China Goes Green

How can China's characteristic speed and innovation be applied to finding sustainable energy solutions?

August 19, 2008

How can China's characteristic speed and innovation be applied to finding sustainable energy solutions?

China’s central government has launched a string of promising reforms in recent years aimed at reducing China’s collective environmental impact.

In a rare example of self-criticism in January 2007, the central government admitted that China failed to meet its own goals for environmental protection, its “ecological modernization” lagging far behind economic and other achievements.

One of the most promising pieces of legislation is the Renewable Energy Promotion Law, passed in 2005 and implemented a year later.

As conveyed by Article I, the law was intended to “promote the development and utilization of renewable energy… diversify energy supplies, safeguard energy security, protect the environment and realize the sustainable development of the economy and society.”

Especially emphasized were renewable energy sources — wind, solar, tidal and hydroelectric, geothermal and biomass. The central government has further set itself a target of 12% of total power capacity from renewable energy sources by 2020.

Indeed, despite the fact that a new coal-fired power plant opens every ten days in China, the nation may yet show the world how to go green.

For all the automobiles crowding onto its city streets, China is also building more miles of subway and light-rail public transportation than any nation on earth.

China already has the world’s largest biofuels plant and the world’s largest solar plant, a 100-megawatt facility in Dunhuang, Gansu Province, that dwarfs its closest rivals — a 12-megawatt plant in Germany and an 11-megawatt facility under construction in Portugal.

In February 2007 China announced plans to earmark some 200 million acres of woodland for biomass production and to plant trees on more than 600,000 acres of land in Yunnan and Sichuan provinces for similar purposes.

China’s installed wind-power capacity has been growing exponentially, and the Global Wind Energy Council has predicted that by 2020 China could be drawing 150 million kilowatts of energy from the wind — surpassing Germany, Spain and the United States to become the world’s leading producer of wind power.

China already boasts some 60% of the world’s installed solar water heater capacity, and an estimated 30 million households nationwide use solar power of one form or another.

Ready-to-install A-frame solar units come complete with a water tank and are sold at any major home-improvement store, displayed out front the way garden sheds are in the United States. Needless to say, no such ready-built solar equipment is available in the United States, where low-voltage garden lights are about the only solar-powered thing readily available at home-improvement stores.

In September 2005, Shanghai officials approved a measure to install more than one million square feet of solar panels on rooftops across the city, in addition to several solar power plants.

In the early morning, from my 12th-floor office window in Nanjing, I could see the sunlight glinting off hundreds of solar water-heating units on the rooftops of the city below — a comforting sight indeed.

The same economies of scale that have rock-bottomed the cost of everything from air conditioners to Christmas ornaments may well also produce photovoltaic arrays affordable enough to make solar electricity a viable option for homeowners around the world.

As architect William McDonough has put it, “When China comes on line with solar collectors that are cheaper than coal, it will be one of the greatest gifts to the United States” — and to the world.

Making solar power more cost-effective than burning coal is, McDonough argues, “the assignment of our species at this moment in history. And China is the only place where this can happen.”

It is a promising sign that one of China’s richest men, Shi Zhengrong of Suntech Power, a graduate of the School of Photovoltaic and Renewable Energy Engineering at the University of New South Wales, made a fortune manufacturing photovoltaic cells for solar panels.

China may well also show the world how to build a truly sustainable city. One of the most ambitious — and promising — urban development projects in the world today is planned for Chongming Island, a 50-mile-long spit of land in the middle of the Yangtze River near Shanghai.

Chongming is a largely rural landscape, but in coming decades it is to be transformed into a self-sufficient green city known as Dongtang. Powered by energy from wind turbines and biofuels derived from farm waste, Dongtang is meant to source 30% of its energy from renewable sources by 2020 and eventually achieve an overall carbon-emission level of zero.

No fossil-fueled cars or trucks will be permitted on the island, where transportation will be handled instead by solar-powered water taxis and buses running on hydrogen fuel cell technology.

The urbanized portion of Dongtang will be compacted into three “villages” built with energy-efficient green building technology. Large portions of the island will be forested or used for organic farming.

The local economy will be sustained by eco-tourism and low-polluting, high-tech industry. In its first phase, Dongtang will accommodate 25,000 people — but it is expected to eventually be home to as many as 500,000 people by 2040.

The project is, of course, not without its critics and potential problems. It could well end up just a green theme park for eco-curious tourists from Shanghai.

But the very fact that China has chosen to invest in such an ambitious experiment is much to its credit, and even if it fails to achieve every goal, Dongtang could well serve as a laboratory for green urbanism elsewhere.

Though environmental stewardship has a long and rich history in China, it is, as yet, surely not characteristic of contemporary Chinese urbanism. At present, sustainability in Chinese cities is no more than a faint spark against a vast, dark field.

But again, the sheer scale of Chinese ambition potentially makes even this a beacon for the world. “A glimmer in China,” as McDonough put it to me recently, “is a bright light in the world indeed.”

This leads me to conclude on a somewhat hopeful note: that, whatever its motivations, China will reinvent the city as a more sustainable entity — and thus perhaps show the rest of this fast-urbanizing planet a new and greener approach to urban settlement and urban life.

The continued growth of the Chinese economy — indeed the very viability of the People’s Republic — surely depends upon it. And so do we all.

Editor’s Note: This article is an excerpt from the book “The Concrete Dragon” by Thomas J. Campanella. Published by Princeton Architectural Press, 2008. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.

Takeaways

China already boasts some 60% of the world's installed solar water heater capacity, and 30 million households use solar power.

A new coal-fired power plant opens every ten days in China.

At present, sustainability in Chinese cities is no more than a faint spark against a vast, dark field.

The Chinese central government has set itself a target of 12% of total power capacity from renewable energy sources by 2020.

No fossil-fueled cars or trucks will be permitted on Chongming Island, where transportation will be handled instead by solar-powered water taxis and hydrogen buses.