Chasing Mirages

Solar (and wind) power in rural China – Danba, Sichuan

by on Nov.03, 2010, under Posts

I visited Sichuan recently and was fortunate enough to spend a few days in a mountainous Tibetan region called Danba (丹巴), aka the Valley of Beauties (美人谷).  Good looking people of both sexes did appear at an unusual rate in this area.  I think it has something to do with the clean water, clean air, abundant food resources, and generally positive outlook on life enjoyed by these people.  But that’s just a gut feeling.  I’m sure there are scientific and historical explanations.

I saw several different types of solar and wind power usage in Danba.  The county seat, a typical (though relatively clean), uninteresting, modern little town with cars and paved roads, had some interesting light posts:

This was the first time I’d seen wind turbines on lamp posts.   The lamps did light up at night, but I’ve heard that the solar panels and turbines are a scam and these lights are actually grid-connected.  I have no reason to believe these wicked rumors, but I suppose anything could be true in China.

Generally, visitors spend as little time as possible in the county seat and head to the ancient towns nearby.  In the town of Jiaju (甲居),  which some claim to be the most beautiful town in China, I saw many houses (if memory serves, a significant majority) with rooftop solar water heaters.

Rooftop solar water heaters are relatively common in Chinese cities, and are even required by some cities for new residential construction.  Solar water heaters make a lot of sense here, costing about 1000RMB (150USD) with a payback period of 2-4 years.  Check out this recent article with a good overview of solar water heaters in China.  In the U.S., solar water heaters don’t make as much economic sense,  costing over 3000USD after government incentives.  Here’s a really helpful presentation by PG&E, one of the utilities in the U.S. that has started providing incentives for customers to install these heaters.

Finally, in another ancient town called Zhonglu (中路), most households had these solar cookers:

I asked some of the beauties of the Valley of Beauties about these stoves and learned that they had only become popular in the last few months.  According to the locals, they cost several hundred RMB (~50USD) and are a little  dangerous – like any stove, they need to be watched carefully when in use and placed carefully to avoid accidental fires.   In general, the locals seemed to be satisfied with their performance.  According to this website, which appears to belong to the company (Sangli, or Sunnic) that produces these stoves, each stove has an output of 800 watts, boils 5 liters of water in about 10 minutes and saves 750-1000 kilos of firewood each year.  Here’s a little more (possibly outdated) info about these stoves.

Not burning firewood is good for local ecosystems, reduces carbon emissions, and also benefits the health of those in charge of cooking.  Unfortunately, I observed that the Tibetans in Zhonglu used the stove only for boiling water and still cooked everything else using firewood in a smoky, poorly ventilated kitchen.  Perhaps some additional training is in order, or perhaps the local cooking style doesn’t lend itself to cooking on these stoves?

In the future, when I build my dream off-the-grid hermit dwelling, I’ll most likely use all of the technologies mentioned in this post!

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5 Comments for this entry

  • DL

    i saw the solar cookers a lot in Tibet. apparently, they’re quite effective. i’m assuming the families in Sichuan use the solar cookers b/c they either don’t have access to gas or gas is too expensive…

    • Chaser

      Yes, absolutely, their houses are not hooked up with any modern utilities except for electricity. Did you see whether the families in Tibet used the solar cookers only for boiling water? Did they still burn wood and other organic matter for most of their cooking? Thanks for your comment!!

  • beto

    i remember hearing a while ago that many people are hesitant to switch to solar stoves because they prefer the taste that comes from their traditional fuel source (e.g.– wood). One alternative I read about is making charcoal briquettes from organic waste matter (sugar cane, etc). I also remember hearing Dr. Amy Smith suggest making charcoal out of corn cobs (which are already about the right size).

    • Chaser

      Beto, yes, that makes sense – perhaps that’s also part of the reason why they only use the solar stoves to boil water. The problem with making charcoal out of corn cobs, I think, is that there are already many traditional sustainable uses for corn cobs, such as feeding them to goats or other livestock. This also reminds me of another topic I’ve been looking into recently – biochar. Do you know anything about this? There seems to be some controversy about how useful of a technology it is in terms of the net carbon emissions from its production and use. See

      • beto

        yeah, that’s true that organic waste can also be used as compost…..but if the alternative fuel source is cutting down trees….then maybe it still makes sense to use it as cooking fuel.

        i don’t know too much about biochar….but the article makes it seem like a pretty awesome technology.

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