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With Solar Valley project, China embarks on bold green technology mission

Last year, China invested about $34 billion in solar panels, wind turbines and other alternative energy technologies, nearly twice as much as the United States, where spending fell sharply.

In an internal December report on Dezhou's economic prospects, Mayor Wu Cuiyun said the city must "use all its strength to support" Huang's solar energy company. She pledged "comprehensive preference in policy, land, capital and other areas to make it a world-class enterprise group."

The Dezhou Construction Committee is doing its bit: It requires that all new buildings be equipped with solar water heaters of the type made by Huang's company. More than 80 percent of buildings in the city now have them. So, too, does the Beijing mausoleum housing Mao Zedong's embalmed corpse. The mausoleum is a Huang customer.

Huang, a member of China's parliament, first started tinkering with solar water heaters in the early 1990s after the birth of his daughter, which he said got him thinking about the environment.

At the time, he was working in a petroleum research institute and "felt guilty." He later quit the institute and set up his own company. He said he realized that clean energy would work only if the profit motive kicked in: "If it can't make money, this experiment will be a big failure."

His heating devices, which use vacuum tubes to absorb sunlight, get rave reviews, particularly from re-housed farmers who had no hot water before.

"We used to go to bed covered in dust," recalled Wang Fang, a former village resident who lives in a six-story Dezhou apartment block. Instead of going to a communal bathhouse a couple of times a month, she and her family take hot showers at home three times a week.

"This is real," said Chiel Boonstra, a Dutch architect who heads the International Solar Cities Congress, a grouping of scientists and policymakers that champions low-carbon living. Dezhou, he said, "will be a new center of gravity for renewable technologies."

Also impressed is Goldman Sachs, which, along with Beijing-based CDH Investments, has invested $100 million in Huang's company.

Although there is clearly money to be made in new-energy technology, there is skepticism among some experts about its effect on the environment.

Wang Yanjia, a professor at Tsinghua University's Institute of Energy, Environment and Economy, said the manufacturing of solar devices helps local economies but won't break or even dent China's reliance on carbon-rich fossil fuels.

China aims to get 15 percent of its power from renewable energy sources, including hydroelectric dams, by 2020, up from about 9 percent now. But increased consumption of coal -- used to generate about two-thirds of electricity in China -- will offset any gains.

Dezhou has moved far more than most Chinese cities toward solar energy. But officials said it still gets the bulk of its electricity from a coal-fired power station. The role of coal will probably increase even as Dezhou's economy, which grew by 12 percent last year, gallops.

Huang acknowledged that, so far, solar energy is "a drop in the ocean," but he said that Dezhou offers a model for the future.

"I like big plans," he said.

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