Regular reporting on China’s island reclamations, or terriclaims, and related activities in the South China Sea appear to have missed one vital piece of analysis: how is China powering its new installations? Though the South China Sea straddles one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world, it remains one of the most isolated, disparate, and remote areas in the global maritime commons, which makes it much more difficult to sustain these projects. As construction progresses, the amount of personnel, capabilities, and facilities on these terriclaims is likely to increase. In turn, these will require more electricity, from providing basic life support functions like heating, cooling, and communications, to running more advanced, power-intensive capabilities such as water desalination or, possibly, complex weapons systems. Conventional wisdom assumes that these installations’ power needs could be provided by coupling with generators from one of the many ships anchored nearby, piping in power through a lengthy grid of undersea cables, or from traditional fossil-fuel generators on the installations themselves.

However, recent satellite images reveal that China is leveraging renewable energy for its terriclaims. Upon closer inspection of Johnson Reef, it appears that China has built a large photovoltaic (PV) power plant, in addition to two wind turbines, that could generate as much as 350 kilowatts per hour if each PV panel is a standard 300-watt panel and operates under optimal conditions. For perspective, a single 300-watt panel could power up to three standard laptops or five 60-watt lightbulbs an hour. More importantly, China’s energy efforts in the South China Sea parallel larger government initiatives and may portend future renewable investments. Since last year, China has undertaken two ambitious energy plans with portions dedicated to renewables: the rollout of the Chinese National Energy Administration’s (NEA) new “Thirteenth Five-Year Plan” in 2016, and the Implementation Plan for Frontier Power Grid Construction, sponsored by the NEA, energy sector, People’s Liberation Army, and other security forces this past January.

Renewables give China an advantage over the neighboring claimants in the South China Sea. First, they provide China an off-the-grid and sustainable source of power in lieu of traditional fossil fuel power generation techniques. Using renewables lowers the overall logistics and sustainment footprint of the terriclaims, as each watt of electricity provided through renewables equates to one less drop of petroleum required. Second, the use of renewables in the South China Sea validates ongoing government policies, such as the aforementioned Five-Year Plan and Frontier Power Grid Plan, as well as touting the environmental and economic benefits that Chinese-produced renewables provide. Finally, China’s 2015 military strategy white paper calls for enhanced civil-military partnerships in key sectors as well as logistics modernization, innovation, and new support means. Consider the nexus of a few corporate leaders in the solar power sector: Miao Liansheng, leader of Yingli Green Energy Holding Co. Ltd., spent 13 years as a People’s Liberation Army soldier; Huang Ming of Himin Solar Energy Group proposed the 2006 Law on Renewable Energy and was a deputy in the 10th National People’s Congress; and Zhu Gongshan, the founder of the diversified energy conglomerate GCL-Poly, received significant financial backing from organizations tied to the People’s Liberation Army and  China’s foreign exchange reserves. The South China Sea may be an early manifestation of future civil-military partnerships in renewables, especially PV panels. If claimant nations were to militarize the South China Sea, secure and reliable energy sources would be mission-essential. Either way, current renewables still face significant limitations and are not an energy panacea, even in the South China Sea. It is highly likely that China will continue to rely on one of the earlier-noted traditional energy sources as the primary or secondary means of support.

Nevertheless, South China Sea-watchers should expect to see more PV panels popping up on the contested islets, as well as more developed and interlinked power sources and infrastructure in the near future. In the long-term, other forms of renewables, such as large off-shore wind or underwater wave-generated turbine farms, may also appear in the South China Sea.

About Wilson VornDick

Wilson VornDick is a Lt. Commander in the U.S. Navy and is assigned to the Pentagon and previously to the China Maritime Studies Institute at the U.S. Naval War College. He explores the geopolitical interplay of both terriclaims and other topics in the South China Sea in his Harvard graduate thesis to be published this May. These are his personal views and are not associated with a U.S. Government or U.S. Navy policy.