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China’s mega ‘solar cities’ are great, but sustainability is about scaling stuff down

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I recently spent a day in Dezhou, one of China’s famed ‘solar cities’. As a bright and cheery advertisement explained, “Just like the Silicon Valley, this is the Solar Valley.”

The ad was remarkable for several reasons. First, China’s economic development plan of copying hallmark western institutions was essentially nicely summarised in that simple slogan. Second, the peppy poster instilled in me images of an entire city feeding itself off solar electricity. Strangely, by the end of the day, I felt that my expectations were mostly satisfied.

I guess if you were to ask me what I’d expected before my arrival in Dezhou, I would have shrugged and muttered something about a solar theme park. The images from the flashy website and brochure suggested a playground for solar enthusiasts; a place where, for one moment, we could glimpse the city of the future with an entire infrastructure powered by the sun. Dezhou was not this city exactly, but it was close enough and certainly a pleasant place to go.

The Dezhou adventure started out awkwardly but earnestly. It was clear the staff at the solar city had not had any foreign visitors in quite a while by the way they shuffled around nervously, anxious to help any way they could. However, their hard labour to be the most hospitable was very much appreciated.

The day before, we had contacted our tour guide Laura to confirm that she could show us all around the Solar Valley. She met us at 9am in lobby of the Himin Solar office building and hotel. Himin, the primary owner of Solar Valley, is also a huge leader in solar thermal water heaters – the main technology we were shown.

We toured the lobby to see displays of different solar products; from a solar barbecue to a standard solar thermal water heater. We then looked at a diorama that I’m sure was a big hit with Chinese investors. It showed the planned large campus of present and future buildings to come.

The main entrance will be flanked by a tall solar archway and wind turbines, and the main building should be the largest completely solar powered office building in the world. There are also plans to build housing for students who are seeking training on how to manufacture and operate Himin solar products, and several model homes will be built to showcase solar integration. It’s a very large Solar Valley indeed, but then again being impressively large is I’m sure part of the plan.

We then got into a car and were driven to a group of state-of-the-art solar integrated condominiums. These buildings were like every other brand new condominium you see all over China but with solar panels and water heaters attached to their roofs. There were very few people actually living there, but our tour guide insisted the condo would fill up with tenants very soon.

After some lunch and some rest, the tour resumed. We entered the factory where Himin manufactures solar thermal water heaters. You can see solar water heaters everywhere in the country, so it was interesting to see the manufacturing process.

We explored the roof of the factory and examined the different solar arrays. There are the silicon photovoltaic (PV) panels that the average person imagines when solar power is mentioned, as well as solar thermal water heaters that use solar power to heat your household’s water.

Himin has also actually found a way to convert the thermal energy (heat) to electricity. We also saw concentrated solar panels where the light is directed to one, highly efficient solar cell, reminding us that concentrated solar was developed to lower production costs of PV.

The tour finished with a leisurely walk through the strange but pleasant solar park. The park had been the site of an international competition of architects that chose an element (earth, wind, fire, water) as a theme around which to build their solar homes. The park made for some unique views.

I appreciated the day because we learned more about what alternative energy purveyors in China can do to attract investors and enthusiasts. Laura was an excellent guide; candid and easygoing, with a host of information to share about Himin’s technology, the campus, and the ups and downs of solar industry in general.

It was good. Great. Fine. I guess my real issue is the very premise of a large Solar Valley. When trying to motivate public investment for a new idea, I suppose it is wise to have demonstrative area, to give a tangible image of what a solar future might look like. I don’t have any problem with that.

My contention lies with the size and scale of the Solar Valley. China is attracted to big productions, as demonstrated by the country’s ever-growing collection of sprawling shopping malls and wind farms. The issue of sustainability becomes confused when companies set out to build something big and brand new; a Solar Valley with 44 buildings, for example, or a brand new ‘eco city’ like that constructed in Tianjin.

One of the most important parts of resiliency is understanding that our buildings and our very way of life need to be scaled down and decentralised to cope with a hotter and more erratic climate. When we spread the risk to deal with unforeseen events, we are that much more able to handle crises.

Unfortunately, we live in a time in which consolidation is efficient and profitable. We see this consolidation everyday with our food production, banking and media, to name just a few examples. The more you stack your chips on one number, the higher your risk will be when you lose. The banking crisis is an excellent example of what happens when consolidation fails: it fails big time.

