DEZHOU, China—Even as China's skies darken from air pollution, sunlight is shining on its solar water heating industry, turning the country into a solar superpower.
Thriving firms that manufacture low-priced solar hot water heaters have helped build the world's largest market for the rooftop solar heaters.
Somewhere between 30 million and 40 million families now have solar water heaters installed on their rooftops, allowing nearly 200 million people to enjoy hot showers and use warm water to wash clothes and dishes. Explosive growth is forecast for years to come, slightly slowing China's surging appetite for conventional energy.
"My slogan is, `Let every Chinese use solar energy,'" said Huang Ming, the chairman of Himin Solar Energy Group. Himin claims to be the leading manufacturer among some 3,000 companies now making solar water heaters in China.
In Shandong province, which juts into the Yellow Sea, and in other rural areas of China, millions of rooftops hold the sloping panels of vacuum tube heat collectors. The solar collectors cost from $160 to $750 for high-end models. In rural areas, the solar heaters are becoming standard appliances, like gas stoves. Those without them feel left behind.
"Peasants are very sensitive to peer pressure. If a neighbor gets a solar hot water heater, and they don't have one, it's a loss of face," said Himin Solar's Luo Tieqiang.
China's solar industry is growing at 20 percent to 30 percent a year, according to the state-run People's Net Web site. Sales will double by 2010, when China will rely on solar for 1 percent of its energy consumption, the official Xinhua News Service said in January.
By then, the solar rooftop heaters will save China from burning 22.5 million tons of standard coal a year, said Luo Zhentao, the director of China Association of Solar Energy Thermal Application, according to Xinhua.
That should help a coal-burning nation that is the world's second largest source of greenhouse gas emissions, which are blamed for global warming.
Foreign advocates of renewable energy who visit China often leave amazed by the contrasts between its pollution and its strong embrace of solar thermal technologies.
"The number of rooftop solar hot water heaters in China now exceeds that of all the rest of the world combined. It's a little known success story in China," said Lester Brown, the founder of the World Policy Institute, a Washington-based group that promotes sustainable use of resources. Brown spoke during a recent swing through China in which he also sounded the alarm over expanding deserts, heavy use of pesticides and other examples of environmental devastation.
Just as cellular phones once changed rural China, allowing farmers in areas with no fixed phone lines to receive updates on crop prices, the boom in solar hot water heaters is also affecting everyday life.
"I take a bath every day now," said Jiang Guilian, a furniture seller in an outlying district of this city of 300,000 residents. "Our two daughters take showers all the time."
Before obtaining the solar hot water heater, Jiang said she would bathe only once every two weeks during the winter, put off by the tedium of heating water on a stove.
Despite smoggy skies that cover most of its big cities, China has a major advantage in solar energy development: Much of its land receives more than 2,000 hours of sunlight annually, a greater amount than other regions of similar latitude.
China passed a law in February pledging to boost its use of renewable energy—such as solar, wind and hydropower—to 10 percent of its energy consumption by 2020.
Himin Solar Energy Group, which claims between 12 percent and 15 percent of China's solar hot water heater market, at first sold mainly to farmers.
Bright panel vans, bearing the cloverleaf green Himin logo, still sweep through rural towns in what company founder Huang calls "green storms." Workers hand out newsletters, parade through streets and give demonstrations of how quickly a solar heater can bring water to a boil.
"You can show them, `We'll boil the egg in 10 minutes.' It's only one of our tricks," Huang said at his company headquarters.
Huang, a petroleum engineer, founded Himin in 1995. He knocked on a lot of doors the first few years. "I personally sold more than 1,000 solar hot water heaters to customers face to face," Huang recalled.
Like most of China's solar hot water heater manufacturers, Himin builds a system in which an insulated tank is connected to an angled panel of coated sunlight-absorbing vacuum tubes, which trap heat and transfer it to water.
Early this decade, the company had to decide whether to focus on cheap prices or improve quality. Insiders say some 1,000 employees left when Huang decided to focus on quality. With rising oil prices, sales began to surge several years ago.
Now, Himin has 5,000 franchised sales outlets, Huang said. In the first quarter of 2006, sales increased 65 percent. Chinese solar firms can barely keep pace with domestic demand, so few are looking to export any time soon.
Solar heaters make up only 20 percent of China's total water-heater market. Hotels, universities and industrial plants have yet to catch on, Huang said.
Huang remains convinced that China's solar hot water heater firms will one day catch their breath and look abroad.
"I'm No. 1 in China now. Why not the world?" Huang asked.
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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