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China’s Greening of the PLA ; By Renu Jangra

Updated: Jan 6


Image courtesy: War on the Rocks

Article 43/2023



With President Xi Jinping’s emphasis on the use of new energy, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has laid focus on the use of renewable energy from solar, wind, and hydro to “build a secure, efficient, and sustainable modern military energy system” to overcome “bottlenecks in the war-preparedness energy support.” A major step in this direction has been the collaboration between the Logistic Support Department of the Central Military Commission (CMC) and the National Energy Administration (NEA) to connect the border and coastal defense forces units with the power grid. The CMC’s Logistic Support Department had signed an agreement with State Grid and China Southern Power Grid Corporation – the “Strategic Cooperation Agreement on Military-Civilian Integration of Power Grid Construction” – which involves renewable energy in solving the energy problems of the border defense forces. 


In addition, a civil-military integration is seen in the renewable energy sector of China as several key personalities of the private firms have had a background in the PLA such as those from the Yingli Green Energy Holding, GCL-Poly, Ming Yang Wind Power, and Suntech. This promotion and use of clean energy is noteworthy by the PLA in the Tibet region with the possibility of addressing its logistical challenges, self-sufficiency, and growing energy demands. 


Harnessing Renewable Energy in Tibet 


The Tibetan plateau has abundant renewable energy potential. In Tibet, the average annual radiation intensity reaches 6000-8000 MJ/m2. The average altitude of the plateau exceeding 4500 m makes the atmosphere thin and highly transparent for solar radiation. Hence, the Tibetan Plateau has the highest solar energy potential in China and the second highest worldwide after the Sahara Desert. This makes the plateau a perfect location for harnessing energy using solar photovoltaics (PV). In addition, the region also has hydro and wind energy potential. Considering the low population density in the vast areas and ample renewable energy potential, small off-grid solar PV and hybrid power stations form a cost-effective solution to meet energy demands. 


Besides meeting energy demands in the region, harnessing energy from solar, wind, and hydro sources helps China meet renewable energy and net-zero targets. For example, a 250 MW photovoltaic power generation project is planned in Lhasa city.  In addition, a hybrid solar-hydro power plant in the Sichuan province has begun supplying electricity to the region. The solar panels and hydropower generators have an installed capacity of 1 GW and 3 GW, respectively. The hybrid plant ensures continuity in power generation. A 40 MW solar-plus-storage project is completed in Xigaze, Tibet. Furthermore, a 10 MW capacity solar PV station has been developed in Ngari prefecture. China’s state-owned power generation company has commissioned a 120 MW solar plant in the Nagqu region of Tibet. The plant, at an average altitude of 4,500 metres above sea level, can generate 247 million kWh. The growing number of renewable projects in the region caters to the increasing energy demand.


Renewables for the PLA  


One of significant China’s investments in Tibet and Xinjiang has been in the development of military/dual-use or civilian infrastructure such as airports and heliports. The construction of new facilities and upgradation of existing airports and heliports, and the burgeoning military buildup in the Western Theatre Command (WTC) demands increased energy consumption for PLA operations. 


It is noteworthy that these renewable projects supply power to the PLA’s border outposts besides the civilian population. The border defense outposts in the plateau region are being connected to the micro-power grid systems utilising renewable energy in addition to diesel-based systems. The PLA Xinjiang Military Command stationed in Shenxianwan (at an altitude of 5,380 meters among the Karakorum mountains) has been connected to an off-grid new-energy microgrid. This new energy microgrid receives power from solar and wind sources in addition to diesel generators. More than 80 such new energy microgrids have been built for border and coastal defense forces. 


The deployment of PLA troops and the development of infrastructure in the western region of China reflects China’s growing presence and Beijing’s ambitions to assert territorial control. The off-grid standalone solar, wind, and hybrid power generation systems for border forces at high altitudes and in remote regions ensure uninterrupted energy support for military operations. More importantly, access to the national grid or microgrids based on local energy sources ensures the functioning of “air force observation and communication radar systems.” It improves China’s combat capabilities and war readiness in all-weather. These infrastructure and logistics improvement undertaken by the PLA on the western frontier enhances its power projection ability. 


The active promotion and development of renewable infrastructure on the Tibetan plateau close to the Indian border aligns with China’s military and energy security strategy. Xi Jinping’s strategy of energy security promotes the use of new energy for military purposes to “boost the construction of green and low-carbon military camps, and enhance the security, reliability, quality, and efficiency of energy guarantee for the troops”. Further, the PLA plans to advance modern military energy support systems and “accelerate the use of new energies in new types of weapons and equipment, new forms of combat forces and important military facilities, and create new modes of energy support for combats”. Besides reducing carbon dioxide emissions, the use of renewable energy by the PLA is reinforcing its “energy support capability.” 


References:


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(Ms.Renu Jangra has a Post Graduate degree in Geopolitics and International Relations. The views expressed are those of the author and does not reflect the views of C3S.)

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