the systems integration business and PV rooftop solar business in mainland China and the U.S., we are able to maximise shareholder value," GCL-Poly chairman Zhu Gongshan says in the press release.

They may be too late to bring FedEx onboard. Last I checked, the U.S. delivery company was singing a loud rooftop solar song of it own, although I don't think it chorused at 500 megawatts. Other opportunities could abound. To listen to China Merchants, utility-scale solar is, literally, looking up.

Image: Rhino.com

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Mark Halper

Contributing Editor

Mark Halper has written for TIME, Fortune, Financial Times, the UK's Independent on Sunday, Forbes, New York Times, Wired, Variety and The Guardian. He is based in Bristol, U.K. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure