Renewable Energy, Renewed Hope: Advancing Sustainable Energy in Rural China

Chidren Xinjiang
Students at the primary school in Bulunkou, where computer classes have helped to improve education and open up a whole new world of opportunities. (Photo:Stephen Shaver)

The small township of Bulunkou sits in a remote mountainous region in China's western Xinjiang province. For generations, the local Uighur community had made its living herding livestock. But without access to electricity the process of churning milk into butter and storing food relied on traditional methods of preparation and refrigeration. Often, their produce would spoil in the heat.

Out of reach of the provincial electricity grid, candles and kerosene lamps also represented the only source of light, meaning that school homework not completed before dark was seldom completed at all. The local hospital, school, shops and restaurants had also been limited in their ability to offer basic services due to the sporadic and heavily rationed electricity supply typical of rural China.

With the belief that renewable energy holds the collective potential to meet the energy needs of the 8 million people that still live without access to electricity in China, UNDP and the Chinese Government joined the Netherlands and Australia in accessing US$8.8 million in Global Environment Facility (GEF) funding for a project that has revolutionised life for small rural communities across China. The US$27 million project was crucial in developing renewable energy markets in 8 provinces.

Highlights

  • The installation of 1,500 wind farm generators at project sites acted as a catalyst in kick-starting a National Wind Development Programme that has provided access to energy for 1.3 million people in China.
  • The proportion of renewable energy in China rose from 7 percent to 9 percent between 2000 and 2008
  • While still modest – equal to the annual consumption of five households in the United States – improvements in the quality of life for local residents have been far more significant.

In addition, the installation of 1,500 wind farm generators at project sites acted as a catalyst in kick-starting a National Wind Development Programme that has provided access to energy for 1.3 million people in western China, Zhejiang and Fujian provinces. Further demonstration of innovative new technologies with near and mid-term market potential also played a role in transforming China's off-grid energy sector, including the installation of five hybrid wind-solar diesel systems in Bulunkou.

Bulunkou's mountain location and the province's average of 180 days of sunshine made selection of a wind-solar system an obvious choice, and brought 24-hour electricity to the township for the very first time. However, encouraging the adoption of rural renewable energy on a national scale required a deeper understanding of available technology options and off-grid management systems, investment in renewable energy technology development, and the removal of trade barriers.

Supported by credible knowledge and successful experiences gained from decades of piloting and testing renewable energy, UNDP was able to offer technical support to promising renewable energy pilots in pursuit of location-specific technology solutions. This led to new public policy regulations being developed, while a series of training programmes and government consultations focused on establishing ownership, tariff setting, market and business development and poverty alleviation.

In doing so, the project was successful in attracting the increased investment it had sought. The commercialisation of solar water heating and industrial scale biogas installations, for example, saw a noticeable shift in production to over 120 million units annually. Consumption patterns also changed the market from supply-orientated to demand driven trade and investment. As a consequence, the proportion of renewable energy in China rose from 7 percent to 9 percent between 2000 and 2008.

Though limited, the potential for accelerating the commercialisation of renewable energy continues to hold promise for small rural communities like those in Bulunkou. Already, 312 homes, representing 25 percent of the township's population, have been served with 57,000 kilowatt hours of electricity. While still modest – equal to the annual consumption of five households in the United States – improvements in the quality of life for local residents have been far more significant. All 35 of the township's shops and restaurants have increased their income by opening in the evening, and access to electricity has seen productivity gains spread to local mining and healthcare.

"With access to electricity our clinic can use modern X-ray and ECG machines, whereas in the past we could only check a patients' pulse and breathing," said Akkajuri, a 28 year-old doctor at the local clinic, which has had to recruit eight more staff to meet the demand for these new services. "For anything else people would have to travel long distances to a larger hospital, but not anymore."

Access to energy has also opened up a world of other opportunities for villagers, including televised education and information, refrigeration that is capable of increasing food quality, shelf life, value and potential income, and students that are able to give more time to their studies. Energy has even allowed the local primary school to do something it has never done before – have a computer class.

"We now run computer classes," explains school headmaster, Mr. Turdi. "It wasn't long ago that students had to put down their studies after sunset and most had never even seen a computer; now they are learning to use a machine that has helped communities like ours connect with the world."