Thursday, June 18, 2009

Powering a rural economy

Solar heating of a kettle (30 min to boiling)

One of the concerns of the Qinghai Administration deals with the large number of herders that remain wandering the hills, as their herds migrate across the landscape. Apart from the concerns over over-grazing that the now-larger herd/flock size is starting to impact grassland stability, they are also concerned with the provision of power and easier physical access to the herder dwellings, and he provision of social services.

Driving out to see the Liujia Gorge hydro-electric scheme and nature park (of which more anon) we passed through a street that illustrated one of the first steps in helping that had been achieved. Outside virtually every residence on the sunny side of the street (and about four on the other) there was a solar cooker of the type shown at the top of the page. These are extremely popular even where there is electricity (which is not that expensive) but are even more popular with the herders, since this gives them a source of hot water and power for cooking, without needing access to electricity.

The second step in giving folk power as been the introduction of the solar water heaters. The designs are quite simple, a drum, and thin collector pipes, and they are currently being sold, at a price of around 6,000 – 7,000 yuan (6.7 to the dollar). This is in contrast with electric powered heaters that go in at around 1,000 yuan, but that have a power bill. Despite the differential we saw a fair few installed, though to be honest I think I would be stretching it to say we saw 5% of the homes in the villages we drove through using them.

Solar water heater (cost around $1,000 installed)

But if the herder mentality is to change there are other changes that must also be made, the first being affordable, simple and power independent houses. (Along the lines of the solar house competition on the Mall, though cheaper and less complex, and without the utility and car provisions. ) With stability in population there might be a possibility of using a grid, but the return would not justify the investment.

Most power in the state comes from hydro, they also supply five adjacent provinces, and the size of some it truly impressive. We did a tour around the nature park surrounding the Liujia Gorge hydro-electric plant, rising from 2,000 m at the crest of the dam, up to 3,000 m looking down on the lake as we were driven through the Kanbula nature park (by minibus and golf cart, and then back to minibus and boat).

The Liujia Gorge dam and lake.

One additional sign of change, as we drove through the villages was the rapidly changing construction plan, going from mud brick to baked brick, with house after house being rebuilt with the more resistant baked brick. The bricks are it seems, being baked using coal as the power source, but that cost is small relative to the benefit of the new (to them) material.

This is still a land where farming is a major occupation, with couples out every day tending “their patch” and making sure it is properly watered and weeded. This gives a different mentality and cost structure over that which we commonly currently consider when asked for an opinion.

I am taking the train tomorrow to Shanghai, and then flying back, so there will be a couple of days before posting returns.

And a special thanks to The Engineer, about whom and why next week.


  1. I have just found your blog, thanks my stats report. As ı cannot find an email address, I'll say thank you here.

    Condsidering the energy needs of the poor, highlights the problems we face, trying to enable a growing level of prosperity without using too much energy.

  2. The solar oven is an ideal example of what can be done, and more than most, once installed does not need the skilled maintenance that is the downfall of more complex systems. It really caught my attention to see how well it had caught on in the community where we saw it. (We did not go far enough into the back country to see how it caught on with the yak herders etc, though reports are that it is becoming well adopted.)