China must support technological research on solar thermal energy

China must support technological research on solar thermal energy, say Huang Ming and Yidong Gong. China is rich in solar energy. More than two thirds of the country receives more than 2,200 hours of sunshine every year. Estimates put the amount of solar radiation landing on China as up to 10,000 times the energy capacity of the Three Gorges Dam.

But despite the huge potential of solar power in China, the country has relied largely on fossil fuels to meet its energy needs and drive its economic success. Chinese people may be enjoying a higher standard of living, but not without impacting their environment.

Soaring solar

Now there is increasing evidence that China has woken up to potential of solar power for ‘green’ development. The Chinese government has committed to increasing the proportion of clean energy to 15 per cent by 2020 by expanding hydropower, wind energy and solar power.

Development of solar technologies in China has soared over the past decade. In particular, solar photovoltaics (PV), with its huge potential for generating and exporting electricity, has captured the attention of both investors and policymakers alike.

By the end of 2009, solar cells produced by China had reached a capacity of 4000 MW, taking 40 per cent of the global market. And according to the China Renewable Energy Society, the installedcapacity of photovoltaic plants has climbed to about 300 MW, more than double the capacity in 2008.

But the focus on solar PV deserves vigilance. It is far from self-reliant for many reasons.

First, the raw materials required for PV development are mainly imported. Second, there is a significant gap between China’s production line and market demand — nearly 95 per cent of demand for solar PV comes from the developed world. This makes local firms vulnerable to global markets and many Chinese PV companies were severely damaged by last year’s financial crises. Third, developed countries still monopolise the core technologies of PV.

Getting into hot water

Solar thermal energy (STE) development paints a different picture. Like PV, STE applications have boomed in the past decade. China is home to nearly 3,000 STE water heater companies that serve 60 per cent of the international market. And more than 200 million Chinese people already use STE water heaters.

But STE is rarely touted as a research priority and barely makes it onto the political agenda because policymakers and the public tend to view it aslow in ‘technological content’.

And yet it has several advantages over PV, particularly in China. Around 95 per cent of the key technologies associated with STE are generated within China and the country has gained worldwide renown for its production capacity, markets and innovation in STE.

STE also has great potential to boost rural and urban development and improve livelihoods — an aspect that is all too often underestimated by policymakers.

Solar solutions

Take a simple solar water heater. It could transform washing facilities for rural communities, helping combat diseases from poor hygiene.

Brackish water is another problem afflicting nearly 40 million farmers in North China and coastal regions. If STE desalination and purification facilities are installed in the villages, health conditions will greatly improve.

STE-based convertors can also help heat biogas pits so they continue producing energy throughout the colder months.

It goes beyond people’s daily life. Hot water can also become part of production systems in rural areas, such as for making fodder or cleaning farm equipment.

Redress the balance

China’s efforts to promote clean energy technologies, including solar, are laudable.But an even larger strategy adjustment is needed if solar technologies are to meet domestic energy and development needs.

This means improving the weak financial support for alternative energies, including solar energy. According to an initial calculation by the National Energy Administration, meeting the 2020 target for renewable energy will require investments of 530 billion Chinese yuan — 17 per cent of the clean energy development budget — in solar technologies including PVs and STE.

A preferential tax policy, including exemptions from, or reduction of, value added tax (VAT), income tax and tariffs, could allow solar energy companies to devote more resources to technological improvements and upgrades.

But it’s not all about money. Political commitment is just as important. A good start would be real commitment to developing and implementing STE on a scale that rivals current interest in solar PV.

Huang Ming is the vice president of The International Solar Energy Society and chair of Himin Group in China.
Yidong Gong is China news editor for SciDev.Net.