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Dezhou Solar City (China)

For one day only we were able to make a stop in Dezhou, one of China’s famed ‘Solar Cities.’ As a bright and cheery advertisement explained, "Just like the Silicon Valley, this is the Solar Valley." The ad was remarkable for several reasons. First, China’s economic development plan of copying hallmark Western institutions was essentially nicely summarized in that simple slogan. Second, the peppy poster instilled in me images of an entire city feeding itself off solar electricity. Strangely, by the end of the day, I felt that my expectations were mostly satisfied.

I guess if you were to ask me what I’d expected before my arrival in Dezhou, I would have shrugged and muttered something about a solar theme park. The images from the flashy website and brochure suggested a playground for solar enthusiasts; a place where, for one moment, we could glimpse the city of the future with an entire infrastructure powered by the sun. Dezhou was not this city exactly, but it was close enough and certainly a pleasant place to visit.

The Dezhou adventure started out awkwardly but earnestly. It was clear the staff at the solar city had not had any foreign visitors in quite a while by the way they shuffled around nervously, anxious to help anyway they could. However, their hard labor to be the most hospitable was very appreciated. The day before, we had contacted our tour guide, Laura, to confirm that she could show us all around the Solar Valley. She met us at 9 a.m. in the lobby of the Himin Solar Office building and hotel.

Himin, the primary owner of Solar Valley, is also a huge leader in solar thermal water heaters — the main technology we were shown. We toured the lobby to see displays of different solar products; from a solar barbecue to a standard solar thermal water heater. We then looked at a diorama (above) that I’m sure was a big hit with Chinese investors. It showed the planned large campus of present and future buildings to come. The main entrance will be flanked by a tall solar archway and wind turbines, and the main building should be the largest completely solar-powered office building in the world. There are also plans to build housing for students who are seeking training on how to manufacture and operate Himin solar products, and several model homes will be built to showcase solar integration. It’s a very large ‘Solar Valley’ indeed, but then again being impressively large is I’m sure part of the plan.

We then got into a car and were driven to a group of state of the art solar integrated condominiums. These buildings were like every other brand new condominium you see all over China but with solar panels and water heaters attached to their roofs. There very few people actually living there, but our tour guide insisted the condo would fill up with tenants very soon.

After some lunch and some rest, the tour resumed. We entered the factory where Himin manufactures solar thermal water heaters. You can see solar water heaters everywhere in the country, so it was interesting to see the manufacturing process. We explored the roof of the factory and examined the different solar arrays. There are the silicon photovoltaic panels that the average person imagines when solar power is mentioned, as well as solar thermal water heaters that use solar power to heat your household’s water. Himin has also actually found a way to convert the thermal energy (heat) to electricity. We also saw concentrated solar panels where the light is directed to one, highly efficient solar cell, reminding us that concentrated solar was developed to lower production costs of PV.

The tour finished with a leisurely walk through the strange but pleasant solar park. The park had been the site of an international competition of architects that chose an element (earth, wind, fire, water) as a theme around which to build their solar homes. The park made for some unique views.

I appreciated the day because we learned more about what alternative energy purveyors in China can do to attract investors and enthusiasts. Laura was an excellent guide; candid and easygoing, with a host of information to share about Himin’s technology, the campus, and the ups and downs of solar industry in general.

It was good. Great. Fine. I guess my real issue is the very premise of a large Solar Valley. When trying to motivate public investment for a new idea, I suppose it is wise to have a demonstrative area, to give a tangible image of what a solar future might look like. I don’t have any problem with that. My contention lies with the size and scale of the Solar Valley. China is attracted to big productions, as demonstrated by the country’s ever-growing collection of sprawling shopping malls and wind farms. The issue of sustainability becomes confused when companies set out to build something big and brand new; a Solar Valley with 44 buildings, for example, or a brand new Eco City like that constructed in Tianjin.

One of the most important parts of resiliency is understanding that our buildings and our very way of life need to be scaled down and decentralized to cope with a hotter and more erratic climate. When we spread the risk to deal with unforeseen events we are that much more able to handle crises. Unfortunately, we live in a time in which consolidation is efficient and profitable. We see this consolidation everyday with our food production, banking and media, to name just a few examples. The more you stack your chips on one number, the higher your risk will be when you lose. The banking crisis is an excellent example of what happens when consolidation fails: it fails big time.

