Power from above benefiting China’s rural villages

Poverty alleviation through solar photovoltaic power generation is one of the top 10 targeted poverty alleviation projects in the country.

Zhou Lihua and Liu Kun

Zhou Lihua and Liu Kun

China Daily


Workers install photovoltaic panels on a roof in Chuanxindian, a village in Zigui county, Hubei province, in October 2021. (MEI XUEFEI / FOR CHINA DAILY)

December 22, 2022

HUBEI – Chuanxindian, a small village in Central China’s Hubei province, was the first participant when Zigui county launched a new energy project that aims to put solar panels on top of some local buildings — part of the county’s new targeted poverty alleviation efforts.

For example, photovoltaic panels have been installed on the 560-square-meter roof of a large cold storage warehouse in the village, with a total installed capacity of 250 kilowatts, said Wang Wei, who is in charge of photovoltaics management at Zigui’s rural vitalization bureau.

Before the project, the villages relied on other means of getting electricity, such as hydropower or power brought in from other areas by State Grid Corp of China. Now, the panels provide electricity for the villages, and surplus electricity can be sold to the grid.

China’s solar photovoltaics poverty alleviation program is a good approach to dealing with the country’s poverty issue.

Zou Jintai, researcher at the Institute of Rural Economy of the Hubei Academy of Social Sciences

Lower electricity bills

Huge gains have resulted, according to Zhai Bingshan, a municipal water conservancy bureau official of Yichang, where Zigui is located in.

“Companies used to pay 0.7 yuan (10 US cents) for one kW. Now the electricity price is 0.4 yuan for them, thanks to the local solar energy projects,” Zhai said. “In other words, the firms can save 30,000 to 40,000 yuan on their electricity bills a year.”

The 49 villages that have photovoltaic power systems also win. They sell their surplus electricity from solar panels for some 50,000 yuan a year. State Grid Corp buys the electricity they generate, integrating it into the power grid for use in other areas of Hubei.

Solar power systems also offer villagers job opportunities, such as cleaners and maintenance workers. Gardening jobs are also available, because in rural areas, some newly built facilities hire local farmers to prune trees, remove weeds and maintain landscaping. Such public service jobs are encouraged by the government to create jobs in poverty-stricken areas.

In 2016, State Grid Corp built the first photovoltaic power station in Jiandong, a village in Zigui county, with the aim of promoting local development.

“When the weather is fine, the village can produce electricity of more than 2,000 kW a day,” said Cai Xianmeng, an employee at the Zigui office of State Grid Corp.

Statistics show that between Jan 1, 2011, and Aug 1 this year, Zigui had 378 sunny days, more than 2,000 cloudy days and around 1,500 days of rain or snow.

Solar panels are most productive when they absorb direct sunlight, but they still work in cloudy conditions, according to Zhang Long of Zigui’s bureau of rural vitalization.

Meanwhile, part of Jiandong is on a low-lying riverbank that is not fertile for growing crops, so the land had long been unused. State Grid Corp signed a lease for the riverbank land when it was assigned by the central government to help the poverty-stricken village.

The company had the land filled in and leveled and then built a photovoltaic power station there. Rows of solar panels were installed, and beneath them, villagers grow crops and raise livestock.

From July 2016 to June this year, the station generated 3.19 million kW of electricity, which brought profits of more than 3 million yuan to the village.

Li Qin, Party chief of Jieya, a village in Zigui county, pays a villager for cleaning photovoltaic panels in September 2017. (LEI YONG / FOR CHINA DAILY)

A ‘gold mine’

“The villagers are growing morels and other plants such as Distylium racemosum (an evergreen shrub or tree),” said Cai, the State Grid Corp employee. “The previous low riverbank has been turned into a ‘gold mine’.”

Jiandong receives 34,000 yuan each year from State Grid Corp for the land lease. In addition, the farmers who work part-time cleaning the solar panels are paid 26,000 yuan a year, said Fu Qingsong, the village’s Party chief.

From 2013 to 2015, China allocated 24.78 billion yuan to extend power grids to areas without electricity, benefiting some 1.55 million people. It carried out an independent solar photovoltaic power supply project, providing electricity to 1.19 million people. By the end of 2015, China had achieved electricity coverage for its entire population.

Poverty alleviation through solar photovoltaic power generation is one of the top 10 targeted poverty alleviation projects in the country.

Starting in 2014, China’s rural poverty alleviation and development have shifted to a model of comprehensive, targeted poverty alleviation that is implemented throughout the entire process of identifying the impoverished, arranging targeted programs, utilizing capital, taking assistance measures, contacting officials in charge of poverty elimination, and conducting reviews of poverty alleviation.

The country has strengthened power grid building and operation services, and it has promoted various photovoltaic poverty alleviation projects, which are funded by the government and implemented by enterprises.

