In 2014, China announced an ambitious plan to help alleviate rural poverty through deploying distributed solar photovoltaic (PV) systems in poor areas.
The solar energy for poverty alleviation programme (SEPAP) initiative aims to add over 10 GW capacity and benefit more than 2 million households from around 35,000 villages across the country by 2020. This working paper traces the emergence and implementation of the initiative through discourse analysis of policy documents. Then, through a case study in the remote and largely pastoralist county of Guinan, in Qinghai province on the Tibetan plateau, we illustrate the constraints on implementing SEPAP and contested local perspectives on the buildout of ostensibly low carbon infrastructure for electricity generation. The working paper illustrates the limits of a top-down energy infrastructure push without incentive mechanisms for non-state actors or independent oversight of a “command and control” system.