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Stellar solar exports but little home use

SOLAR panels are everywhere in the World Expo Shanghai, which promotes alternative energies as part of a better life, but use of solar energy in Shanghai and China itself is still exceedingly low.

Although the solar energy industry has developed rapidly and China is one of the main producers of the world's solar panels, the vast majority is exported.

"It is quite ironic to see such a small amount of solar energy-generating systems installed in a country with an annual solar cell industrial output amounting for 40 percent of the world's output," says Cui Rongqiang, chairman of Shanghai Solar Energy Association. "More than 98 percent of the output is exported, while no more than 2 percent is used domestically."

While there's been a big push for solar at the Expo, in the rest of Shanghai, the installation is low.

The major reasons are lack of public education and misconceptions about solar power, according to Cui.

Many people believe Shanghai doesn't get enough sunshine year round to make solar energy practical, but Germany gets less solar radio and uses far more solar energy, Cui says.

And many people are still put off by what they consider high installation costs, though these are recouped over time and in the longer term solar power is very cheap and practical.

Solar energy is not that new to Shanghai. Back in the 1970s, Wusong Port used a lighthouse powered by solar energy, according to Cui.

But not much happened until 1999, when the industry started taking off nationwide.

"The solar energy industry has developed rapidly in China in the past 10 years," says Cui. "We have been working on almost every kind of solar water heaters and power generators popular in the world. Our products perfectly meet international quality standards for solar products."

China's annual output of solar water heaters reached 4.2 million square meters in 2009, growing annually at 35.4 percent; the annual output of solar cells reached 4,000 megawatts in 2009, which is more than 40 percent of the world's total output of solar cells, according to "Analysis and Investment Consulting Report on China Solar Energy Photovoltaic Generation Industry, 2010-2015," released by, a research center focusing on industrial development and investment.

However, the great production of solar cells and water heaters hasn't led to large-scale use of solar energy in China as most is exported, according to Jiang Qian, the company's energy sector investment adviser.

Only 40mw of solar energy power-generating systems were installed in China in 2008, amounting to just 0.73 percent of the world's total; and only 150mw were installed in 2009, which only amounted to 2.5 percent of the global total - despite the fact that China's production was 40 percent of global production.

The same is true with the solar industry in Shanghai, though preparations for the Expo have promoted use of solar energy. About 4.7mw of solar power generation were installed in Expo construction, including the China Pavilion and Theme Pavilion.

But few solar power systems or solar water-heating systems are used in residential housing. Solar power is more popular in nearby Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces.

"We have advanced techniques and quality products, but many people hesitate to make full use of them," says Cui, addressing his concerns.

"Shanghai definitely doesn't get as much sunshine as California, but it gets much more heat from solar radiation than Germany and Japan, which both have high solar coverage rates," he says.

Shanghai gets a yearly average of 4,600-4,700 megajoule of heat from solar radiation, about 20 percent higher than most German cities, he says.

But Germany is expanding use of solar energy; about 3.8 gigawatts were installed in 2009 alone, and 9.8gw had been installed nationwide by the end of 2009.

Though solar energy can be inconsistent, causing problems when directly connected to a state grid, a smart grid can solve the problem using multiple traditional and alternative energies.

Some people object to what relatively high installation costs.

"The solar cell was once extremely expensive when it was first invented for satellites," says Cui. "But the cost has been dropping continuously throughout the years along with development."

Today it only costs 20-25 yuan to install 1 watt of a solar power generating system in Shanghai, according to Cui. Little maintenance is required in the first 25 years, but efficiency declines gradually over the next 25 years.

It costs less than 1 yuan to generate each kwh, and Cui says the costs will drop further as technology improves and the installation increases.

"Besides, solar energy is a clean and renewable power source that brings immeasurable environmental benefits and helps ensure sustainable development," says Cui. "Most people can do the calculation themselves."

Local government support is necessary to educate the public about the benefits of solar power; financial incentives have been demonstrated elsewhere to encourage ordinary people to use clean energy.

Financial support for solar-related enterprises is also important.

The National Development and Reform Committee set prices for wind power electricity in early 2009. Every kwh of electricity produced by wind power generators can mean a rebate of from 0.51-0.61 yuan in different regions.

Cui says he hopes the local government will quickly set prices and rebates for solar power.

"It is not that difficult to set a price for solar power as it is easier to measure regional solar resources than wind resources rand there is little difference among different districts in Shanghai," says Cui.

He suggests first setting a price and rebate to encourage more users and then adjusting it based on feedback.

Solar energy in Expo

Germany Pavilion

The 6,000-square-meter pavilion is covered by 12,000 square meters of ASI glass modules that generate solar electricity.

Unlike ordinary thick and heavy solar panels, the ASI glass is semi-transparent, allowing light in. Apart from generating power, it provides thermal insulation and shade.

The modules are ideal for glazing, facade and shading applications. The system is about 10-15 percent more efficient in power generation, according to SCHOTT Solar, the producer.

About 5 percent of the energy consumption in the Germany Pavilion is produced by the ASI glass.

Theme Pavilion

The Theme Pavilion has the world's largest solar panel roof. It contains 31,105 square meters of panels, with an installed capacity of 2.8mw.

The solar roof is comprised of 96 triangular solar panels, which can both help generate power and decorate the roofs as the "laohu chuang" (tiger window), a cultural element of Shanghai architecture.

The solar power generating system can produce about 2.84 million kwh annually, which can save about 1,000 tons of coal, and reduce about 2,500 tons of carbon dioxide emission.

EU-Belgium Pavilion

Four hundred paper flowers swinging in a glass frame in the EU-Belgium Pavilion attract many visitors' attention, especially kids.

All of the flowers move with light energy generated from the solar little generator attached to each.

It is a work of Alexandre Dang, a Belgian artist who founded Solar Solidarity International, a non-profit international association that tries to raise awareness of the potential of sustainable energy.

"I hope that visitors will think about the benefits of sustainable energy when they are attracted by the lovely flowers," says Dang.


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