So, after touring the Solar Valley, I couldn’t help thinking that despite Himin’s laudable goal, the means of achieving that end might be flawed. Building an area that will exemplify clean energy, green design and sustainable agriculture is a great idea – but I dislike that these demonstrative sites must be huge, out of the way ‘solar cities’.

I would think that an easier example to showcase solar power for the public would be to make a solar house in every major neighbourhood in Beijing or Shanghai, or display an ecological garden or food forest in a local public park.

The Solar Valley stops becoming sustainable when folks have to drive or take a train for several hours to observe all of its glory. Across the world, individuals and communities are working to live more sustainably, and they are doing that, first and foremost, by acting locally.

Ted Swagerty is currently travelling through Asia, the Middle East and Europe, and writing about the steady emergence of small-scale renewable energy and alternative agriculture.

Further reading:

China: economic supremacy at any cost or global environmental leadership

We need expert problem-solvers to build the cities of the future

Green versus grey infrastructure

Leo Johnson and the power of people

Rob Hopkins: Transition Towns is the only ethically defensible thing to do

Economy

How Going Green Can Save A Company Money

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going green can save company money
Shutterstock Licensed Photot - By GOLFX

What is going green?

Going green means to live life in a way that is environmentally friendly for an entire population. It is the conservation of energy, water, and air. Going green means using products and resources that will not contaminate or pollute the air. It means being educated and well informed about the surroundings, and how to best protect them. It means recycling products that may not be biodegradable. Companies, as well as people, that adhere to going green can help to ensure a safer life for humanity.

The first step in going green

There are actually no step by step instructions for going green. The only requirement needed is making the decision to become environmentally conscious. It takes a caring attitude, and a willingness to make the change. It has been found that companies have improved their profit margins by going green. They have saved money on many of the frivolous things they they thought were a necessity. Besides saving money, companies are operating more efficiently than before going green. Companies have become aware of their ecological responsibility by pursuing the knowledge needed to make decisions that would change lifestyles and help sustain the earth’s natural resources for present and future generations.

Making needed changes within the company

After making the decision to go green, there are several things that can be changed in the workplace. A good place to start would be conserving energy used by electrical appliances. First, turning off the computer will save over the long run. Just letting it sleep still uses energy overnight. Turn off all other appliances like coffee maker, or anything that plugs in. Pull the socket from the outlet to stop unnecessary energy loss. Appliances continue to use electricity although they are switched off, and not unplugged. Get in the habit of turning off the lights whenever you leave a room. Change to fluorescent light bulbs, and lighting throughout the building. Have any leaks sealed on the premises to avoid the escape of heat or air.

Reducing the common paper waste

paper waste

Shutterstock Licensed Photo – By Yury Zap

Modern technologies and state of the art equipment, and tools have almost eliminated the use of paper in the office. Instead of sending out newsletters, brochures, written memos and reminders, you can now do all of these and more by technology while saving on the use of paper. Send out digital documents and emails to communicate with staff and other employees. By using this virtual bookkeeping technique, you will save a bundle on paper. When it is necessary to use paper for printing purposes or other services, choose the already recycled paper. It is smartly labeled and easy to find in any office supply store. It is called the Post Consumer Waste paper, or PCW paper. This will show that your company is dedicated to the preservation of natural resources. By using PCW paper, everyone helps to save the trees which provides and emits many important nutrients into the atmosphere.

Make money by spreading the word

Companies realize that consumers like to buy, or invest in whatever the latest trend may be. They also cater to companies that are doing great things for the quality of life of all people. People want to know that the companies that they cater to are doing their part for the environment and ecology. By going green, you can tell consumers of your experiences with helping them and communities be eco-friendly. This is a sound public relations technique to bring revenue to your brand. Boost the impact that your company makes on the environment. Go green, save and make money while essentially preserving what is normally taken for granted. The benefits of having a green company are enormous for consumers as well as the companies that engage in the process.

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Energy

5 Easy Things You Can Do to Make Your Home More Sustainable

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sustainable homes
Shutterstock Licensed Photot - By Diyana Dimitrova

Increasing your home’s energy efficiency is one of the smartest moves you can make as a homeowner. It will lower your bills, increase the resale value of your property, and help minimize our planet’s fast-approaching climate crisis. While major home retrofits can seem daunting, there are plenty of quick and cost-effective ways to start reducing your carbon footprint today. Here are five easy projects to make your home more sustainable.

