National Geographic : 2011 Jun
• ere was one truly signi cant sign of greening long under way in the region: a massive tree- planting campaign designed to hold the fragile soil in place. Flatbed trucks packed with seed- lings were the second most common sight along area roads (outnumbered ten to one, it seemed, by trucks carrying coal from the mines). Ding estimated that he'd planted 100,000 trees with his own hands. "It used to be very dusty here, with lots of sandstorms," he said. "But we had 312 blue sky days last year, and every year there are more." further reassurance that China's booming growth held real seeds of environmen- tal possibility, I drove 170 miles south of Beijing to the (redundancy alert) booming city of De- zhou. Approaching along National Highway 104, I got a sudden glimpse of one of the world's most remarkable buildings, the Sun-Moon Mansion. It looks like a convention center surrounded by the rings of Saturn, great tracks of solar panels providing all its hot water and electricity. Behind the hotel, a sister building serves as the head- quarters of Himin Solar Corporation, which claims to have installed more renewable energy than any other company on Earth. (Chinese enterprises are sometimes the bene ciaries of largesse from Beijing, such as low-interest loans that may never need to be repaid in full.) Himin's main products are those humble solar-thermal tubes that covered the roo ops in Rizhao. And as it turns out, they cover a lot of other real estate. Huang Ming, who founded the company, estimates that it's erected more than 160 million square feet of solar water heaters. " at means 60 million families, maybe 250 mil- lion people altogether---almost the population of the United States," he said. Huang, an ebul- lient fellow in faded black Dockers who used to be a petroleum engineer, sells some of the best solar-thermal systems in China, but even he admits that it's fairly simple technology. He says that the key to his company's success has been opening people's minds, which it's done with revival-style marketing campaigns that storm one city at a time. "We do road showing, lecturing, PowerPointing," he said. And now they're harnessing the power of sightseeing too: e Sun-Moon Mansion is merely the anchor of a vast solar city that will soon include a solar "4-D" cinema, a solar video-game hall, a huge solar-powered Ferris wheel, and solar-powered boats to rent from a solar marina. e company showroom, Feel It Hall, cap- tures a few contradictions. e solar panels heat water for hot tubs and have giant at-screen TVs above each. But that's the only way to sell the idea of renewable energy, Huang insisted, as he described the gigantic apartment towers he's building on the edge of town, with racks of solar panels that curve like the back of a dragon. "At night that's what you see---a oating dragon," he said. "So many developers come to our Solar Valley to copy from us, to learn from us. at's just what I wanted." He's especially happy that some of those visi- tors come from abroad. Dezhou hosted the In- ternational Solar Cities World Congress in 2010, and he's set up an international-experts mansion for visiting dignitaries. "If all the people of the U.S.A. enjoyed solar hot water, Obama would win ve Nobel Prizes!" he said. But it's going to take a while for America to catch up. Most of the U.S.'s minuscule capacity is used to heat swim- ming pools. Jimmy Carter had solar water heat- ers installed on the roof of the White House in 1979, but they came down in the Ronald Reagan years; new ones are due to go up this year. It's not the only instance of the Chinese tak- ing an American lead and running with it. Sun- tech has emerged as one of the top two leading makers of solar photovoltaic panels in the world. New employees are added weekly, and on their rst day on the job they watch Al Gore in An In- convenient Truth. e young tour guide showing me around the company's headquarters in Wuxi, A perfect site for wind and solar farms, the smoky factories around Shizuishan rely on coal-fired power plants (top), a legacy of Mao Zedong's directive in the 1950s to move industry inland against the threat of foreign attack. Day laborers (bottom) easily find work sorting coal from area mines. China's green effort is being overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the coal-fueled growth. It's a dark picture.