Solar Panel for Nomads in China: A Baby Step for Cleaner Energy

To salvage its image as the “dirty dragon” for being the #1 green house gas emitter in the world, as well as to ensure the energy supply for its still growing economy and heavy industry, China is desperate for a viable solution for this soon to become energy crisis. In the past decade, the Chinese government has implemented an aggressive strategy promoting the research and implementation of renewable energy technologies. Funding projects for research in solar and wind technologies, as well as opening doors for the easy operation of domestic and international energy-related businesses. [2]

In the midst of all the big progress and actions, the rural Chinese have been marginalized as the country moves forward. During the 1990s, as the Chinese economy first saw its boom, it was the urban dwellers who reaped the benefits. The cities lit up with new power plants and neon lights while the rural area remained in the dark.  There were no incentives to provide electricity for the farmers and herders, at the same time the farmers cannot afford the luxuries electricity brings. As the 21st century rolled around, the nation’s economy is finally strong enough to share its wealth with their hard working farmers. With the farmers having some extra money in their pockets and new electronics in their homes, they got their power plants built and their villages on the grid. However, still off the radar are the even further remote population clusters in the mountains and the herders on the grassland. Their combined electric demand are too small and their geographical location too remote to be put on the grid.

It was not long before the solar technology businesses supported by government funding saw an opportunity in the ignored electric demand of these rural Chinese. A perfect example is seen in the case of the Kazakhs: the ethnic minority group living in the mountains in the northwestern region of China.  Up till 2005, the Kazakhs had no electricity in their homes. Because they live a nomadic lifestyle, it’s simply too expensive to have power grid available for them everywhere they go. In 2006, the combined interest of the nation’s desire to implement renewable energy technologies and international businesses seeking a profit from a no-lose project collaboration with the government, solar panels were brought to the homes of the Kazakhs.  A simple and compact solar panel designed by “Shell Oil’s subsidiary, Shell Solar… supplied 40,000 of these panels to ethnic minorities throughout China’s Xinjiang province as part of a project that’s funded by the Dutch and Chinese governments. Shell Solar’s Bo Xiao Yuan says the portability of the panels is ideal for the ethnic minorities who live in China’s most remote regions. [1]” The panels were made affordable to the Kazakhs at the price of approximately 60 dollars (a tenth of a nomad family’s annual income) with subsidiaries from the government, providing enough power for a small TV and a few light bulbs [1].

While the technology of these solar panels is unlikely to be robust enough to power a city like Beijing or Shanghai, it does not attempt to. With its design simple enough to implement, compactness sufficient for constant mobility, and a price not too high the government to provide enough subsidies, these panels served all of its intended purposes.  As Shell Solar made an easy profit on this government supported project while testing out one of their preliminary products, the Chinese government gets to add another chapter to their renewable energy success story book, most importantly, the Kazakhs now have the opportunity to watch the news.

The Kazakhs story, and many more like this, has demonstrated the collaborative system between the government and technology businesses as the ideal market to implement small scale novel renewable energy technologies. Technologies today are constantly improving and renewing, and the faster the turn over rate results in a better product. It is only through implementation of the lab-scale technologies can the scientists and engineers make the necessary effort to improve the design. Thus, it’s not only unrealistic but almost silly to be expecting or aiming for the development of a single “cure-all” technology to completely replace fossil fuel and solve all of our problems over night. It’s baby steps like these solar panels which will eventually lead us to a future with cleaner and more efficient energy.

[1]. “Solar Power Energizing Rural China” (http://marketplace.publicradio.org/display/web/2006/06/19/solar_power_energizing_rural_china/)

[2]. “Green Giant: Beijing’s Crash Program for Clean Energy” (http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2009/12/21/091221fa_fact_osnos)

[3]. Picture (http://francie.wordpress.com/)

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1 Comment

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One response to “Solar Panel for Nomads in China: A Baby Step for Cleaner Energy

  1. jmorourke

    I think it is great that the Kazakhs have access to solar panels to help improve their standard of living. There are lots of similar types of projects led by humanitarian groups and colleges (instead of the government-led project discussed in the article) to use renewable energy in humanitarian efforts. For instance, Engineers Without Borders (EWB), a grassroots volunteer engineering group which designs and implements systems in low-income and often remote areas around the world. EWB focuses on the use of renewable energy to meet the energy needs of many of its projects, specifically working on alternative fuels, energy, and specifically solar energy projects in addition to the more standard construction, sanitation, and water supply projects. A typical example of an EWB project related to renewable energy is the work being done by a group from Northern Illinois University to develop a solar water pumping system as well as a solar-powered auxiliary lighting system for use in one classroom in a girls boarding school in Tanzania during power outages.

    Another group that works to provide mobile devices which run on renewable energy to people in rural areas is the Nomadic Communities Trust, which funds camels-carrying mobile health clinics in Kenya and Ethiopia. The Nomadic Communities Trust has teamed with Designmatters and Princeton’s Institute for the Science and Technology of Materials to create a lightweight, solar-powered refrigeration system which can be carried on a camel’s back and used to transport medicines and vaccines. Currently, the device is being tested on camels in Kenya and Ethiopia. If the project receives sufficient funding, it will be able to provide 300,000 people with access to refrigerated medicines and vaccines.

    There are many other examples in which renewable energy sources, such as solar panels, have been utilized to bring electricity to remote regions. As the article above discusses, small-scale energy sources which don’t require massive infrastructure elements, such as an electric grid or paved roadways, lend themselves to meet the needs of groups living in remote areas. In these areas, it is likely that is more economical to have a small, mobile source of power. Additionally, by helping people living in areas without energy infrastructure obtain renewable-powered devices, engineers can significantly increase the standard of living of people in these areas sustainably.

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