China renewable energy policy has been overwhelmingly skewed to big wind power projects involving farms on which dozens of great wind turbines of 1.5MW to 3MW spin out electricity, or huge Building Integrated Photovoltaic (BIPV) projects like that atop the Shanghai Hongqiao rail station, which can power 12,000 Shanghai households. China has proven time and again the past ten years that it can do big projects and does “big” rapidly, if with mixed results for quality. Such Big Wind and Big Solar projects suit a China that aims to have a billion people in cities by the year 2020. However, what of the couple hundred million who will still be living in rural towns that qualify as Tier-5 and -6 locations (where cities like Suzhou and Hangzhou qualify as Tier-2)? If the towns are supplied electricity from one of the two national electricity grid systems, they are the first to suffer power outages when the cities need more power, especially during the summer months. Power microgeneration offers an approach to increasing energy efficiency and addressing the power needs of remote, sparsely populated communities in China’s interior.
Power microgeneration ranges from the small solar panels that adorn many lamp posts in China to the ubiquitous solar water heaters affixed to the tops of many Chinese apartment buildings; wind turbines that generate power in the kilowatts range; and hydro-electric generators of less than 50MW. According to an advance copy of the Worldwatch Institute’s report Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency in China: Current Status and Prospects for 2020, China installed 42 million square meters of solar water heaters in 2009 alone, increasing the total capacity in the country to 131 million square meters. The central government has provided strong incentives for rural installations, which have contributed to making China the largest market for solar water heaters in the world, with 70-80 percent of the global total.
Still, solar water heaters do not run air conditioners during hot summer days, nor do they light homes during long winter nights. Microgeneration in rural areas in China and throughout the world is often a mix of solar-, wind- and hydro-power. And, though the central government does authorize subsidies for rural electrification programs, much more can be done to bring communities in the countryside the same benefits of abundant energy as their urban counterparts. Typical rural electrification programs have an installed capacity of 50MW from mixed sources. Smaller projects under 50MW have the added benefit that they fall under the purview of provincial government approval, without the involvement of state or national government. 50MW projects also have the highest possibility of being eligible for grants, subsidies and tax breaks promised by the areas in the Renewable Energy Law (2006).
In 2001-2003, the central government implemented the Song Dian Dao Xiang (SDDX) program to install electrical power in over 700 villages, mostly in western China. Song Dian Dao Xiang in English means “sending electricity to townships”. Provisions for smaller scale projects exist with the NDRC Rural Electrification program. This program has been running for over 50 years and has brought 98% electrification to rural communities primarily driven through small-scale hydropower. The process of connecting rural communities to the grid is now at an end, however, as consumer demand and national policy focus has shifted to the urbanizing regions of China. The largest renewable energy system under the SDDX program is in Mazongshan, Gansu province. In 2002 local government administrative offices as well as 124 families realized electricity through the hybrid implementation of twenty-one 10KW wind turbines and a 90KW photovoltaic (PV) solar power array.
Though “rural hydro-power” has been instrumental in bringing electricity to rural towns, drought, transpiration, water transport to other regions in China, and increasing industrial use of water – especially as factories continue to migrate inland – will see less emphasis put on hydro-power and more placed on a mix of solar- and wind-power applications. Good news for domestic suppliers looking for new markets.
Further reading: Small is Beautiful: Market Opportunities for Wind Power in China