Monday, June 18, 2007

Kunming Heats Up as China's "Solar City"

Ryan Hodum – June 5, 2007 – 5:00am

Traveling across China, it's hard not to notice a unique and environmentally benign technology that has been gracefully integrated into urban buildings and other structures. As solar hot water heaters have grown in prominence over the last 30 years, they are now visible almost everywhere, atop hutongs (traditional alley complexes) in Beijing, on modern apartments in Shanghai, and in farming communities in rural Lijiang.

The heaters consist of a series of cylindrical glass tubes, mounted at an angle, connected to a large water storage tank. Mainland China is now home to as much as 60 percent of the world’s solar hot water heating capacity, and the total installed capacity of the heaters in the country is estimated at 30 million households, according to Eric Martinot, a renewable energy expert and Worldwatch Institute senior fellow based in Beijing.

But it is clear that one city stands out as China's aspiring "solar city", and that is Kunming in the western province of Yunnan. Although Kunming is more often referred to as the "City of Eternal Spring" due to its moderate climate, as one travels toward the city's central district, it is virtually impossible to avoid the glare reflecting from water tanks atop nearly every apartment complex. More than half the city's 4.7 million inhabitants use the solar heaters, according to Sangte Li, CEO of Sangte Solar, a successful manufacturer and distributor of the units in Kunming.

As China's urban population continues to grow each year (by nearly 50 percent in 2007), many apartment renters now expect to get a solar hot water unit along with traditional amenities. "The technology is so cheap it has become commonplace for everyone to have," explains Li. "Most people consider it an included expense as part of their total energy bill.... A solar hot water heater is viewed as a standard appliance by most urban Chinese dwellers."

Sangte Li says the units can be relatively inexpensive to install, with the average heater costing only 1,600 yuan (about US$200). The affordability and prevalence of the units is attributed to the low cost of domestic manufacturing, a competitive market, and plentiful solar resources throughout China. Over the last three decades, the industry has matured as a result of the implementation of government incentive programs, revised building codes, and product certification centers.

The technology is simple and practical. Sunlight passes through an outer glass tube and heats an absorber tube inside; a vacuum in the glass prevents any loss in temperature. A heat pipe then carries the collected energy to the water storage tank, where the liquid is heated. Because the glass tube has a high thermal conductivity, it is able to transfer large amounts of heat with a marginal rise in temperature.

The earliest Chinese models were derived from European technology, but the modern all-glass evacuated vacuum tube used today throughout much of the country was developed and patented by professors at Tsinghua University in Beijing. An average unit is about as wide as a bathtub and roughly 1.5 meters tall. The heated water is used mainly for showers and for washing dishes and clothes.

Kunming is home to many experts in the solar field. The Solar Energy Research Institute at Yunnan Normal University, founded in 1971, consists of four laboratories specializing in solar photovoltaic, solar thermal, biomass energy, and environmental engineering. Through technology cooperation and personnel training, the Institute has played an important role in establishing the solar energy industry in the province. In addition, the Chinese government authorized the formation of three National Solar Water Heating Testing Centers in 2002, one of which is housed at Yunnan Normal. The center provides free testing services to the solar industry to assist in product certification.

One of the more interesting dynamics of China's solar hot water heating market, according to Sangte Li, is the relationship between unit manufacturers and apartment developers. The nationwide construction boom parallels the largest increase in solar hot water heater installations in China's history. Most contracts are bid on the market through a formal competitive process, but Li has obtained much of his work through previous relationships, noting that entire apartment contracts are won based on friendships and a certain level of charisma. He says the market is saturated with solar hot water companies—there are over 2,000 today—making it difficult to differentiate one from the next. "The ability to engage developers and contractors is paramount in this industry," Li observes.

As for Kunming's status as China's premier "Solar City," it will need to remain at the cutting edge of this technology to retain this distinction. The city of Rizhao in northern China, with over half-a-million square meters of solar water heating panels, is quickly gaining notoriety in this renewable technology as well. Competition between universities in Beijing, which have patented the evacuated vacuum tube solar heater, and Yunnan University may be enough to spark the next wave of innovations throughout the country.

