I would like to thank the people of Jinpen for being gracious hosts throughout my stay, the Silicon Valley Women’s Association for allowing me to participate in their educational program at Jinpen Elementary, Xiaofeng Zhang for organizing the IEEE Smart Village Pilot Project in Jinpen, as well as Dr. Minyou Chen from Chongqing University and Dr. Dan Kammen from UC Berkeley for their support during my studies in China.
金盆村 (Jinpen village) is a spectacularly beautiful place in the lush forested hills of Western China, with freshly paved mountain roads winding through steep terraced fields. The fields are filled with all types of crops – ranging from rice and corn, to radishes, greens, cucumbers, tomatoes, sunflowers, lotus, and even crayfish.
Jinpen village is partway up the mountain, and provides spectacular views into the valley several hundred meters below. It’s incredibly remote – the drive to the nearest county seat, Nanjiang, takes about two hours on winding mountain roads – and Nanjiang itself is a four-and-a-half hour drive from Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province. Despite its remoteness, the Chinese government has spent a pretty significant amount of money on building up the village. Twenty or so new houses were constructed a couple years ago in an effort to encourage people to move from the fields into the village center. The houses are extremely large: the one we lived in during our stay had four bedrooms and two full bathrooms, and some houses are even bigger.
However, many of the houses are uninhabited – most people prefer to live in their ancestral homes in their fields, since there’s not much for them to do in the village center anyway. There’s one road that goes through the town, an elementary school, a carpentry shop, a police station, two convenience stores, and… that’s about it. So, although it may appear that the area became more “developed” as the town doubled in size with the construction of these new houses, that appearance of development means nothing if there are no economic activities to partake in.
The owners of the house we stayed in don’t actually live in the house, which is why we were able to live there – like many others, they prefer to be close to their fields where they’ve grown up and subsisted off the fruits of their own labor for decades.
I was in Jinpen as part of the IEEE Smart Village project, which “integrates sustainable electricity, education, and entrepreneurial solutions to empower off-grid communities.” In places where many communities are incredibly poor and lack even basic electricity, installing renewable energy systems in off-grid areas can have a huge impact on those communities’ quality of life. However, merely providing electricity is not necessarily sufficient to achieve economic development benefits – electricity must be but one part of a holistic sustainable development program. Power for All finds that “[m]any factors are critical to establishing PUE [productive uses of electricity] beyond just energy access itself, including capacity development, business permitting processes, access to finance and transportation infrastructure.” [Source] That’s why the smart village project aims to combine energy access with education and entrepreneurship, so that electricity can be an enabler of different types of economic activities such as internet cafes, barber shops, food processing, and much more that would not have been possible without electricity.
For the IEEE smart village project in Jinpen, a 16.2 kW grid-connected solar system was installed on the rooftop of the school. The solar system sells the power it generates to the power grid, allowing the school to save money on electricity and possibly even use the solar energy as an extra source of income. Any extra money is valuable to the school, which is quite cash strapped and has difficulty retaining its teachers due to its remote location.
The population of Jinpen elementary school keeps shrinking as more and more people move from rural areas to urban areas. The graduating 6th grade class this year had 14 students, down from 20 a few years earlier. There are 7 students in 5th grade, and 5 students in 4th grade – 4 next year, after one of the students moves away. There are 84 total students in the school. And Jinpen elementary school is actually one of the larger elementary schools in the area – another elementary school a couple miles down the road has only 5 students. Yes, FIVE students. Across all grades.
The mass migration of people from rural areas to urban cities is happening all around the world, not just in China. It’s happening in the United States, where small towns have been shrinking for decades. Schools in rural America are shrinking and closing, too. So that begs the question: Is this urbanization trend irreversible and just something that we should accept? If so, does it even make sense to be investing so much money in rural areas’ development if people are all leaving? If not, then what kind of economic activities can be developed in these rural areas? These are difficult questions, and we need to be thinking about them a lot more than we are.
Anyway, back to the project that we were working on – the 16.2 kW solar system installed on top of the school. Funding to build the system was donated by a variety of individuals and organizations, including Sichuan University, various renewable energy companies, etc. The total cost of the system was about US$25,000, or ¥150,000. It was wonderful to see so many people from the public, private, and nonprofit sectors all come together to support the project – it’s been a really long process to raise all the funds and coordinate all the parties who contributed to the construction of the system, and it’s a testament to the generosity and capabilities of the project organizers, especially Xiaofeng Zhang, that this project was able to become a reality.
