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On waters that have flooded a collapsed coal mine, workers with boats and wrenches are installing solar panels, racing to finish construction of the world’s largest floating solar installation.

The installation is being built by a fast-moving Chinese company and, though it remains only partly complete, is already pumping electrons into the grid – a contribution that sets it apart from the government-backed fusion research (only 100 kilometres away), which is still decades away from a commercial breakthrough.

The floating solar installation is a potent symbol of the change under way in China,which boasts the world’s biggest solar manufacturing industry, and most extensive installed capacity.

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Chinese workers ride in a boat through a large floating solar farm project under construction by the Sungrow Power Supply Company.

Kevin Frayer/GETTY IMAGES

It’s being built by Sungrow Power Supply Co., Ltd. on a coal mine that has partly collapsed, taking with it homes in the Huainan area of Anhui province. By 2020, local authorities estimates 687 square km in the area will experience similar subsidence.

The water that flooded in at the SunGrow site, however, is now providing a base to install floating solar panels, creating clean energy from the mess. When work is finished later this year, the site will be capable of generating 150 megawatts – enough to power 25,000 U.S. homes – and the largest such project anywhere.

“This definitely reflects the future of the world energy landscape,” said Shi Xianbin, a technical manager with Sungrow.

It also underscores the present: “China has leveraged its manufacturing base and low-cost capital to become the global industrial leader in clean-electricity technology,” Robert Johnston and Lily Ghebrai wrote in a recent article for the Washington-based Atlantic Council Global Energy Center.

Still, China’s quest for new energy frontiers has been heavily dependent on government subsidies, some of which were slashed this week as China’s National Energy Administration publicly faulted the“overdevelopment” of an industry that has built more capacity in some areas than local grids can take, leading to significant wastage.

Projects like Sungrow’s floating solar have also done little to solve old problems, some of which have plagued the new technology. Next to the solar installation, for instance, villagers still live in homes cracked by subsidence.

“I know it’s not safe to live in the house. I am worried when I sleep, but what can I do?” one woman says. She has moved her bed to rooms that seem more structurally sound. Some villagers confess to eating fish swimming in the flooded mine site. They taste strange, likely because the waters are polluted. “Government does nothing. They cover up for each other, and the villagers are victims,” a villager surnamed Fan says.

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Having a record-setting, green-energy project at their doorstep hasn’t brought much change, either.

“That solar facility is intended to protect the environment,” says another, surnamed Wang. “But we sadly can’t feel any change. It feels like the smog is pouring down from the sky every day.”

On a recent day at the SunGrow site, the biggest landmark was a nearby cooling tower for a coal-fired power plant that spewed out particulate matter. Sufficient solar panels had already been installed to generate 16 megawatts of electricity. But under smoggy skies, only five trickled out.

“The efficiency of our system has been negatively affected by the dust in the air,” Mr. Shi acknowledged.

Then there is the question of price. It’s not cheap putting solar panels on floats designed to withstand waves and ice. Elsewhere, solar electricity costs have fallen below coal power. Not here. “Of course the cost is very high,” Mr. Shi said. “But the environmental benefits make the cost totally worth it.”

China’s adoption of large-scale floating solar has nonetheless played a key role in pushing it forward. In India, which depends heavily on Chinese solar technology, authorities have discussed the possibility of installing 10 gigawatts of floating solar across the country, equivalent to the entire quantity of solar installed there last year. Japan, Australia and South Korea have expressed interest in the technology as well.

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With reporting by Alexandra Li

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