So, after touring the Solar Valley, I couldn’t help thinking that despite Himin’s laudable goal, the means of achieving that end might be flawed. Building an area that will exemplify clean energy, green design and sustainable agriculture is a great idea — but I dislike that these demonstrative sites must be huge, out of the way ‘solar cities.’ I would think that an easier example to showcase solar power for the public would be to make a solar house in every major neighborhood in Beijing or Shanghai, or display an ecological garden or food forest in a local public park. The Solar Valley stops becoming sustainable when folks have to drive or take a train for several hours to observe all of its glory. Across the world, individuals and communities are working to live more sustainably, and they are doing that, first and foremost, by acting locally.


  1. That would have been a fascinating trip.

    The solar hot water systems are worth their weight in gold and even Down Under here in late August (winter), they produce toasty hot water. Solar hot water is a winner of a technology.

    The idea of a city powered from solar photo-voltaic panels is something else again. The photos indicated to me that there is not enough roof space relative to the floor space. I run 21 x 190w PV panels here off grid and that guarantees me a minimum of 3kWh/day every day all year (with buffer / resiliency for really ordinary weather). Storage of that electrical energy is a real issue too as it is like trying to collect water in a leaky sieve!

    Solar PV is a really good technology as long as you have very small energy requirements. I read recently that the current Australian household consumes 20kWh/day of electricity.

  2. Just a few random facts on energy.

    Think about how much light is used in a typical house over during the night. Then get up next day and compare this to the amount of light that falls on the house during the day. There is no shortage of energy, we just cant harvest it. We also waste it.

    If you have an off grid solar system then you probably store daytime generated electric power in lead acid batteries. The lead acid battery was invented in 1859 by Gaston Plante and has not advanced much since then.

    The very inefficient incandescent lamp was invented by Humphry Davy in 1802 and turned into a practical household item by Thomas Edison in 1878. Only in 2009 was it phased out in Australia and replaced by the compact fluorescent lamp. The fluorescent lamp was invented in 1901.

    In 1905 Einstein explained the photoelectric effect for which he got the Nobel Prize in 1921.

    I recently went into a LED lighting shop to buy suitable low voltage lights for the house I am building. I got nowhere because the girl behind the counter did not know the difference between AC and DC nor the difference between watts and volts.

    On the TV tonight we were told how wonderful it was in Sydney today. So many people at the beach enjoying the warmest winter in Sydney ever recorded.

    Draw your own conclusions.

  3. Hi Michael,

    Yeah, it has been warmer further south too, although there has been sufficient chilling hours (<7 degrees C) for the fruit trees to set fruit and blossom.

    I'm unsure what your point is. However, if you want help with off grid solar and/or owner building give me a yell.



  4. China has a number of empty cities that have been built without residents to fill them – it is a phenomena not unique to this solar demonstration. The story is always the same, the residents will show up soon. I suspect it is largely about keeping the ponzi growth economy rolling. This sort of misallocation of resources exemplifies the worst central planners have to offer.

    On the upside, China’s plans for PV (36gw installed before 2015) are ambitious – that’s close to half of world installed PV capacity up to this point. Their commitment to low cost solar thermal is also to be admired. There is no question China intends consolidate their domination over the solar industry. They fully understand that renewable energy technology is the future and are pushing their poker chips to the center of the table. Smart bet!

    Of course, what we need is a whole lot of efficiency improvements & retrofit… and even for a dense (and not very sunny) city like New York, they could meet a significant portion of their energy needs via PV within the city itself, especially peak summer demand. Even more becomes possible as PV continues to get cheaper and it becomes feasible to utilize the south side of buildings.

    Coupled with wind power and a gaggle of other renewables, we certainly have the technology to do 100% renewable energy right now – though the technology will only get cheaper and more efficient over time.

    Perhaps the biggest upside to a project like this is to change people’s minds and to get it into their heads that we can already do this. The challenges are psychological, not technological.

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