In 2014, China deployed a large-scale initiative named as Solar Energy Poverty Alleviation Program (SEPAP) to systematically alleviate poverty in poor areas including underdeveloped regions of western China. In recent years, moving the country toward technological leadership and making China the largest solar investor has been on Government’s central Agenda. While having environmental benefits associated, SEPAP is a multi-purpose project which aims to reduce poverty, promote jobs and income in rural areas, boost China’s solar market, and improve rural lives. It is noteworthy that SEPAP is a program that has harmonized the social, developmental, and industrial goals. SEPAP acquired the highest level of political endorsement after Xi Jinping pledged to eradicate poverty from China by 2020, which resulted in its ascension from the pilot program to a nationwide campaign. According to World Bank, China has lifted 800 Million people out of poverty by 2022 and contributed to the Global reduction of people living in poverty as close to three-quarters. China has become able to achieve this milestone by adopting targeted poverty alleviation strategies and by providing economic opportunities to the unprivileged people to raise their income level.
Through this initiative, China aimed to add 10GW of solar capacity by 2020, which will benefit over 2 Million people. The program targeted 35,000 poverty-stricken villages which were located in 471 counties in 16 Provinces. According to an evaluation study conducted in 2020, this program has resulted in an increase of 7%-8% in the per-capita disposable income of the county. Chinese Government investment in solar energy and using it as a strategy for poverty eradication has brought out positive results and the effects are twice as high in the subsequent two to three years, especially in Eastern China.
Three different contexts contributed to making SEPAP a priority on Government’s agenda, making a historical conjuncture. First was the political push to eradicate prolonged rural poverty in China. To combat the higher rural-urban income gap, China adopted an “industrial” approach that emphasized developing innovative industrial facilities in the unprivileged region to make them self-sufficient in the long run. The second was the significant demand for rural electrification, where former technological preferences, especially small hydropower, were no longer feasible. The third driver was the overcapacity and shrinkage of the country’s solar energy sector and the subsequent necessity to stimulate distributed solar PV installation. Before 2013, China’s solar energy sector was mostly export-oriented with a dominant share of exports in overseas markets in Europe. During 2008 Trade disputes in the EU and US combined with the financial crisis lead Chinese solar manufacturers to the brink of Collapse. So, opening the domestic market for solar consumption was launched as a rescue strategy. The officials favored the installation of the distributed, small-scale solar system that can generate energy that may be utilized locally. By 2013, China becomes the world-leading market for solar energy and by 2015, It reached a total installed capacity of more than 43.18GW. Considering the scenario, SEPAP was formulated with a strategic vision that will benefit the local people while also expanding distributed Solar PV generation and absorbing overcapacity.
In 2014, SEPAP was launched by National Energy Administration (NEA) and State Council leading group
Office of Poverty Alleviation and Development (CPAD) as two joint policies. A first policy designed two alternatives for policy implementation. Installing rooftop Solar PV systems for low-income families formerly registered with CPAD was the initial option. The other policy alternative was to build Solar Power Station on the non-arable lands near the counties and villages. Using a robust financial model described in policy guidelines, the SEPAP was funded by both Government subsidies and corporate donations as a part of their corporate social responsibility initiatives. The second joint policy includes detailed guidelines for developing pilot SEPAP Projects in six provinces which included 30 counties. The provinces targeted were relatively underdeveloped while having abundant solar resources. Provincial Governments were involved to carry out the implementation process which include collecting comprehensive data on the poor household, energy supply and consumption, and quality of grid connection for each county. After the approval of plans from central governments, they were executed by the county’s government via an open bidding process. Provincial Governments’ poverty alleviation funds and policy banks’ preferential loans were utilized for the financial support of the pilot project of the Program. To ensure accountability and transparency in projects, monitoring and evaluation teams were designed by NEA and CPAD to maintain a check and balance on program activities and construction maintenance. To raise poor household income through this project, the profits gained from the sale of solar power were distributed fully among residents after Tax deductions. The policy goal also guaranteed 3000RMB of annual income per household for more than 20 years. The program created a win-win situation by alleviating the poor from poverty while absorbing China’s overcapacity of solar energy at the same time.
China’s ambitious plan to align poverty alleviation goals with the expansion of renewable energy has some serious practical concerns associated with it. Analyzing the program leads to significant gaps in policy design and implementation. The program faced severe budgeting and financial problems because of a lack of appropriate arrangements and no detailed financial mechanism was developed for post-construction maintenance of the projects. Only the central government endorsement was not enough to tackle these challenges but consistent support from the banking and bureaucratic sector was the pre-requisite for program implementation. Moreover, proper financial incentives were also required to encourage the solar companies to take lead in the construction of projects. Another challenge associated with the project was the complication in the governance structure where energy regulators took the lead rather than development officials. Misallocation of expertise affected the priorities in agenda setting of the program i.e. energy regulators based on their expertise, advocated the expansion of industrial capacity rather than looking out for poverty and development issues in the local context. Moreover, the time frame designed for the assessment of pilot projects was not enough for the critical evaluation of the success and failure of the project before its transition toward a national program.
Even though it’s a commendable approach, the combination of renewable energy technology with poverty reduction needs to be further examined through rigorous empirical studies both in China and in other developing nations. Future studies on how to integrate industrial strategies with development priorities and what governance institutions or structures might best serve these many policy goals can provide great insight into various policy alternatives that would be beneficial in the long run as well.