A Sunny Day in Rizhao
Viewed from street level, Rizhao seems indistinguishable from dozens of other midsize Chinese cities. With a population of about 2.8 million, it is nestled on the east coast of Shandong Province, roughly halfway between Beijing and Shanghai. In complexes that sprouted almost overnight, their facades coated with the white tile that in China symbolizes a bright future, people rush in and out of bustling restaurants, spotless Avon cosmetics outlets, and glitzy furniture stores. Just beyond the downtown area, novice car owners speed down freshly paved highways, and backhoes break ground on developments aimed at a growing middle class.
Standing on the roof of the Shanshui Hotel, however, Fan Changwei, director of Rizhao's Environmental Protection Bureau, shows me a very different view of the city.
Marching out in one direction toward the ocean and in the other to the mountains, the gray concrete roofs of the apartment blocks are dotted with elongated red and silver objects, as if a giant had scattered a tray of oddly shaped marbles over the city. They are solar water heaters, and Rizhao has almost a million of them. Somehow, amid the rush of economic development, the city has managed to harness the power of the sun -- which shines here for 260 days a year -- to serve the needs of some 99 percent of its urban households.
Solar water heaters first caught on in China in the 1980s, when cities began to mushroom and people started moving out of housing provided by their work units, buying new homes, and investing in household appliances. At a couple hundred dollars each, the solar heaters pay for themselves in a few years with savings on energy bills.
It's easy to identify the older buildings in Rizhao -- the water heaters are laid out in haphazard fashion, installed by the residents themselves. On the newer buildings, the arrangement is more orderly, with the heaters forming rows that divide the rooftops into neat sections. After 2003, Fan explains, Rizhao began requiring real estate developers to install them on all new structures. For the thousands of rural villagers who relocate to the city each year, and for the locals who make enough to upgrade to larger homes, the heaters are a built-in bonus.
Many of them are produced in southern Shandong by businesses with names like Bright Dawn, Bright and Glorious, and Clear and Bright. Working with the provincial government, the Rizhao authorities funded research that brought the cost of a standard 32-gallon solar water heater down to 1,600 yuan ($230). By using a solar heater for 15 years, a family can save 15,000 yuan ($2,200) on electricity bills, a significant amount in a country where annual per capita income is around $6,000.
The strength of the program lies in "leapfrogging" -- not developing first and cleaning up afterward, as happened with the industrial revolution in the West, but getting people hooked on solar energy as an integral part of the development process. "There are lots of opportunities [in China] because of rapid growth," explains Xuemei Bai, an expert on climate and urban design at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, Australia's national science agency. "You don't have to retrofit existing buildings."