The photovoltaic power program has contributed greatly to the country’s poverty reduction efforts, according to a white paper released by the State Council Information Office in April last year.

In rural areas with the appropriate resources and suitable conditions, the Chinese government has funded the construction of power stations, which are owned collectively by local villages. The income created by the power stations is used entirely for poverty alleviation purposes.

As of the end of 2020, 100,000 villages had built photovoltaic power stations, with a total annual electricity generating capacity of 18.65 million kW, bringing an average annual income of 200,000 yuan for each village, the white paper said.

The earnings have been used to create public welfare jobs, fund small public welfare programs and offer small bonuses and subsidies, according to the white paper.

The clean energy projects established in rural areas of the country have not only brought income for villagers, but also improved the environment, fueling rural vitalization.

In September 2021, Zigui made it to the list of the National Development and Reform Commission-led national project aimed at installing photovoltaic panels in every town of certain counties. Zigui got an investment of 280 million yuan from the central government for this.

Cheng Jian, director of Zigui’s development and reform bureau, said some 40 percent of schools, hospitals and village committee facilities should have photovoltaic panels, as well as around 20 percent of local residential buildings.

Zigui, which encompasses the easternmost portion of the Three Gorges of the Yangtze River, had been a poor county for a long time. The installation of photovoltaic panels has helped lift people in the county out of poverty. In April 2019, Zigui was removed from the list of poor counties.

Technicians make connections during solar panel installation in Chuanxindian in October 2021. (MEI XUEFEI / FOR CHINA DAILY)

County a role model

Forty-nine photovoltaic power stations have been built in the county, which has 167 villages. The power project has covered 27,000 villagers who at the time were living below the poverty line. The poverty-stricken villages garner, on average, more than 200,000 yuan a year from the power projects.

The combination of the photovoltaic power projects with poverty alleviation in Zigui has made the county a role model for other areas.

One of Zigui’s highlights is putting the land beneath the photovoltaic panels to good use. Take, for example, the village of Xikouping, where farmers grow tea plants.

The photovoltaic panels are installed in the village’s collectively owned tea plantation. Receiving annual subsidies of 100,000 yuan from the central government, the photovoltaic power station in Xikouping churns out annual earnings of 100,000 yuan from power generation. The village has spent the money on creating job opportunities, particularly for villagers living in poverty.

Li Benhua, 48, is the breadwinner of a family of three. Before 2017, the family lived on a mountain.

The three lived a poor life, with an annual income of only 20,000 yuan from raising several pigs and growing tea on a 1,333-square-meter tract of land.

Since the power station was built in 2017, Li has become an employee there, with an annual wage of 6,000 yuan. He is also making 8,000 yuan a year by sweeping the village’s roads and serving as a forest ranger. Tea growing, pig farming and disposal of rubbish also contribute to his total annual income of 47,000 yuan.

Meanwhile, the installed capacity of China’s solar power could surpass 388 gigawatts this year after adding 85 gigawatts in 2021, according to Bloomberg.

In May, the State Council, China’s Cabinet, released a circular on a plan to implement high-quality development of new energy. It aims to accelerate the construction and development of a low-carbon environment to realize the carbon-peak goal.

According to the State Council, “China will focus on building major wind power and photovoltaic power stations in desert areas, integrate new energy exploitation and utilization with rural vitalization, and promote new energy application in industry and construction sectors.”

By combining its targeted poverty alleviation efforts with clean energy projects in rural areas, China is killing two birds with one stone.

Northwest China’s Qinghai province is one example of launching solar power projects to pull poor villages out of poverty.

Yangjiashan, a village in Haidong, has installed more than 100,000 solar panels on top of mountains in the area to generate power. These panels were incorporated into the power grid in June 2020.

Covering 66.7 hectares, the project is one of 31 villager-led photovoltaic poverty alleviation projects in Qinghai, according to China Global Television Network.

Qinghai’s solar power projects had an installed capacity of 16.77 million kW as of the end of last year, according to the province’s bureau of statistics. About 283,000 villagers in poverty, accounting for 52.5 percent of the total poor population of the province, have benefited from these projects, CGTN said.

‘A good approach’

“China’s solar photovoltaics poverty alleviation program is a good approach to dealing with the country’s poverty issue,” said Zou Jintai, a researcher at the Institute of Rural Economy of the Hubei Academy of Social Sciences.

There are already many ways to fight poverty in rural China, including poverty alleviation policies focusing on industrial development, aquaculture and farming, Zou added.

“But these approaches are subject to market fluctuations,” Zou said. “Take pig farming for example. You can give the targeted poor farmers piglets and fodder. If they can’t sell their pigs, they can’t make money. In other words, they don’t have a reliable source of income. There is a possibility that they become poor again.”

On the other hand, he said, the photovoltaic poverty alleviation program, “funded by the government, will be a stable source of income for poor people”.

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