Solar power energizing rural China

Marketplace Staff Jun 19, 2006

PHOTO GALLERY: Log cabin, solar power

KAI RYSSDAL: Coal is the energy source of choice in China. A billion and a half tons of it were burned there last year to generate electricity. That’s three times more than in the U.S., India, and Russia combined. There are about 120 million people in China living off the power grid. So Beijing is trying to get new electricity consumers to use renewable sources. From the Marketplace Sustainability Desk, Rob Schmitz reports.

ROB SCHMITZ: A sheep, a yurt, a pasture, and a forest. That once summed up Gulinar Sitkan’s world here in Sorbastow, a tiny village in the remote mountains of northwestern China, near the border with Kazakhstan. Last year, her world suddenly expanded.

Through a gauze of static interference, Sitkan now sees important-looking officials shaking hands. Soldiers in a foreign war. A beautiful woman holding a soft drink can to her face. The images on her new television change almost too quickly to take it all in, and they’re much more stimulating than watching her sheep.

GULINAR SITKAN [voice of interpreter]: My favorite program is the international news, because I can find out what’s happening now. Before, it would take months for us to find out about news.

Sitkan is one of the many Ethnic Kazakhs in this area who, up to a year ago, didn’t have electricity. The Chinese government has provided her and hundreds of thousands of others with solar panels.

This is part of China’s plan to use more renewable energy. By 2020, China plans to get 15 percent of its electricity from renewable sources. That’ll add up to 120,000 megawatts, more than two times the amount of energy the state of California generates.

Douglas Ogden is vice president of the San Francisco-based Energy Foundation. He’s working with Chinese officials to help them fulfill that promise.

DOUGLAS OGDEN: You know, you look around globally, there isn’t another country that has set that degree of ambitious renewable energy target.

Gulinar Sitkan adds wood to her potbelly stove. The pink scarf she wears around her head blends in with the bright red carpets that line the walls of this tiny log cabin. A rooftop solar panel provides enough power for her small television and a couple of light bulbs.

The panel was designed and supplied by one of the world’s giant oil companies. You heard right. An oil company. Specifically, Shell Oil’s subsidiary, Shell Solar, has supplied 40,000 of these panels to ethnic minorities throughout China’s Xinjiang province as part of a project that’s funded by the Dutch and Chinese governments. Shell Solar’s Bo Xiao Yuan says the portability of the panels is ideal for the ethnic minorities who live in China’s most remote regions.

BO XIAO YUAN: In these areas, for nomad, they keep moving all year round, so the grid power cannot be available everywhere. It’s too expensive.

After government subsidies, nomads in this area can buy a portable solar panel for around 60 US dollars. That’s equal to about a tenth of what a typical nomad here makes from selling sheep’s wool and meat in a year.

In a cabin in the next valley over, newlyweds Kowante and Sandokash Rahmat have finished up a day of shearing sheep. Kowante takes his dombra, a Kazakh guitar, from where it hangs on the wall, and unwinds with a song.

It’s a traditional Kazakh song about two lovers who meet near an alpine lake. Kowante and Sandokash have a solar panel, too. It was a wedding present from their parents. The first appliance they bought was a tape player, which is loaded with the newest Kazakh pop songs.

They’re expecting their first child this summer. Not only will this child know the latest Kazakh hits, but he or she might have a television, and, says Kowante, a computer, too. And with all of this, access to a world they could have only imagined a year ago.

In Sarbastow, northwestern China, I’m Rob Schmitz for Marketplace.

There’s a lot happening in the world.  Through it all, Marketplace is here for you. 

You rely on Marketplace to break down the world’s events and tell you how it affects you in a fact-based, approachable way. We rely on your financial support to keep making that possible. 

Your donation today powers the independent journalism that you rely on. For just $5/month, you can help sustain Marketplace so we can keep reporting on the things that matter to you.