In China’s rugged northwest, renewable energy is opening a window on the world for nomadic Uighurs, as well as improving the health of their children by cutting down on coal burning. This story in the Christian Science Monitor talks about a government program to subsidize personal solar panels for familes in Xinjiang. The writer explains how Gulinar Sitkan, a woman of Kazakh descent, now uses her solar panel to power electric bulbs for her children to study late into the night. No longer do they need to rely on smoky oil lamps. The family also uses solar power to watch television:
"My favorite program is the international news, because I can find out what’s happening now," says Sitkan, her face weathered from the rigors of nomadic life. "Before we had a TV, it would take months for us to find out about news. These are big changes."
Indeed they are big changes on a personal level. But China’s use of coal is so dominant, and its appetite for energy so voracious, that efforts like these need to be reproduced thousands of times over if they are to have national effects. Unfortunately, the government’s plan of increasing renewables’ role in the country’s energy consumption to 15% by 2020 means that solar power – which produces a relatively meager output with today’s technology – will be eclipsed by hyrdropower. And that means more dams, more disrupted ecosystems, and more displaced people.
But small victories are still victories. New technology will increase the efficiency of solar power, and certainly Ms Sitkan is happy with the change in her life. Furthermore, there is an educational benefit in her family’s case. After seeing more of the world up close on television, the mother decided that it was essential for her children to learn Mandarin to increase their prospects. This attitude was confirmed to me by a woman who has worked in Tibet for many years: despite the heavy-handed efforts of the Chinese authorities to flood the western regions with ethnic Han, many minority parents still see it as beneficial for their children to learn Mandarin. Just like parents everywhere, they want their kids to have an easier life than they did. Certainly renewable energy can play a part in that effort.