China's Biggest Solar Geek

You can't look at a roof in China's countryside without seeing a solar water heater, often a dozen of them right next to each other. But while the country has gone crazy for solar heating—it's the world's leader in production and use of such heaters—solar cells for electricity are hard to find. While China produces 15 percent of the world's photovoltaic panels and is home to hot solar company Suntech, less than 3 percent of those panels are readily consumed in China.

Zhao Chunjian, a professor at Shanghai University of Electric Power, is hoping to push that number up. In December he installed on his roof China's first "domestic power station" using 22 solar panels. Since December 15, 2006, Zhao's solar power plant has produced 2,750 kilowatt-hours (kWh), enough to power his apartment.

According to China Dialogue, even with government subsidies, the system cost over 140,000 yuan (US$18,890), meaning that if it produces 100,000 kWh over its lifetime, that's 1.4 yuan (US$0.19) per kWh, compared to 0.62 yuan (US$0.08) per kWh. What's more, because the power company's meters only go in one direction (this to prevent theft of electricity), Zhao actually pays the local utility to feed power back into the grid. In March, he paid 400 yuan for the "privilege." Zhao was inspired by Japan, where he did his doctorate. "In Japan, 600,000 families have installed solar power generation systems," he told New People's Daily, "and I thought at that time, shouldn't Shanghai also keep up with this trend?" Now he's hoping to create a similar trend at home.

By 2020, China is hoping to raise its reliance on renewable energy to 15 percent, and last year the central government launched a Renewable Energy law to encourage use of solar and other technologies.

In general, China's focus on renewable energy looks promising. "The future of the global climate may rest in large measure on China's ability to lead the world into the age of renewable energy, much as the United States led the world into the age of oil roughly a century ago," said Christopher Flavin, president of Worldwatch (we interviewed him here). Last week, the group released a report that stated that some $10 billion in investment will have been spent on renewables in China in 2007—a fifth of the world total.

The Worldwatch report, "Powering China's Development: The Role of Renewable Energy," is a big dig at European and American policy-makers. Alongside another recent industry report, It says that China could draw 30 percent of its power from renewable sources by 2050, and looks poised to pass solar and wind energy leaders in Europe and North America. In the next three years it could become the world's leader in renewable energy. We know the clamor over Chinese toys is loud, but Hillary, Obama--are you listening?

If the Chinese government really wants to brighten prospects for solar at home, the government will need to create more incentives for individuals, companies and utilities to generate solar power—and help a host of domestic companies to continue to innovate faster and generate cost-effective solar for Chinese consumers.

Of course, foreign greentech companies stand to make a lot of money too by selling Chinese-made photovoltaics to a huge potential domestic market. That's as long as overseas companies can be assured that their technologies won't get ripped off once they hit the ground in China. But if someday they can, they'll have a lot of customers who are already enthusiastic about solar—and some very enthusiastic.

Via China Dialogue

Read the new China Solar PV Report, released by China Renewable Energy Industry Association and others. Join the Solar Energy Companies in China Facebook group.

Also on Treehugger: ::China Launches $3 Billion Fund For Clean Projects, ::China Leads World in Renewable Energy Investment, ::The TH Interview: Christopher Flavin, Worldwatch President, ::China's Richest Man: A Solar Magnate, ::Solar Power Coming to Northern China, ::BP to Expand Solar Production in China

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