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October 12, 2015

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Sun shines on pioneering ecologist

CHINA is the world’s biggest producer of solar panels, but little of that green technology has trickled down to the private household level.

Small wonder then that Ni Huan, a resident in the Minhang District, has become something of a local curiosity after she installed a solar power system in her 26-square-meter yard.

In fact, she was the first Shanghai private user of copper indium gallium selenide panels, one of the newer thin-film technologies.

“I have received roughly 500 visitors since I installed solar power generation in August last year,” Ni told Shanghai Daily.

“Though it's sometimes annoying to be on show, I do my best to answer questions because I want to promote a more environmentally friendly lifestyle,” she said.

Ni, who graduated from Cambridge University in 2005, worked as a low-carbon researcher for the United Nations Development Program and the World Bank before going freelance.

She moved into a ground floor flat on Dongchuan Road in 2013. Her living room and two bedrooms were exposed to scorching sunshine in summer, so she decided to have a sunshade installed.

“I found out that a sunshade would cost me about 20,000 yuan (US$3,100) and would last only 10 years,” Ni said.

“That’s when I turned my attention to solar.”

The central and local governments are encouraging private residential solar systems and have adopted policies that allow private individuals to sell unused electricity back to the grid.

Since the directives were issued, about 1,200 households in China have installed solar panels and are selling their unused electricity to the public grid, according to Shanghai Grid.

Under these policies, a household can get 0.40 yuan from the central government and 0.42 yuan from the municipal government for each self-generated kilowatt-hour. The grid pays 0.44 yuan for every kilowatt-hour of unused electricity.

The process of installing a solar power system wasn’t easy, Ni said. She had to convince her neighbors and local officials that it wouldn’t disrupt their lives or pose any risks.

Ni had thought about using crystalline silicon solar panels, which are commonly used in China, but that would have required an area larger than her small yard, and the neighborhood committee frowned at any extension into public areas.

“It was also not efficient enough to use silicon panels in my yard because nearby buildings would obstruct direct sunlight,” she said.

Ni heard about a former classmate who was starting up his own business with thin-film solar panels made of copper indium gallium selenide, also known as CIGS.

“With CIGS panels, all kinds of sunlight, no matter whether direct or diffused, can be used to generate electricity. It was the perfect solution,” she said.

Her installation has 16 solar panels mounted on a framework of four steel columns.

She went back through the neighborhood approval process, answering questions about electromagnetic radiation, light pollution and the risk of electricity leakage.

“The CIGS film is anti-reflective, so it was unlikely my panels would beam bright light into other homes,” she said.

After the panels were installed, grid staff checked to ensure they met the necessary regulations and then did the final connection.

Between August 3 last year and June 30 this year, Ni's solar system generated 1,758 kilowatt-hours of electricity, of which she used 328kWh and sold the rest to the grid.

It cut 200 yuan off her electricity bill, and earned her almost 1,800 yuan in sales revenue and dividends from the government.

Ni said she thinks it will take eight to 10 years to recoup her 31,000 yuan outlay.

“Sometimes schools organize trips to my home,” she said.

“I sometimes get hoarse explaining how it works over and over again.”

One of those fascinated by it all is Ji Yiming, 11, who has visited Ni’s home more than 20 times.

“I think it’s interesting,” he told Shanghai Daily.

“I’m always interested in new technology.”

Tapping the power of the sun is gaining popularity in China. For some users, it’s just a matter of installing solar water heaters, though installation depends on living circumstances. It’s easiest for people living in detached properties, as installing panels in an apartment blocks requires all of the tenants to agree.

“I’ve heard of solar power generation, but have never seen a home station,” said a woman surnamed Lin, who visited Ni's yard recently.

“I didn’t know it was so convenient and so efficient. I’m considering installing solar in my home too.

“We live on the top floor of a building, but I will need the permission of my neighbors to install it on the roof,” she said.


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