A Story of Renewable Energy Use in Rural China

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Guest blog by Angela Ni, Fulbright Fellow 2010-2011, Yunnan, China (angela.ni@fulbrightmail.org)

Nestled in the foothills of central Yunnan, Caotianba is a small farming village with the trappings of China’s “green” rural development: solar panel streetlights, rooftop solar water heaters, and biogas-powered lights, stoves and rice cookers.

Caotianba’s solar-powered streetlights.

In January, I traveled to Caotianba to see if its model of small-scale renewable energy-usage could be replicated elsewhere.  I found a success story complicated by environmental change and hardship, as well as a history of disjointed infrastructure projects.

From the time of its establishment, Caotianba has been the site of special government-led assistance and development aid.  The village was first established in the late 1980s when a group of Miao—one of China’s 56 officially recognized ethnic minorities—settled there with the help of government relocation subsidies. In the early 1990s, Caotianba received government aid to construct biogas digester toilets that collect human and animal effluent to produce methane gas and a nutrient slurry used as fertilizer.  However, within a few years most digesters stopped functioning properly. Villagers cited upkeep as too labor intensive and feared the risk of being poisoned by methane gas leaks during annual cleanings.

Villagers have instead been receiving biogas from a nearby pig-breeding farm.  As of 2009, in exchange for permission to build and operate on village land, the pig farm agreed to supply biogas from the fermentation of pig waste at no cost to Caotianba. At the same time, the county government offered to subsidize biogas-operated household appliances and tubing.  The government also provided free solar water heaters, supplying villagers hot water without having to burn wood.  Villagers were required to pay only one-sixth of the total cost.

In 2010, when Caotianba was affected by Yunnan’s worst drought in recent history, the nearby Kunming City government paid for the construction and installation of a new well, water pump and collection tanks.  However, without retrofitting the village’s old, corroded pipes, the well water leaked into the ground before reaching individual households.

Caotianba villager carrying water back to his home.

In response, the village chief opted to stop water from being piped into homes. Until sufficient money is raised to replace the broken pipes—an estimated RMB 60,000—the villagers must draw water from a single, communal spigot at the village’s end.  The spigot has become the most active spot in town. From dawn till dust, a procession of women and men can be seen coming and going with buckets of water.

In order to prevent their government subsidized solar water heaters from drying out and the solar panels from burning up, villagers must constantly refill the water heater tanks.  The need for continued refilling seems superfluous in light of Caotianba’s already limited fresh water resources. This additional burden on the villager water source is a consequence of poor infrastructure planning: solar water heaters were installed without recognizing the pipes were too corroded to supply well water to individual households.

Despite the difficulties, villagers are quick to point out that the past two decades of infrastructure upgrades have greatly improved their lives.  Given the village’s annual average household income of only RMB 3700, any form of assistance is greatly appreciated.  The village head told me that the pig factory’s supply of biogas has allowed people to now boil their drinking water, which has resulted in fewer cases of child diarrhea. Burning biogas, rather than coal or other types of biomass, also reduces lung ailments

Picture 3. Rooftop solar water heaters.

from the inhalation of indoor smoke when cooking.

When asked, however, if villagers had direct input or control over specific projects, the village head responded with an indirect,albeit, enlightening comment: the Miao are typically seen by outsiders as submissive, non-confrontational, and agreeable to work with, making Caotianba an ideal setting for donor-funded projects.  Even in the seemingly innovative partnership between the village and pig company trading the former’s land for the latter’s biogas, little communication between the two parties had occurred. The local government had acted as the middleman.

Rather than being treated as equal project partners, the villagers of Caotianba are assumed to be passive recipients of whatever infrastructure projects are mapped onto their village.  I find it difficult, therefore, to fathom replicating Caotianba’s successes outside of this unique context: an environment characterized by continued government aid and intervention—an unsustainable model for most of the world outside of this small hillside village.

Check out Angela Ni’s other blogs on SpeakingofMedicine here:

January 2011: Where are water and sanitation in China’s roral healthcare reform? here

November 2010: Biogas toilets in a Chinese village here

October 2010: China’s water and sanitation crisis here

Check out the recent PLoS Medicine four-part Water and Sanitation series here

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