First steps toward environmental change

By John Boudreau
Article Launched: 06/17/2007 01:32:37 AM PDT

BEIJING - When Fuqiang Yang looks out the window of his 24-story office in the central business district, he sees promising splotches of blue in the dirty sky.

The researcher with the San Francisco-based Energy Foundation believes the Chinese government is serious about averting an ecological meltdown.

The central government is calling for renewable energy, such as solar and wind, to provide 10 percent of its energy use by 2010, and 16 percent by 2020. That's a difficult goal, say some experts, who point out that California, which leads the United States in use of alternative power, derives about 11 percent of its power from renewable sources.

China also has pledged to reduce water and air pollution emissions by 10 percent and cut energy use per dollar of gross domestic product by 20 percent by 2010, though it failed to meet last year's target.

Hitting the 20 percent energy reduction target, said Wanxing Wang, another scientist with the Energy Foundation, would "save 600 to 700 million tons of coal over five years. That's huge."
"They are very serious," said Vincent Lo, the billionaire Shanghai chairman of the development company the Shui On Group. "As I go around various cities, they don't talk about economic growth. They are more focused on what they are going to do about emissions, the environment.
The total cost of cleaning up the cities will be around 5 percent of GDP every year."

Barry Friedman, who heads up the U.S. Embassy's commercial affairs division in Beijing, said China's government faces strong domestic pressures to act.

"If you ask any Chinese what the top issue is that China faces, there's one thing people in the rural and urban areas agree on: the environment," he said. "For 20 years now, they've been stampeding for economic development. They did not pay much attention to the byproducts of this, which are the environmental problems that are so formidable. Now, they are finally waking up to it."

But even if the central government is getting serious about pollution, it must prod recalcitrant provincial officials, who often are more concerned with economic growth than a clean environment. The central government has begun to tie energy efficiency and pollution mitigation to performance reviews of officials, a critically important move, experts say.

The Chinese government is quick to point out that the cumulative carbon dioxide emissions from developed countries, particularly the United States, have contributed most to global warming.

The United States needs to embrace tough measures before it can expect poor countries such as China to do likewise, said Jiang Lin, a scientist in the China Energy Group at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, which works with Chinese researchers and regulators to improve energy efficiency in China.

"We have the technology, we have the income to take early action," he said. "Hopefully, we can demonstrate to the developing world our moral leadership and we can get them to do this without destroying their economy."

Late last month, President Bush proposed for the first time goals to cut greenhouse gases, which some observers see as a sign the United States finally will take a global leadership role. Critics, though, said the announcement to pursue non-binding limits is aimed at sidelining tougher measures backed by Europeans.

China's government, which is developing large wind and solar energy industries, plans to pay for some of the environmental cleanup by phasing out tax breaks for high-polluting industries.

Leaders in China's Jiangsu province are trying to emulate California's conservation measures. Stricter energy efficiency standards for appliances, power rate structures that encourage energy saving and tough building codes have helped to keep California's per-capita energy consumption the same despite decades of robust economic growth. The central government also has consulted with California officials, PG&E executives and environmentalists on the state's energy policies.

China's new aggressive attitude about environmental cleanup is personified by Ma Jun, director of the Beijing-based non-profit Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, which lists the names of corporate water polluters on a Web site ( Although the government does not publicly endorse his efforts, it has not tried to stop him, even when his work embarrasses influential company bosses.

This grass-roots effort is "sort of a milestone" said Ma, a former Hong Kong journalist. In the next room of his Beijing office, his staff compiled data. Their organization receives funding from foundations and corporate donors.

Attorney Wang Canfa is conducting his own guerrilla war against corporate polluters. Wang, who operates out of a cramped, basement office at the China University of Political Science and Law, has been quietly filing lawsuits against polluters since 1999, successfully winning about a third of his 90 cases. Wang and his partners have shut down 35 factories.

He is training a new generation of Chinese lawyers with expertise in environmental law. "We believe that in the future, environmental protection will be strengthened," Wang said. "We have been changing the laws."

There remains plenty of resistance to change, particularly from rural leaders who worry more about providing jobs than dirtying the air, land and water with pollutants. While the central government works to shut down less efficient, small coal-fired plants, local politicians undercut the campaign, the Energy Foundation's Yang said.

"We have to encourage China," he said. "If they fail, it will damage their reputation. And they won't try again."