Since the system is grid-connected, it’s essentially just selling the solar energy it generates to the grid – at a higher price than it costs to buy energy from the grid. Thus, the school is selling (expensive) solar energy to the grid, while buying (cheap) electricity from the grid, resulting in savings.
Since the school is already connected to the electricity grid, as are all of the homes in the area (even the ones that are only accessible by hiking for 1km or more on dirt paths that can be incredibly steep and get super muddy in the rain), putting solar on the school doesn’t really provide a meaningful benefit when it comes to electricity access. It’s worth emphasizing what an incredible accomplishment it is that China has been able to provide electricity access to every household in the country – that’s a huge infrastructure project, and China is probably the only country at this point that could do something on that scale.
(Aside: grid extension is probably not the most cost-effective way of electrifying rural areas, as building out transmission and distribution lines for so many hundreds of miles to carry relatively small amounts of electricity is really, really expensive. A single rural grid connection in Tanzania can cost US$2,300, compared to an off-grid solar system that costs US$240. [Source: Power for All] Thus, in many unelectrified villages, it is far more cost-effective to install solar home systems or microgrids, rather than extend the central grid. Hence, the IEEE smart village project aims to bring solar home systems, irrigation pumps, and microgrids to unelectrified villages, rather than using grid connection.)
Anyway, since the benefit of this system doesn’t come primarily from the fact that it’s providing energy access, it’s all the more important to ensure that the educational benefit to the students is maximized – that the students really understand how solar energy and other forms of renewable energy work, why renewable energy is important, etc. Ideally, the solar panels would also be integrated into the school curriculum on a regular basis.
As part of the focus on education in this program, the solar system was designed specifically to show students some of the different considerations when designing a solar energy system. There were three different kinds of trackers installed on different panels – some were connected to a flat single-axis tracker, others were connected to a tilted single-axis tracker, and others were connected to a tracker that students can adjust to tilt more or less towards the south as the seasons change. There were also, of course, fixed panels tilted towards the south that weren’t attached to trackers. The idea behind this is for students to see firsthand how solar energy is affected by the angle of solar panels throughout the year. Additionally, the students should have a sense of responsibility and ownership of the solar panels that they adjust every two weeks to keep up with the changing angle of the sun.
Another potential benefit of having solar installed on the school is that it could continue to provide power to the school during power outages. Most unfortunately, the solar system didn’t actually have islanding capability (i.e. the capability to separate itself from the grid during an outage), which pretty much negates the most obvious use case of the solar system for the school. However, if they get a bit more money in the next few years, they can implement the hardware needed for the school to island itself from the grid. That said though, it would have been ideal for the system to be completely designed and built upfront so that the school could have access to all the benefits of the solar system from day one.
But that’s a lesson learned that can be applied to the next smart village project! They’re actually planning to expand the smart village program to 200 schools within the next five years (a “Five Year Plan”), so there are lots of opportunities to improve on the system design for future projects.
It’s also important to keep in mind that sustainable development projects must be maintained over the long term. It’s all too common to do projects like this, put on a show to announce that the project has completed, then walk away without thinking about the long-term impact. Especially as the IEEE smart village program aims to expand to 200 schools in the next five years, I really hope that there’s an emphasis on ensuring that these projects are focused on making the greatest impact in the villages where they are installed. Quality over quantity.
In my discussions about rural development with my advisor at Chongqing University, he commented that many development projects in China are completed to the extent that officials will be able to point to their work and say that they hit whatever target the Five Year Plan had set in place. For instance, China has a target of eliminating absolute poverty by 2020, and the Chinese government is throwing huge amounts of money at this target so that they can say, when 2020 rolls around, that this target has been met. However, the real key, my advisor said, is to see the status of rural development in 2025, in 2030, in 2050. After the attention fades away, have the local communities developed new types of economic activities that can be sustained? Or does the government need to keep spending billions on these communities to keep them afloat while the rest of the world moves on?
One distinguishing characteristic of rural Chinese villages is that there are almost no working-age adults who live in the village. Children are usually raised by their grandparents while their parents head to work in the city. The elementary school students were shocked when we American students told them that Americans usually live as nuclear families, with parents and children living together in one house and grandparents living elsewhere.
