King of 'Solar Valley' wants blue skies for the next generation

Mon, Jun 15, 2009, 01:00

Huang Ming left the oil business to lead China’s biggest supplier of solar-powered water heaters, writes CLIFFORD COONANin Dezhou

FROM THE road in dusty Shandong province, the headquarters of Himin Solar Energy Group in Dezhou looks like a giant stadium, until you get closer and see that the huge arc is a vast fan-shape of solar panels surrounding Sun-Moon Mansion.

Himin was founded in 1995 by Huang Ming, an oil equipment engineer who has now become a zealous advocate of renewable energies.

“Just as you have Silicon Valley in America, here in China we have Solar Valley,” said Huang during a recent visit to the Mansion, which he said was the biggest building in the world to use solar power as a major energy source.

China is the biggest user and producer of solar water heaters in the world, accounting for over half the world total, and Himin is the world’s largest producer of rooftop systems that use the power of the sun to provide water for bathing and washing, producing one million solar water heaters per year.

Huang used to work for the enemy – he was an oil engineer. Then he realised that fossil fuels had no future and decided to opt for a renewable form of energy instead.

“I felt guilty that my job was to accelerate the exploration of oil. I wanted to have something that my daughter could use,” said Huang.

He started out giving away his solar-powered heaters as gifts to friends, but soon orders started coming in and in 1995, he started commercial production.

Behind the cleantech crusader image lies a canny businessman, and while Huang insists the government’s involvement in his business is very low, he is a member of the National Party Congress and has advised the government in drafting clean energy legislation.

China accounts for nearly 80 per cent of the world’s market for these kind of products, and part of the central government’s four trillion yuan (€430 billion) stimulus package will be spent on renewable forms of energy.

The government has also introduced incentives for builders using solar technology in construction. The government will give 20 yuan per Watt-peak (Wp) of subsidy for solar power projects attached to buildings that have capacity of more than 50 kilowatt-peak (KWp).

In Dezhou itself, “China Solar City” with 5.6 million inhabitants, 90 per cent of the water heaters in the new part of town are solar powered, and 60 per cent of households in the older part of the town use solar power.

Huang boasts of the high levels of efficiency his products can provide, and how the solar heaters work even in areas with a lot of cloud, such as the famously overcast city Chongqing.

You can see Himin solar piping systems on rooftops all over the country; rural China, which has nearly 30,000 small towns and villages, is a major focus for future developments.

A simple heater costs less than €200, which makes it affordable for rural households. Himin solar heaters are also springing up on the roofs of many of the new housing complexes and commercial buildings being constructed in China.

The way the systems work is relatively low-tech. The units are composed of a row of glass pipes, which capture the sun’s rays and are angled below an insulated water tank.

The tubes contain a vacuum, which separates the inner tube with its energy-trapping coating from an outer tube. Sunlight travels through the glass tubes but the heat generated is trapped inside the central one where it can be transmitted to water.

In Sun-Moon Mansion, the company has gadgets galore on display, including torches, phone chargers and even a solar-powered Buddhist prayer wheel. In the group’s cultural museum, there are pictures of Huang alongside images of Albert Einstein and Sir Isaac Newton, and large posters with Huang’s key beliefs, chief among them being “I have a dream . . . Blue sky and white cloud and for later generations”.

Within the building there are energy-saving devices everywhere, and in the lifts there are signs encouraging employees to use the stairs as much as possible. As we drive to the production facility nearby, Huang complains about the huge number of cars in China. Much of the transportation around Sun-Moon Mansion is done on solar-powered golf carts, although he admires the car industry for its production processes.

“We want to be like Ford was to the automobile industry,” he said.

“Public awareness is a big task for us. So I appeal to society – why so keen on conventional energy? With solar energy, after three to five years you will get free energy,” he said.

“Solar thermal energy is the only energy that is cheaper than conventional energy right now. Commercialisation of the industry is the only way of popularisation. The US solar market is so slow because they have too much government support,” he said.

The group’s success has attracted the attention of international investors. Currently Goldman Sachs is investing in Himin, and the group is seeking an IPO, which means Huang is reluctant to discuss figures.

Huang has his critics,

including environmentalists who say he has pushed up the price of solar power heaters in rural areas.

However, the environmental group Greenpeace recently released a report highly praising Himin and Huang.

Among projects under development are a solar thermal power station and a “tower-type” solar thermal power station near Beijing, which involves heliostats that track sunlight and concentrate the rays onto a tower, in turn driving a steam turbine. The group has installed solar panels at the Olympic Velodrome, and its panels even heat the water at the “Maosoleum”, where Mao Zedong’s body is preserved in central Beijing.

China has been so aggressive in backing renewable energies because the price of oil and coal is prone to spiking, which offers a great opportunity for solar energy.

Wang Zhongying, assistant director at the National Development and Reform Commission’s Energy Research Institute, and head of its Renewable Energy Development Centre, said last month that China was likely to exceed its target on installed solar capacity in the next decade, rising to 10,000MW by 2020.

China is keen to reduce its dependence on coal, which currently accounts for 80 per cent of its power needs, by boosting solar power, as well as hydro, wind, nuclear and biomass options.

Renewable energy has some powerful backers in central government. Vice-Premier Li Keqiang backed the use of renewable energies last month, saying the development of new energy and environmentally friendly products was the key to stabilising exports and spurring domestic spending and investment.

The Chinese government is expected formally to unveil an economic stimulus package for renewable energy within the next few months.

Worldwide, solar energy output is expected to increase by 30 per cent annually between now and 2010 and there are forecasts that by 2030, solar energy generated power will account for over 10 per cent of total global power supply.

The market for solar powered water heaters in China was worth 32 billion yuan (€330 million) in 2007. The sector is attracting new producers all the time: there are more than 20 major solar water heater producers with an annual output worth over 100 million yuan (€10.3 million).

“We avoid use of the word competition, because this market is like a vast ocean, with only a few boats. Are you competing with other fishermen in a vast ocean? The only competition is ourselves, we don’t blame others,” he said.

The main focus on efforts to boost solar power for large-scale, commercial use is on connecting photovoltaic energy production connected to the national grid.

At the end of 2008, solar power capacity attached to the grid was less than 100MW, or 0.01 per cent of China’s entire installed capacity. The country has embarked on major construction projects of power plants in the deserts and in sparsely populated areas. However, it is expensive compared to Huang’s relatively cheap water heaters.

The centre-piece of Himin’s future plans is Utopia Garden, a vast apartment complex and conference centre which will host next year’s International Solar City Congress, a “five-star solar harmonious homeland” with 2,000 apartments, a solar-heated swimming pool and a solar methane system.

Pointing out an apartment on the model, Huang said: “I’m moving in myself – that’s where my family live.

“And it all comes from the sun.”