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

By Andrew Higgins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 17, 2010; A01

DEZHOU, CHINA -- Uprooting the last traces of rural life on the edge of this northern Chinese city, laborers with chain saws spent a recent morning cutting down trees to make way for a hulking factory. A big red banner trumpeted the future for what used to be farmland: "The Biggest Solar Energy Production Base in the Whole World."

Across China, villages are being turned into pollution-belching industrial zones, but nature's retreat on the outskirts of Dezhou boasts a paradoxical purpose -- protecting nature.

"This is an experiment. It is a big laboratory," said Huang Ming, an oil industry engineer turned solar energy tycoon, who is driving one of China's boldest efforts to promote, and profit from, green technology.

At the center of his outsize ambitions is Solar Valley, a massive exercise in social, economic and ecological engineering. As part of the project, tens of thousands of farmers have been moved into concrete apartment blocks and their land is being converted into what Huang and Dezhou's planners hope will be China's clean-technology answer to California's Silicon Valley.

The $740 million plan has attracted about 100 companies and spawned factories, a research center and wide boulevards illuminated by solar-powered lights. It highlights the promise -- as well as the limits -- of China's efforts to reconcile breakneck economic development with environmental concerns.

Short of a calamitous economic collapse or a game-changing technological breakthrough, China's chances look slim: Its mostly coal- and oil-fueled economy is growing so fast that its real but relatively modest green gains simply can't keep up.

In Dezhou last year, municipal authorities spent more than $10 million to install solar lighting along miles of road. They also put up posters cheering low-carbon living on billboards once devoted to political slogans. During that period, though, residents bought 60,000 new cars, an increase of 114 percent over 2008.

All the same, a mix of raw capitalism and socialist planning is giving companies such as Huang's Himin Solar Energy Group a shot at making a difference -- and at boosting their bottom lines.

Huang's company is the world's biggest producer of solar water heaters, as well as a pioneer in niche products such as sun-warmed toilet seats and solar-powered Tibetan prayer wheels. Now it has opened a low-carbon five-star hotel and is building Utopia Garden, a gigantic, eco-friendly luxury apartment complex -- both with solar-heated pools.

"Renewable energy doesn't mean people have to be uncomfortable," Huang said in an interview at his Dezhou corporate headquarters, the Sun-Moon Mansion, a fanlike structure studded with photovoltaic cells and sun-collecting vacuum tubes.

Huang is known in these parts as the "sun king," but he said, "I prefer to be called solar madman."

Dezhou, a gritty city of 600,000 with a surrounding suburban sprawl housing 5 million people, used to be known mainly as a producer of braised chicken. Today, it touts itself as China Solar City, a hub for clean-tech manufacturing.

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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