The inequality between rural and urban areas in China is immense. People can make as much in one month working in a city as they can in a year of working in the village at home – so the vast majority of adults choose to work in cities, where they can make some money to send home to their families. Most children also hope to get a good education so that they can do great things with their lives – which means leaving the village and moving to the city.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – after all, cities do have much more vibrant and diverse economic activity – and, on some level, rural to urban migration is probably inevitable. However, the question of what economic activities can be developed in rural areas as their old ways of life become obsolete is a tricky one, whether it’s subsistence farmers in northwestern Sichuan or coal miners in West Virginia. I personally don’t believe that it’s warranted to say that the complete withering of rural areas is a foregone conclusion and that people should “just move to somewhere where there’s more opportunity.” There’s a certain uncountable value in living on the same plot of land where your family has lived for generations, especially in a culture like the traditional Chinese culture that places a great value on extended family, as exemplified through the phrase 四世同堂 (four generations under one roof).
As part of the trip with Silicon Valley Women’s Association, we spent the first weekend visiting various students’ homes in the surrounding fields, understanding their family situations, and eating the feasts that they prepared for us. It was very humbling for us to be treated as their honored guests as they prepared dishes for us that they usually only prepare for big celebrations like the Spring Festival (Lunar New Year), like 酥肉 (sū ròu, or crispy fried pork).
The weekend we visited was actually a long weekend, due to the Dragon Boat Festival (端午节) happening on Monday, so the family we visited that day made 粽子 (zòngzi, essentially sticky rice triangles wrapped in banana leaves) with us. Before this, I’d never wrapped zongzi before, and using long pieces of grass instead of actual twine to tie the zongzi together was a pretty big struggle…but I eventually got it!
The girl who lived in that house was also incredibly energetic and enthusiastic about playing games with us, like hide and seek…except with riddles! This proved to be too much for us, since we didn’t actually know many riddles in Chinese, and were pretty exhausted chasing her around her house. We also played a Chinese version of hot potato, where she was probably playing favorites. When the hot potato ended in my hands, her “punishment” for me was just to give me a slap on the wrist (literally), whereas when James had the hot potato, he had to recite the entire 9×9 multiplication table, and when Leo ended with the hot potato, she made him drop and give her 10 pushups. (Leo had already done many pushups the night before to atone for Germany’s loss to Mexico in the World Cup the night before).
Sensing that this girl was really into exercise and being active, I, of course, had to break out my set of minibands and teach her some moves, and drag the rest of the Chinese-American high school kids into it as well!
Of course, it’s not a surprise that children who grow up in the villages are extremely fit and active – they’re on their feet all the time, and to go anywhere, they have to walk. They walk to school each week along mountain roads and singletrack paths through the jungle. Meanwhile, we city folk drive long distances on weekends to get to trails which we hike for recreation, while for these kids, running up and down the mountains is just part of their lifestyle.
Some of the students’ homes were right off the main county road, while others were a fairly substantial hike along dirt paths that became more like mud paths in the heavy rains that had fallen that weekend. One boy, when leading us up to his house, kept running off in front of us, wearing thin cloth shoes that had presumably been white at one point but were now most definitively brown. (We had bought many pairs of rubber rain boots at the market that morning, and our feet and socks appreciated the dryness.) His grandparents tried to make him use an umbrella as the rain poured down, but he threw the umbrella back at them – “I don’t need an umbrella, this rain is nothing!”
The villagers take great pride in their mental toughness. When we returned to the main road from that boy’s house, the Jinpen elementary school principal informed us that the rains had been so severe that no one in the village dared to drive on the roads, and that us kids had to hike back to the place we were staying. He asked an old lady living in a nearby house to show us the way up the mountain – a singletrack trail perpendicular to the road, strewn with tree roots and rocks. After scrambling up about 50 feet, she turned around and scoffed at the members of our group who were still struggling to climb up the first 10 feet from the main road – “Are they coming or not? If so, they better hurry up. These young city boys are pathetic.”
A few moments later, her granddaughter ran up with a flashlight – “Grandma, take this flashlight, it’s getting dark soon!” It was 7:30 p.m. at this point, and the sunset was supposed to be at 8. “Go home, I don’t need a dang flashlight,” said grandma, as she powerwalked up the mountain.
Halfway up the mountain, the old woman turned to us and said, “Okay kids, there’s only one way up from here – just follow the path up to the top. It’s getting too dark for me to see.” She turned around and flew down the same path we’d just come up, as we huffed and puffed up the hill.
Soon after, we came to a clearing where the trees ended and the fields began. Looking behind us, we saw golden sun rays streak across the sky, illuminating the valley below. It was breathtaking.