1. Weather stripping

If you’re looking to make your home more energy efficient, an energy audit is a highly recommended first step. This will reveal where your home is lacking in regards to sustainability suggests the best plan of attack.

Some form of weather stripping is nearly always advised because it is so easy and inexpensive yet can yield such transformative results. The audit will provide information about air leaks which you can couple with your own knowledge of your home’s ventilation needs to develop a strategic plan.

Make sure you choose the appropriate type of weather stripping for each location in your home. Areas that receive a lot of wear and tear, like popular doorways, are best served by slightly more expensive vinyl or metal options. Immobile cracks or infrequently opened windows can be treated with inexpensive foams or caulking. Depending on the age and quality of your home, the resulting energy savings can be as much as 20 percent.

2. Programmable thermostats

Programmable thermostats

Shutterstock Licensed Photo – By Olivier Le Moal

Programmable thermostats have tremendous potential to save money and minimize unnecessary energy usage. About 45 percent of a home’s energy is earmarked for heating and cooling needs with a large fraction of that wasted on unoccupied spaces. Programmable thermostats can automatically lower the heat overnight or shut off the air conditioning when you go to work.

Every degree Fahrenheit you lower the thermostat equates to 1 percent less energy use, which amounts to considerable savings over the course of a year. When used correctly, programmable thermostats reduce heating and cooling bills by 10 to 30 percent. Of course, the same result can be achieved by manually adjusting your thermostats to coincide with your activities, just make sure you remember to do it!

3. Low-flow water hardware

With the current focus on carbon emissions and climate change, we typically equate environmental stability to lower energy use, but fresh water shortage is an equal threat. Installing low-flow hardware for toilets and showers, particularly in drought prone areas, is an inexpensive and easy way to cut water consumption by 50 percent and save as much as $145 per year.

Older toilets use up to 6 gallons of water per flush, the equivalent of an astounding 20.1 gallons per person each day. This makes them the biggest consumer of indoor water. New low-flow toilets are standardized at 1.6 gallons per flush and can save more than 20,000 gallons a year in a 4-member household.

Similarly, low-flow shower heads can decrease water consumption by 40 percent or more while also lowering water heating bills and reducing CO2 emissions. Unlike early versions, new low-flow models are equipped with excellent pressure technology so your shower will be no less satisfying.

4. Energy efficient light bulbs

An average household dedicates about 5 percent of its energy use to lighting, but this value is dropping thanks to new lighting technology. Incandescent bulbs are quickly becoming a thing of the past. These inefficient light sources give off 90 percent of their energy as heat which is not only impractical from a lighting standpoint, but also raises energy bills even further during hot weather.

New LED and compact fluorescent options are far more efficient and longer lasting. Though the upfront costs are higher, the long term environmental and financial benefits are well worth it. Energy efficient light bulbs use as much as 80 percent less energy than traditional incandescent and last 3 to 25 times longer producing savings of about $6 per year per bulb.

5. Installing solar panels

Adding solar panels may not be the easiest, or least expensive, sustainability upgrade for your home, but it will certainly have the greatest impact on both your energy bills and your environmental footprint. Installing solar panels can run about $15,000 – $20,000 upfront, though a number of government incentives are bringing these numbers down. Alternatively, panels can also be leased for a much lower initial investment.

Once operational, a solar system saves about $600 per year over the course of its 25 to 30-year lifespan, and this figure will grow as energy prices rise. Solar installations require little to no maintenance and increase the value of your home.

From an environmental standpoint, the average five-kilowatt residential system can reduce household CO2 emissions by 15,000 pounds every year. Using your solar system to power an electric vehicle is the ultimate sustainable solution serving to reduce total CO2 emissions by as much as 70%!

These days, being environmentally responsible is the hallmark of a good global citizen and it need not require major sacrifices in regards to your lifestyle or your wallet. In fact, increasing your home’s sustainability is apt to make your residence more livable and save you money in the long run. The five projects listed here are just a few of the easy ways to reduce both your environmental footprint and your energy bills. So, give one or more of them a try; with a small budget and a little know-how, there is no reason you can’t start today.

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