The GOOD 100: Chinese Solar The GOOD 100: Chinese Solar
The GOOD 100: Chinese Solar
Here Comes the (Chinese) Sun: How Chinese innovation is going to revolutionize solar power for the rest of the worldResidents of the city of Rizhao claim to be the first Chinese to greet the sun each day as it rises from the Yellow Sea. In fact, the city's name is a condensed form of the Chinese phrase ri qu shien zhao, which literally means "first to get sunshine." They also make some of the best use of the more than 100 kilowatt-hours of power the sun pours down on each square meter of Earth over the course of a sunny day.Though Rizhao's 3 million residents are seemingly overshadowed by nearby Qingdao-a larger city famous worldwide for its eponymous beer (you might know it as Tsingtao)-Rizhao boasts perhaps a bigger distinction: It is the first city in all of China to pledge to become carbon-neutral.That China has surpassed the United States to become the leading emitter of greenhouse gases is no secret. The Chinese curse on the climate will have to be reckoned with, but the Chinese also have a gift to give the world: developing cheap renewable energy sources, particularly solar power. Low-cost manufacturing in China is transforming the entire array of clean energy sources, like previously expensive photovoltaic cells-and, in the process, helping to clean up the world's energy supply.Witness Rizhao. Rooftops in newly constructed apartment blocks as well as on the houses in the surrounding countryside are often covered in angled panels of dark tubing. The tubes soak up sunlight, using its warmth to heat water within and eliminate the need to burn fossil fuel or suck up electricity for that purpose. Such solar hot-water heaters are mandatory, and are responsible (along with all the city's other solar efforts) for cutting energy use compared to alternatives by 348 million kilowatt-hours per year-cutting greenhouse gases at the same time. That's enough electricity to power more than 30,000 U.S. homes for a year.Indeed, China has become the world's largest market for and producer of such solar hot-water devices, which have become cheaper than traditional electric or gas-fired varieties thanks to this growing demand. Companies like Himin Solar Energy Group churn out solar hot-water heaters from factories big enough to build jumbo jets; China as a whole installed 246 million square feet of solar hot-water-heater panels in 2007.And it's not just hot water that Rizhao gets from the sun, as evidenced by the gleaming arrays of blue-black photovoltaic cells beneath the lampposts lining the seashore of this resort town.Rizhao has company in its use of the sun. In Jiangsu Province outside Shanghai lies China's "Solar Valley," which took its name from our own Silicon Valley, and which focuses on the same element. After all, silicon, a semiconductor, is an important component of both computer chips and solar cells.Suntech, a photovoltaic company with the world's largest production capacity and JA Solar both have facilities in Jiangsu; globally, Suntech can churn out enough panels in a year to produce-under ideal conditions-1 gigawatt of energy.
"Within three to four years, we'll be talking about the pure economic benefit of photovoltaics."Like its international competitors, Suntech offers a range of products, including advanced solar cells; its highly efficient, more expensive Pluto module can turn as much as 19 percent of the sunlight that falls on it into electricity. "In this case, you've got essentially a company known as a low-cost leader but, at the same time, introducing some of the highest technology in the world," notes Bates Marshall of Sixtron, a Canadian company that peddles solar-cell-manufacture technology.Across the market, however, quality can still be a concern. While some of the finest solar cells in the world come from China, there are a host of smaller companies producing even cheaper, lower-quality cells. "There are three to five name-brand module companies and maybe 160 total module manufacturers," Marshall adds. There are "a lot of no-name panels coming out of China that have some dubious quality."Regardless, as soon as 2011, Marshall predicts, modules could cost as little as $1.40 apiece, which will put them in the same price range as other energy sources. "Within three to four years, we'll be talking about the pure economic benefit of photovoltaics," Marshall says.And that's just in the United States. "All the solar photovoltaics are for export with a very small share for domestic use," CREIA's Li notes of Chinese-made solar panels. But "Chinese companies are being optimistic about the future because the government has set all these targets for carbon-emission reduction."
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