Thoughts from 金盆村: the Golden Basin Village

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[Kelly Jiang, undergraduate researcher at the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Lab]

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.

Golden hour from a random spot on the road. The single lane concrete road pictured here goes into the fields and was probably paved very recently (in the last 1-2 years) as the Chinese government is working very hard and putting a lot of money into trying to eliminate absolute poverty by 2020.

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.

The Project

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.

One of the paths to a family’s home. Yes, this is actually the trail. If you look closely you can kind of see it. That family had electricity.

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.

On the rooftop with the students and solar panels!

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?

Read the rest of this post on Kelly's personal blog, The Procraftination.

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