With A Little Help from Vacuum Tubes, Rural China Gets Back to Nature

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Shop owner Zhou Chengwei was one of the first in Xiejiaqiao to install a rooftop solar water heater. Ten years later, nearly every house in the village has one.

The homes are impressive right away in the mountain village of Xiejiaqiao, with their ornate columns, shiny brass window fixtures and decorative lightning rods that look as if they might beam messages directly from some orbiting mother ship.

Our group spent last weekend in the village, in the misty wilderness two hours outside Hangzhou. Walking through town, our conversations inevitably turned to the eerie sense that we’d wandered into some kind of Twilight Zone, where quaint and gritty village life—chickens pecking watermelon rinds, stray dogs sleeping on dirt roads—played out against a backdrop of pastel-hued dollhouses. I’d been expecting traditional wood construction, or even no-nonsense cement blocks, but the town’s colored bricks and steeples seemed particularly out of place among the clouds and trees.

Once the initial weirdness passed, though, what really caught my eye were the ubiquitous panels of solar water-heating tubes that seemed to top every house in the village. After walking Xiejiaqiao’s winding streets, and even scaling a soggy hillside for an aerial view, I couldn’t find a single roof without one.

In Beijing, Xian and Hangzhou, I’ve been on the lookout for signs that energy efficiency and “greentech” ideals are taking hold in China, but I hadn’t seen anything so striking as the village’s near-universal adoption of the solar heaters.

There are a handful of popular technologies for solar water heating, and each has particular benefits depending on local weather patterns where they're installed—Europe, India and Japan are the other big markets so far. In China, the most popular approach by far is a rooftop panel of vacuum tubes lined up side by side. As sunlight hits the glass tubes, the heat-absorbing liquid inside them transfers warmth through a converter and into a water tank.

The solar heaters only replace a slice of a home’s energy needs, but in China, it’s a big slice. Heating water accounts for 38 percent of the country’s residential energy consumption, according to a 2001 report by the Holcim Forum for Sustainable Construction (link opens as PDF). That's nearly twice the U.S. number of 20 percent, in part because Chinese tap water usually must be boiled before it's safe to drink.

Zhou Chengwei, who owns the guest house I stayed in, said he paid 1,300 yuan for his solar water heater three or four years ago. He wasn’t sure exactly how much money the appliance has saved him, but over the days I stayed at Zhou’s house, I imagined the solar heater paying for itself with every shower, hot meal and cup of tea I had. “It may cost a little in the beginning, but it’s worth it in the long run,” Zhou said.

More than a decade ago, Liu Jingguo paid the same amount for an earlier model he saw advertised on television, made by Guangdong-based Dongguan Tongji Water Heating Equipment Co. Liu, who runs a small supermarket with his wife on the ground floor of their three-story home, said he was one of the first in the village with a rooftop solar heater. When he rebuilt their home five years ago, he had the heater reinstalled on his new roof, where he said it’s still working well.

Xiejiaqiao may be one of its region’s model villages, with its striking new construction and its relative wealth. But outside this small mountain town solar water heaters are already fairly ubiquitous in China. With such immediate cost benefits, they’ve become the first high-tech energy consumption-cutter to gain serious traction, and it’s easy to imagine the same happening back in the States.

It’s one hopeful sign that once an environmentally friendly technology becomes cost-effective as well, China can become a nation of early adopters, without the cultural resistance that’s slowed the adoption of, say, fluorescent coil light bulbs in the U.S. Even if homes in the village look a little out of touch with their mountain surroundings, at least their rooftops are getting back to nature.

Solid article, Pat.

Solid article, Pat. Headline's nearly as long at the article, but solid just the same. ;)

Really, a very enjoyable read.

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hey pat , itis derick , so glad to see ur article here , quite impressive , hope to see ur grand canel article soon , keep in touch.