“That was a fun hike,” I commented as we returned to the house we were staying in Jinpen village. “Yeah, Americans would go crazy for this,” agreed Will. I thought about how it could potentially be an economic development activity to host trail races in this area – partly along the single-lane county roads, and partly along the muddy, rooty, rocky paths that the kids walk every week to school. Of course, the farmers would have to be compensated for having tens or hundreds of outsiders come to run around on their property for fun. But tourism is one of the major ways in which the Chinese government is working on poverty alleviation in rural areas, and combining beautiful scenery with running and delicious, organic, local cuisine could be a powerful combination to bring money into the community.
The Jinpen project was a wonderful experience for me, but I found myself wishing that the program was integrated more into the big picture of renewable energy and sustainable development. As rooftop solar becomes more commonplace, many electricity providers, especially in rural areas, are actually struggling with problems caused by having too much renewable energy on local distribution networks. For instance, a house that only uses some lighting, a little bit of refrigeration, and some air conditioning (which isn’t even turned on all the time) might have a 3-5 kW rooftop system which generates more energy than the home can ever use.
If oversized solar systems are installed on just one home, or even a hundred homes, excessive renewable generation isn’t an issue. But when a substantial fraction of homes in an area have oversized solar systems, combined with tens of small hydro systems installed on small mountain streams, an entire county can run on 100% renewable energy in the summer and still never be able to use up all the energy generated by these distributed resources. Conversely, in winter, these small generators generate little energy, and the customers have to buy energy from the grid again. This is not the most efficient way for an energy system to be built, but this is the way things have become in some areas due to high feed-in tariffs provided to renewable energy projects, regardless of whether or not there’s any local load for these resources to serve.
Excessive amounts of distributed renewable energy resources are, so far, not a problem in Jinpen’s area, so adding rooftop solar panels isn’t resulting in any adverse impacts to the local power system. That said, I would expect IEEE, of all organizations, to place a greater emphasis on designing a system that not only serves social and environmental goals, but also takes into account concerns related to renewable energy balancing on the grid. However, the solar panels are currently selling energy to the grid at the (high) solar rate and buying it back at the (lower) village subsidized rate, rather than consuming as much of their own solar energy as possible. This unnecessarily increases power flow on the grid, which can be an issue when there are hundreds of distributed generators selling energy to the grid and then buying it back again.
This is not at all to say that any rural villages or small renewable energy operators are at fault for using their resources in a way that is sub-optimal for the energy system as a whole. In fact, I tend to believe that it’s generally a good thing for communities to generate and use their own energy, when possible. However, this is an indication that the incentive structure and planning process for small renewable energy projects should be improved. For instance, customers should be encouraged to use the energy that they generate themselves first, rather than putting all of their generated energy on the grid and buying it back. Customers could also be incentivized to install battery storage systems to use more of their own energy at night or at times when the sun isn’t shining. There are a bunch of different policies that could be adopted to do this, ranging from time-of-use pricing, to subsidizing batteries, to reforming the feed-in tariff to a net metering system. I’m not going to go into detail on any of these for now because it’s kind of outside the scope of this blog, but please reach out if you’re interested in learning more about renewable energy policy! I’m more than happy to explain.
(The following is a pretty wonky discussion of large-scale renewable energy in China – it’s not actually related to Jinpen – feel free to skip to the “Future Plans” section).
What’s happened with an overabundance of distributed renewables in some areas of rural China is similar to what’s happened with the rapid buildout of large renewable power plants, such as huge wind farms and huge solar farms in the desert of Xinjiang and Gansu. In both cases, developers and power plant operators act in a way that’s the most beneficial to them, regardless of how it impacts the system as a whole. When the government announces a favorable tax break or economic incentive to build, say, large solar farms, developers rapidly rush in to build giant solar farms as quickly as possible before the tax break expires. The average time to build a 50 MW solar farm in China is about 5 months, with the fastest ones being built in 3 months. In America, it takes at least a year or a year and a half to do the same.
As a result of this haphazard and overly rapid buildout of renewable energy, much of this renewable capacity is actually just sitting there, unused. Brookings reports that the amount of curtailed wind energy in China in 2016 was equal to 48 million tons of coal, or 1.5 percent of China’s total energy consumption. According to the NRDC, “In 2015, Jilin, Gansu, and Xinjiang had wind curtailment rates of 32 percent, 39 percent, and 32 percent respectively, meaning that about a third of the available wind energy in these provinces was never produced.” Even though the generators have been built, there isn’t enough transmission capacity to carry the electricity generated in the West to the populous cities in the East. Chinese utility operators are scrambling to build enough transmission lines to carry this renewable energy from the places they are generated to the places where the energy is needed, but the politics here aren’t easy, and building transmission lines takes a long time, even in China.
