Rays of Hope Over Shadows of Poverty

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YUNKE LIU sheds light on the potential for solar energy to lift China’s low-income households out of poverty.

Located on the outskirts of Dong’e County in Shandong Province, North Luzhuang village is mired in poverty. While Dong’e thrives from the production of ejiao, or donkey-hide gelatin, an expensive ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine for relieving dizziness and insomnia, North Luzhuang is an anachronism with winding, dusty roads, villagers toiling in maize fields, and giant propaganda posters promoting the recently abolished One-Child Policy.

   Since the Reform and Opening-up in 1978, China has successfully lifted more than 600 million people out of poverty, becoming the first developing country to reach the United Nations Millennium Development Goal of halving its poverty rate. However, in 2015, according to China’s official poverty line of 2,800 yuan in annual income per capita (approximately $420), there were still more than 70 million rural residents struggling with poverty on a daily basis.

   Now the Chinese countryside has found an innovative solution for alleviating poverty: solar panels. When Village Party Secretary Yu Shaobin was first deployed to North Luzhuang in 2015, his immediate goal was to improve the lives of almost one-third of the 384 villagers living under two dollars a day. Since then, the sleepy backwater village has experienced some visible changes—Linuo-Ritter Company Limited, a local solar panel supplier, installed five photovoltaic (PV) panels on roofs in January 2016, their shiny surfaces glistening with new hope. “Solar energy has made a huge difference here,” said Yu. The PV panels not only generate enough electricity for household usage, but also bring profit whenever the surplus of electricity is sold to the local branches of the State Grid Corporation. With 1 PV panel generating 450 kilowatt hours (kWh) of electricity per month, the 41 low-income households can see their annual household income increase by 1000 yuan (approximately $150), a 20% spike without any additional manual labor.

   In the thirteenth Five-Year Plan beginning in 2016, the government aims to combine clean energy with poverty alleviation. The outcome has been promising so far. According to statistics from the National Development and Reform Commission, PV panels installed in rural areas generated 1836 megawatts of electricity in 2015 alone, bringing about 2.26 billion yuan in income for almost 430,000 people living in poverty.

   This year, the Chinese government plans to raise the annual income of two million individuals in 16 provinces by 3,000 yuan per person (approximately $450). In the next 5 years, policymakers are looking at an overall electricity generation between 10 to 50 gigawatts.

   Implementation of this policy, however, has proved to be more challenging than originally anticipated. To begin with, distribution of the poverty alleviation budget is ambiguous—the central government allocated a stratospheric 66.1 billion yuan for rural poverty alleviation in 2016, but the proportion of funds channeled into PV panels is unknown. Even for villages like North Luzhuang, where nearly 400,000 yuan has been set aside specifically for the purchase of PV panels by the provincial and local authorities, it still takes painfully long to clear complex administrative procedures, thus hampering the overall effectiveness of such projects.

   However, solar energy still offers significant promise. Solar has a low carbon footprint and involves minimal manual labor. According to a journalist at Beijing News, local governments are also experimenting with various models of reducing dependency on state funding. Yuexi county in Anhui province is the first in China to run a successful PV poverty alleviation project using public-private partnership (PPP), which eases the financial burden on the local government while capitalizing on private sector technologies and funding. An interconnected system of solar power stations has already been set up in Anhui and 5,000 documented low-income households in the province have seen their income rise. Moreover, China’s National Energy Administration also promised to introduce more checks and balances into the system, with monitoring branches overseeing the installation of PV panels, as well as grid integration and subsidy distribution.

   Many working in the field of clean energy also point to even more innovative solutions that bode well for the future of solar energy development in rural China. Ms. Tao Jingyu, a journalist from China Electrical Power News, believes the advent of the recently announced New Energy Comprehensive Insurance Project, an initiative aimed to ease difficulties in financing for solar energy firms, along with recent technological breakthroughs, will bode well for the future of solar energy development. In recent years, thin-film PV panels have replaced more conventional models due to their high flexibility and stellar performance even under rainy or cloudy conditions. Hanergy, a leading renewable energy company in China, has been spearheading research efforts into this niche area and currently has 1,319 patents under its belt. “PV companies in China are increasingly investing in thin-film PV research, and thin-film PV panels are already being installed on the fragile roofs of greenhouses.” said one Hanergy representative. In Nanping, Fujian Province, a thin-film PV pioneer project is delivering 302 thousand kWh electricity annually, on top of the proportion used for the various aspects of greenhouse operation, ranging from temperature control to lighting. This project alone reduced the emission of 58,180 tons of carbon dioxide in 2015. According to the official Hanergy website, approximately 2.6 million trees must be planted in order to attain the same level of environmental benefits this project brings.

   In China, PV panels are no longer a luxury found only in upscale urban condominiums; they are also occupying a growing number of flat roofs in the country’s most underdeveloped villages. However, lifting 128,000 poverty-stricken villages like North Luzhuang out of poverty with solar panels is a Herculean task. As the Chinese proverb goes, “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.” The same can be said for poverty alleviation; only with effective policy implementation and constant technological innovation can such projects truly help rural populations break the cycle of poverty in the long run.

Yunke, a native of Jinan, Shandong Province, is a senior at the Dunman High School in Singapore. Contact her at priscilla_yk@outlook.com.

Illustration // Sonia Ruiz

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