China Tries to Go Solar

As it moves rapidly to become the world’s leader in nuclear power, wind energy and photovoltaic solar panels, China is taking tentative steps to master another alternative energy industry: using mirrors to capture sunlight, produce steam and generate electricity.

So-called concentrating solar power uses hundreds of thousands of mirrors to turn water into steam. The steam turns a conventional turbine similar to those in coal-fired power plants. The technology, which is potentially cheaper than most types of renewable power, has captivated many engineers and financiers in the last two years, with an abrupt surge in new patents and plans for large power operations in Europe and the United States.

This year may be China’s turn. China is starting to build its own concentrating solar power plants, a technology more associated with California deserts than China’s countryside. And Chinese manufacturers are starting to think about exports, part of China’s effort to become the world’s main provider of alternative energy power equipment.

Yet concentrating solar power still faces formidable obstacles here, including government officials who are skeptical that the technology will be useful on a large scale in China.

Much of the country is cloudy or smoggy. Water is scarce. The sunniest places left for solar power are deserts deep in the interior, far from the energy-hungry coastal provinces that consume most of China’s electricity. Provinces deep in the interior have few skilled workers or engineers to maintain the automated gear that keeps mirrors focused on towers that transfer the heat from sunbeams into fluids.

 

Concentrating solar power “is not very suitable for China,” wrote Li Junfeng, a senior government energy policy maker, in a detailed e-mail reply to questions this week. Yet the private sector in China is racing to embrace the technology anyway. A California solar technology company and a Chinese power equipment manufacturer plan to sign a deal on Saturday for the construction of up to 2,000 megawatts of power plants using concentrating solar power over the next decade, executives from both companies said this week. That is equivalent to the output of a couple of nuclear power plants. They will start with a 92-megawatt plant in Yulin, a town in a semi-desert area of Shaanxi Province in central China. The Chinese equipment manufacturer, Penglai Electric, hopes to work with other Chinese manufacturers to drive production costs down precipitously, clearing the way for exports, although these would require further approval from the California licensor of the technology, eSolar.

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