Investment in solar and cross-border power networks in the nations covered by China’s Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) could help them leapfrog fossil fuels.

Those are the conclusions in a new study from Tsinghua University and Harvard University.

The Belt in the BRI represents the Silk Road Economic Belt loosely based on the ancient Silk Road, from Asia to Europe. The Road refers to the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road that connects China to South East Asia, South Asia and on to North Africa. Its initial focus has been centred on power, transport, education and steel.

Researchers assessed the solar potential of BRI nations discounting agricultural and forestry land. They found that if just 4% of the remaining low-value and unshaded land was given over to PV projects, the entire electricity demand of the BRI region could be met by 2030.

As the economies of BRI nations continue to develop and infrastructure projects and industrial activity ramp up, the demand for electricity will rise sharply.

“If we continue to rely on fossil fuels for energy, it can add significantly more CO2 to the atmosphere, not just this year, but for the next few decades,” said co-author Xi Lu from Tsinghua University. “This is not sustainable. If we want to achieve the emission reduction goal set by the Paris Agreement, we need renewable energy.”

The scope of the study spanned 66 countries with geographical connections. By adding in the expansion of distribution across borders, the researchers hope to address one key imbalance. They found that nations with 70.7% of the solar potential are responsible for 30.1% of the regional power demand.

“It would be challenging, because different countries have different priorities when it comes to development,” Lu says. “But the BRI is an opportunity as it sets up a framework for collaborations between countries, associations, and industries to happen. There are also funds and banks committed to promoting green development of the BRI, which provides financial support.”

China’s New Development Bank is one obvious source of that financial support. It has already backed solar and other renewable energy projects in South Africa to the tune of nearly $400 million since it signed its first loans in December 2016.

As the dominant force in solar manufacturing, Chinese firms would also be likely to do well out of any pan continental solar push. In 2018, eight of the ten largest firms, measured by shipments, were Chinese.

Efforts to establish intercontinental distributions networks from North Africa to Europe have stalled in the past, however. That was largely a private endeavour compared to the far more geopolitically charged efforts of the BRI.