Renewable Energy and the PLA’s Next Generation of Self-Sufficiency (Part 2)

Publication: China Brief Volume: 17 Issue: 4

Part One of this series examined the state of renewable energy in China and the connections between civilian and military industry partners. Part Two looks in detail at the PLA’s developing energy strategy both on the mainland and, increasingly on offshore islands at the center of territorial disputes.

Chinese interest in alternative forms of power are not a wholly new endeavor for the Chinese government or PLA. In fact, lower-level units have been experimenting and promoting renewable energy sources for over a decade. A 2007 treatise by two members of a PLA unit stationed in Tibet describes the varieties of renewables that can create “independent power generation” (独立发电系统) reveals the interest in renewables at the lower levels of the PLA. [1] Although the PLA does not yet have a permanent global presence outside of its new base in Djibouti, many units are stationed in remote areas. Units in Tibet often operate far from home bases. China’s offshore islands—in the southern stretches of the South China Sea and closer to the mainland in the East China Sea also face logistical challenges. As the PLA strives to achieve “informatization” (信息化)—connecting units together with each other and to intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) infrastructure—the demand for local power will only rise. Increasingly the PLA is turning to renewables to address these growing power demands.

Logistic Self-Sufficiency in the PLA

Military self-sufficiency is not new to the PLA. In fact, the legacy of military self-sufficiency stretches back to the Han Dynasty with the Tuntian system (屯田制), a practice in which troops would open wasteland and grow grain for sustenance. As University of Macau professor You Ji points out, the PLA has carried this legacy forward since its founding in 1927 when it engaged in “earnings generation” from subsistence farming, which has now spawned a web of businesses and other ventures. These additional revenue and resource streams helped reduce the state’s direct budget for general upkeep of the PLA. Of particular note is that a “bulk of the PLA’s self-generated funding” comes from “the conversion of the national defense industrial complex to civilian production.” These are either directly run by the PLA or managed by one of its civilian defense industrial surrogates. [2] After the civil war in 1949, the PLA never fully cleaved itself from its business ties primarily because it did not transition from its “guerilla army” footing. The PLA struggled with abiding to Maoist standards of self-reliance and independent production. [3] Although reforms under President Jiang Zemin in 1998 reduced the PLA’s involvement in business and recent reforms under Xi have continued this trend, the PLA remains involved in production elsewhere, and as laid out in part one of this series, it is clear that the PLA’s has significant ties to the renewable energy sector. [4]

At the same time, portions of China’s 2015 Defense White Paper, “China’s Military Strategy” could be interpreted as promoting renewables, though they are not directly specified (ChinaDaily, May 26, 2015). The strategy, for example, states that “pushing ahead with logistics modernization” will “innovate modes of support” and “develop new support means” so as to “build a logistics system that can provide support for fighting and winning modern wars, serve the modernization of the armed forces, and transform toward informationization”. Renewables fall in line with these goals by alleviating traditional energy distribution needs for the PLA and offer an alternative means of support, especially at fixed sites and installations. Further, efforts and systems will be pursued with the goal of “independent innovation” and “sustainable development” so as to develop “weaponry and equipment system which can effectively respond to informationized warfare and help fulfill the missions and tasks.” The primacy of informationization is key—the PLA no longer requires just sustenance to survive, but also electrical energy to execute its digitized operations. Beyond powering basic life support functions like heating, cooling, or lighting, the PLA of the 21st century will require sustainable, independent, and secure power sources to run its servers, computers, and combat systems in order to fulfill informationization.

Renewables on Offshore Installations

Moreover, the PLA is already moving in this direction. In October 2016, Xi and Premier Li Keqiang visited an exhibition in Beijing highlighting stronger civ-mil cooperation on various systems including “hybrid power stations” (Xinhua, October 19, 2016). In recent satellite imagery, solar panels can be seen on facilities in and around the Ningbo Naval Base and on buildings on Sansha Island. Meanwhile, hybrid power stations that combine wind turbines with solar panels are becoming more commonplace, especially on China’s islands and terriclaims. A local news report on Tree Island (赵述岛), just north of Woody Island (永兴岛) in Sansha Administrative Zone, touts one such hybrid power station that desalinates the water for local fishermen (SanshaHiNews, February 14, 2017). What appears to be the same solar panel installation is visible on satellite imagery from March 6. The same island is being expanded, and may eventually be militarized in the same way that Woody Island has (The Diplomat, February 13).

