“I really like Tagore’s poem about the sun,” said Liang Xu, an independent investment consultant and my new found Chinese friend. “Let my love, like sunlight, surround you and yet give you illumined freedom.” He put such emotion into the recitation of this verse that I sat speechless in the back of the cab: first, because a man in China was expressing his appreciation for Tagore, an Indian poet and philosopher, and secondly, because he was specifically recalling a poem mentioning the sun. I was after all in Beijing for the Solar World Congress (SWC) sponsored by the International Solar Energy Society (ISES), the Chinese Solar Energy Society (CSES), many Chinese solar companies, and supported by the Chinese government. This single experience could probably sum up what is beginning to happen in China. The country is waking up to address the need to invest in renewable energy technologies, especially when the demand for energy is stretching supplies of conventional fuels thin and the impact of pollution from use of abundant coal reserves has put China under international pressure. The latter being a key worry for Beijing because it is hosting the 2008 Olympic Games despite the city’s legendary air pollution. Certainly all eyes were on China during this event as over 1,000 delegates were present from 60 different nations.
There has been much hype regarding China’s emergence into the solar arena because of their manufacturing abilities. According to CNN, China “will become the world’s dominator in solar energy industry.” With some 300 manufacturers of solar photovoltaics and approximately 3000 manufacturers of solar collector technologies, China has propelled itself into the world’s largest manufacturer of solar technologies. This has in large part helped bring down the costs of solar products in places like Europe and the US. When asked about the irony of the fact that despite China having such a large number of manufacturers but most of the products being made for export to other countries, Head of Chinese Solar Energy Society simply brushed aside the question and continue to boast of China’s ranking of largest solar product manufacturer in the world. Furthermore, upon questioning of what concrete steps the Chinese government is taking to reduce CO2 emissions, the session was nervously concluded and the moderator of the session pushed for a concluding applause. Though all of this may make it seem like there is a thin veneer for the solar cause over the reality that in China’s development ambitions, solar is still but a blip in terms of the foreseeable energy mix—after all, China is set to become the world’s largest energy consumer by 2010 according to the International Energy Agency.
With the landmark Renewable Energy Law being passed in China in January of 2006, the government has put into place all sorts of measures to encourage the use of renewable energy and put the country on the track towards greater energy efficiency. Though the passing of this legislation is a step in the right direction, it appears that all the proper policies are not in place to welcome the sun with open arms. CSES president Shi Dinghuan states that China’s installed PV capacity is a mere 80,000 kilowatts, accounting for only 0.016 per cent of the installed thermal capacity in China—nothing compared to the approximately 70% coal use for total energy consumption in China according to the US Department of Energy. “What would help us to make a bigger dent in the domestic market is the establishment of a feed-in tariff system for owners of PV systems,” states a Sales Manager of Suntech Power, the largest PV cell manufacturer in China present at the Solar Tech. Expo being held along side the SWC.
Enter the China Solar Valley: approximately 6 hours south of Beijing in the Shandong Province, in the city of Dezhou, where China is attempting to out do the world in terms of solar manufacturing output and conducting an experiment which might if properly undertaken, help put China at the fore front of powering its cities with the sun. The entire project is spear headed by the Himin Solar Group, with its charismatic CEO, Huan Ming at the helm of the project. “I suppose you could say that we are undertaking a Disney World style experiment” he jokes as the bus takes solar energy entrepreneurs, academics, and journalists through the campus of the company. In a city of approximately 300,000 people, Himin Solar Group has managed to power 60% of the city from the sun. The city itself has been chosen to host the 2010 Solar Cities congress at the world’s largest solar building, the International Exchange Center for Renewable Energy, now under construction. The city also boasts having the world’s longest street solar PV lighting system (approximately 10 km in length), the world’s first museum dedicated to the past, present, and future of solar technology, the largest (in scale and items) solar thermal testing center for manufacturing in the world which along with the world’s first and most advanced fully automatic production line of solar vacuum tubes is housed in the world’s largest manufacture base for solar thermal.
If that doesn’t leave you gasping for breath, know that here the annual production is equal to that in all of the European Union and over twice of that in, all of North America, according to Himin making their annual solar thermal output about half of the world’s total annual photovoltaic output. Future plans for Dezhou include the creation of a Renewable Energy University—one that focuses on research and development of alternative energy technologies drawing the best of minds from all over the world. To facilitate the growth of solar energy in the city, the government has given preferential tax benefits to the Himin Group and the company is able to funnel 30% of its net profits into its projects. A ten year old company, it has seen its sales growing by a staggering 100% a year. “Most people in rural China get to take a hot bath only 3 times in their life: birth, death, and perhaps marriage,” says CEO Huang Ming who is also a representative of the National People’s Congress. Through advocacy of the “New Energy New Countryside” project, the company has installed “close-to-cost” hot water boilers for nearly 100 counties around Dezhou city area in the form of public baths. In the urban areas their hot water heaters can cost US$160-750 which on average take 3 years to pay back in terms of energy saved. Needless to say, a solar hot water system is something the Chinese can easily take to.
When compared to the success of the solar concentrator industry, the PV industry has been described as a “headless and tailless monster” by Wang Hanfei, general manager of PV cell maker Solarfun. With little help from the government in terms of subsidies like those given for the promotion of wind energy (through feed-in tariff system), and lack of proper policies to increase the demand for the technology the PV industry is struggling to make significant gains in the Chinese market. Furthermore there is little innovation in technology coming from Chinese companies which is bound to make this industry stagnate. Even though China is the third largest PV cell manufacture in the world, it has only managed to reduce the costs of manufacturing PV cells and nearly all of the products are for export—nearly 90% of Suntech’s products are going to places like Germany, the US, and Australia. This may be a boon for countries in the European Union and North America, but it does little to popularize SPV technology in a nation which could use cleaner sources of energy.