My recent visit to Scandinavia reminded me of the importance of the extensive use of wind energy to the region and prompted consideration of the opportunities to rural agricultural communities in China. Whilst China is the world’s leader in renewable energy production being the largest manufacturer and user of both wind turbines and solar panels, it is the production models adopted by countries such as Denmark, through use of individual and community co-operative energy generation, that offers wonderful opportunities to invigorate rural Chinese communities being left behind in the race to urbanisation.
With mass labour migration to the cities and the urban population anticipated to reach 76% by 2050 the de-populated Chinese countryside will need to reach new economies of scale and provide unprecedented financial attractions to maintain any semblance of a youthful working population. Not only do rural incomes currently lag significantly behind urban areas there is a huge disparity in education, heathcare and lifestyle opportunities. As China seeks to update its rural economies, a new generation of agricultural workers must be able to develop stable and well remunerated incomes in order to be able to contribute to solving the food supply and security issues currently haunting the government.
It seems clear that renewable resources will have a huge role to play. Small wind turbines, solar panels and other decentralized systems can make rural areas free of dependency from the power grid, oil and coal. With the development in the storage sector, it will also soon be possible to store electricity much cheaper than it is today.
The price for electricity in many places in the world is now at a level where the payback time for self supply is under 5 years. New ways of financing renewable energy projects in rural areas are coming up and the quality and reliability of solar panels and small wind turbines has risen significantly whilst increases in output have seen costs fall dramatically, making them a serious alternative or supplement to existing technologies like diesel generators etc.
Small wind turbines or solar fields can be used in many different ways including direct water pumping or simply in electricity production. The potential for cooperative ownership is obvious and can be a lever for small agricultural societies without supply of AC electricity, or where economic reasons make the choice obvious.
The United Nations Development program (UNDP) last year established a partnership with Chinese high-tech energy company Zhenfa New Energy, which focuses on the manufacture, distribution and export of solar, wind, and biomass power by jointly undertaking new energy and environment projects. Zhenfa has recently rolled out a solar powered aquaculture project in arid Shaanxi province, supported by the local government, whereby a whole village is able to self-supply electricity whilst generating profits from both fish generation and the sale of excess electricity to the grid.
Solar integrated agriculture became the new buzz phrase this year when China’s National Energy Administration included it in its regulatory language, highlighting clear incentives for those who combined solar power generation with agricultural applications. Currently the market is in its infancy, lacking standardisation, regulation and management knowledge and a coherent policy will be essential in both facilitating the market to develop. However the growth of this sector seems undeniable when coupled with the potential to reinvigorate rural economies, tackle food supply problems and at the same time meet energy needs and environmental emissions targets.