Imagery courtesy of Planet Labs; Inset Photo Hainan Daily)

Wind turbines and solar farms of various sizes are present on Nanji (南麂岛) and Nanri (南日岛) Islands in the East China Sea as well as Johnson Reef in the South China Sea. In particular, recent analysis of Johnson Reef reveals a hybrid power station with substantial solar-generating capacity (CSIS, February 24). Nanji Island is home to a number of fishing villages which could surely benefit from local renewable power generation, but it is also host to a newly built helicopter base. In 2014 construction began on a series of nine military helicopter landing pads. As of 2015 these landing pads have been covered in a camouflage pattern. The island’s location to the north of Taiwan also suggests a strategic use for the base, such as anti-submarine operations in the event of a conflict (China Brief, March 6, 2015).

Solar panels (in yellow circles) on Nanji Island next to a military helicopter base.

Yet, the presence of renewable energy plants on or around PLA facilities should not surprise PLA watchers. First, renewables complement the PLA’s vast amount of fixed sites, such as barracks, arsenals, and airfields. In fact, the presence of renewables may signal PLA permanence. Second, an independent, off-the-grid power source can be used both offensively and defensively so it adheres to the PLA’s basic military tenant of preparation for military struggle (PMS) (军事斗争准备). As such, PMS safeguards peace, contains crises, and wins wars, per the 2015 Defense White Paper. Third, renewables decrease the large logistics and sustainment “footprint” of the PLA, especially in remote locations such as the South China Sea and China’s sparse border frontiers. If just one of the wind turbines previously identified on Johnson Reef is, in fact, a 500 kilo-Watt (kW) variant and is operating at optimal capacity, that turbine could produce the energy equivalent of 500 pounds of coal or 35 gallons of petroleum for one hour (EIA). For perspective, roughly 100 Watts is required to power one laptop for an hour. If the wind turbines spotted on Nanri or Nanji Island are the larger, 1.5 Mega-Watt (MW) variant such as the Ming Yang model 1.5-82/80IIIA, a single turbine could generate enough power for a small village or minor installation. However, the large number of wind turbines at both locations suggest that more power could be generated, possibly enough to power a small town or large installation. Further, additional energy could be provided if the turbines are paired to a broader energy storage network and infrastructure that includes batteries. Fourth, renewable energy resources are in line with and support the PLA’s drive toward informationization. Finally, renewables, such as solar panels or wind turbines, can be readily replaced or repaired if they are disturbed or damaged by natural causes or other, whereas existing infrastructure, such as extensive powerlines or relay stations, may be more difficult.

It is important to note that renewables are not an energy “silver bullet” for China’s civilian or military energy needs. First, it is likely China will remain committed in the near term to its traditional and existing energy infrastructure that is primarily supplied by coal power. Second, currently existing renewable techniques and technologies are mostly limited to fixed sites or static platforms. It is doubtful that on-board renewables will be powerful or compact enough to support complex, torque-intensive, and power-dependent platforms or systems, like the Chinese MBT-3000 main battle tank, anytime in the near future. However, it is more probable that an all-electric or hybrid variant of the “Warrior” (勇士) tactical vehicle, supported by a network of renewable recharging stations, would be produced. Nevertheless, it may be some time before renewables become portable and powerful enough to support extensive expeditionary sites or larger, mobile platforms and systems. But, as renewables proliferate and China is slowly weaned off its traditional energy sources, the overall net impact from renewables is that they will make the PLA less vulnerable and more resilient.


China’s recent investment in renewables appears to be part of the convergence of political, social, economic, environmental, and national security goals. It is likely PLA and China watchers are witnessing the beginning of a broader and more pronounced energy strategy, one that forges ahead with a new generation of PLA self-sufficiency based on renewables.


Commander Wilson VornDick received a B.A. from George Washington University and studied at East China Normal University in Shanghai. His assignments include the Chinese Maritime Studies Institute at the U.S. Naval War College and the Pentagon. The views presented in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Department of the Navy or Department of Defense.



  1. Baidu Baike, 中国人民解放军77625部队 ; Zheng Liguo and Baishu Hua, “可再生能源独立发电系统简介” [Introduction of Renewable Energy and Independent Power Generation Systems],” Rural Electrification, no. 11 (2007), pp. 50–51.
  2. You, Ji. The Armed Forces of China. London: I.B. Taurus & Co., 1999; pp. 65–67. See also Blasko, Dennis J. The Chinese Army Today: Tradition and Transformation for the 21st Century. London: Routledge, 2006.
  3. Mulvenon, James. Soldiers of Fortune: The Rise and Fall of the Chinese Military-Business Complex, 1978-1998. New York: Routledge, 2015.
  4. Elements of the PLA’s production units remain and are used to develop remote areas such as the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (中国新建集团).