China nomads on energy's cutting edge

China's plan to cut coal use has brought electricity to nomads and hopes for cleaner air by 2020.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

Gulinar Sitkan's contribution to China's pollution problem is four tons of coal a year. It forms heaping black piles outside the shepherd's log cabin in this mountainous village of China's northwestern Xinjiang Province.

Coal is cheap and readily available, and China burns nearly 2 billion tons a year for energy – more than India, Russia, and the United States combined.

But coal also contributes to polluted skies and respiratory disease, now a leading cause of death in China. As the government launches its campaign to get 15 percent of China's energy from renewables by 2020, it figures villages like Sorbastow – where people are waiting to get on the power grid – are a good place to start.

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That's how Ms. Sitkan came across her tiny rooftop solar panel. Beijing hopes to get her and other new electricity consumers hooked on renewables.

One day last year, Sitkan and her husband were called to a meeting where 100 villagers waiting for a transmission line learned of an alternative to burning coal. After government subsidies, 500 yuan – a tenth of what Sitkan makes each year selling sheep's wool and meat – buys a photovoltaic solar unit that would provide enough electricity to power a small heater, a radio, a television, or a couple of light bulbs.

"Nearly everybody bought one," says Sitkan, a seminomadic shepherd who treks a well-traveled route each year with her family, 200 sheep, and a few cows. They journey between lamb breeding grounds, spare winter cabins, and yurts on green mountaintops. "It's rare now that people don't have electricity."

The Chinese and Dutch governments subsidize the cost of the panels, and a Shell Group subsidiary manufactures the units. In Xinjiang, 40,000 panels have been sold to rural customers – many of them ethnic minorities who are among China's poorest families.

The units are designed to be portable, inexpensive, and easy to maintain, says to Shell Solar's Bo Xiao Yuan. "Nomads, they keep moving all year round," Mr. Bo says. "Grid power cannot be available everywhere, so renewables is a very suitable way of life."

Not only suitable – but in Sitkan's case, life-changing. Life on the move is still tough, she says, but the 25-watt solar panel has offered new options.

Her two school-age children traded in smoky, unreliable oil lamps for a few light bulbs, which afford lighting for study well into the night. During grazing season, solar-powered lights perched atop her yurt scare away nighttime wolves that snared 15 sheep a few seasons ago. A small TV and radio are now at Sitkan's command.

"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."

She favors dramas and news programs in Uighur and her native Kazakh language, but after TV opened new worlds, she switched her children from the local Kazakh school to that of the Han Chinese. Her children will be educated in the language of China's ethnic majority.

"From TV I learned [Mandarin] Chinese is very important to the future, to getting jobs," says Sitkan, her voice becoming insistent. "I hope they go to college. I don't want them to be nomads; it's too hard."

Solar energy plays a significant role in Beijing's renewables strategy, and the government will continue to electrify remote areas, with portable solar programs already launched in Yunnan and Qinghai provinces. It also plans to develop solar-powered water heaters, intended to replace 97 million tons of carbon dioxide output by 2020, according to Douglas Ogden, director of the China Sustainable Energy Program.

Mr. Ogden, who consults for Beijing on energy strategy, says China's 15 percent renewables goal is laudable. But he wonders whether the government's methods are appropriate.

More than a third of the pledge will be met by small dams in environmentally-sensitive regions of the country. Further, he says, China has neglected the easy payoff of updating antiquated power plants and ancient boilers.

"All of the industries, they're using old 1950s Soviet-era stuff," Ogden says. "They waste 12 times the amount of coal that would be burned with modern technology."

Even so, as China charges forward, global corporations have come calling with hopes of cashing in on the quest to "decarbonize" energy. The US State Department estimates China's market for energy equipment, technology, and services at $1 trillion over the next 20 years. At least $250 billion of that investment will require foreign goods and services.

While Shell Solar won China's initial rural electrification contract, the company plans to sell off the photovoltaic business partly because it was losing money, says Timothy O'Leary, a Shell spokesman. The company will then focus on a next-generation solar technology: thin-film copper indium diselenide.

As one petroleum company gets out, another moves in. In December, BP announced a joint venture with Xinjiang-based SunOasis Co. to develop photovoltaics in China. Plans call for annual production capacity of 100 megawatts by 2010.

Back in Sorbastow, up a mountainous dirt road about 6 miles away from Sitkan's winter cabin, two newlyweds have high hopes for their unborn child. Kowante and Sandokash Rahmat got their solar panel in November as a wedding present from their parents.

"Marriage and the solar [power] system is double happiness for me," says Kowante as he picks up a dombra – a Kazakh guitar – to strum out an old folk song. Sandokash taps her foot to the music.

Their first purchase following the wedding was a cassette player, loaded with Kazakh pop tunes. Their child might have a television, too, and if all goes well at the mutton market in the coming years, a computer.

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