In China, electricity operating areas are fragmented and usually run by each province, as compared to the US, where electricity operating areas are aggregated across state lines. As a result, each province’s interests can run counter to the interests of the electricity system on a national level. For instance, power companies have built dams on many of the rivers in Tibet (another can of worms that I won’t get into here), and to utilize this power, it needs to be sent to cities in Eastern China. However, the transmission lines to carry this power would all run through Sichuan Province, which itself already has excessive amounts of hydropower that it’s exporting. As a result, the Sichuan Power Company isn’t willing to build more transmission lines to help the Tibet Power Company because the excess hydropower in Tibet is Tibet’s problem, not Sichuan’s problem. Sichuan already has enough of its own problems to deal with.
The issue of building transmission lines to connect renewable electricity generation to the places that are actually using that electricity is one that China is beginning to address – and quickly. The government is now pushing for mandatory integration of renewable energy into the power grid, and hope to do so through building not just high-voltage lines, but ultra-high-voltage lines, with ratings of up to 1000 kV. Compare the rapid pace of infrastructure development in China to the sloth’s pace of infrastructure development in the US, where people who are otherwise supportive of clean energy and carbon emissions mitigation can successfully protest and block the building of transmission lines that would allow clean energy to actually be used. In China, enormous industrial projects are built if the decision is made to do so, with minimal consideration of local communities in their path.
I firmly believe that the best education happens outside the classroom – it happens through experiences and talking to people in the real world. Throughout college, my most memorable and educational experiences have all been outside the classroom – whether it’s working in a school garden in a food desert in West Oakland, lobbying officials in Sacramento about the need for more renewable energy in California, or spending time in a remote village in rural China. However, it would have been even more impactful if these field experiences had been paired with classroom education about related topics – like the context and history of food deserts in low-income neighborhoods in America, or an overview of China’s poverty alleviation efforts in the last 5-10 years.
So, the combination of classroom learning applied to real field-based projects is what we hope to begin implementing next summer! My advisor at Chongqing University, Professor Minyou Chen, is working on several energy projects in the Wulong District of Chongqing, a beautiful area in the mountains of southeastern Chongqing that’s home to several UNESCO World Heritage Sites. This area has been developing all sorts of renewable energy within the last decade or less – in addition to rooftop solar projects, they also have many small hydro projects and wind projects. One of the wind farms is even beginning to be developed as a tourist location, perhaps obviating the concerns that some people have of wind turbines “ruining the natural view.” The wind turbines themselves can be a great view, showing that economic development and environmental conservation are not mutually exclusive.
Next summer, we hope to organize a summer exchange program between UC Berkeley and Chongqing University, in which students will learn about sustainable development through the real-world example of ecotourism and renewable energy development in Wulong. Additionally, students will get a chance to apply their skills, whether they be in science, engineering, or social science, to a real-world renewable energy and poverty alleviation project in Wulong. Because renewable energy and poverty alleviation are already so intimately intertwined here, the hope is also that the projects will be holistic and interdisciplinary, such that all students can contribute to and learn from it, regardless of their academic backgrounds.
We’ll also be visiting and learning about different energy projects throughout China, like the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River (you can take a cruise there from Chongqing!), as well as pumped hydro facilities, giant wind farms, solar farms, solar factories, etc. Even though nothing has yet been planned and this is just an idea, this is a really exciting opportunity that we couldn’t be more excited to begin developing. On a selfish level, being able to plan a program like this gives me the chance to design a program that fits with what I’m most interested in – working on real-world projects while thinking deeply about how the projects we’re working on fit into the larger picture of sustainable development in the 21st century.
If this sounds like something you’d be interested in, don’t hesitate to contact me! I can be reached by email (firstname.lastname@example.org) and would love to talk more.
Again, I’m so thankful for the opportunity to have been able to participate in the IEEE Smart Village pilot project in Jinpen this year; to Xiaofeng Zhang for organizing this project and inviting me to participate; to my advisors, Dr. Daniel Kammen and Dr. Minyou Chen for their support; the Silicon Valley Women’s Association for allowing me to participate in their home visits and educational program in Jinpen; as well as the principal of Jinpen elementary and the people of Jinpen village for being such gracious hosts during my stay. As my time in China comes to a close (I’m leaving Chongqing less than a week from today), I couldn’t be more grateful for the learning experiences and opportunities that I’ve had in the last four months, and I’m excited to see what the future holds.