Xinhua Headlines: Solar power farms on plateau fuel China's green energy revolution-Xinhua

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Xinhua Headlines: Solar power farms on plateau fuel China's green energy revolution

Source: Xinhua

Editor: huaxia

2024-06-09 19:01:31

XINING, June 9 (Xinhua) -- Amid China's green energy revolution, the world's largest solar photovoltaic power plant on the Qinghai-Xizang Plateau is forging a unique development path, simultaneously generating electricity while making exemplary contributions to poverty alleviation and ecological conservation efforts.

In late May, greenness finally emerged in the yellow-gray expanse of the Talatan Gobi Desert in Gonghe County, part of the Hainan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in northwest China's Qinghai Province.

Yehdor, a 48-year-old herder from Xaghelesi Village in Tiegai Township, leisurely rode his motorcycle, driving his flock of sheep into the solar photovoltaic power plant owned by Huanghe Hydropower Development Co., Ltd.

Yehdor is no stranger to solar photovoltaic panels, or what he calls "blue mirrors." In 2006, he received two of these panels through a government project promoting solar power among locals. Since then, the panels have become part of his essential gear, accompanying his tent and other necessities during his six-month-long shepherding journeys each year.

"I set up the panels outside my tent, and they charged during the day, generating enough electricity to power lights and other small appliances throughout the night," he said.

"However, they are nothing compared to these," Yehdor added, pointing to the solar panels arranged in a matrix across 4,000 acres of desert land, sparkling like a silver-blue sea under the sun.

An aerial drone photo taken on June 9, 2022 shows a flock of sheep roaming between solar panels at a solar photovoltaic power plant in Gonghe County, Hainan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in northwest China's Qinghai Province. (Xinhua/Zhang Long)

More than 200 sheep, a mix of black and white, were spotted roaming among the panels. As startling as it may sound, these sheep have been tasked with protecting the blue panels. Their voracious appetite, once a headache for environmentalists, has now become essential for maintaining the smooth operation of the solar power station.

In 2012, the prefecture initiated the construction of China's first 10 million kilowatt-class solar power base in Talatan. Today, covering an area of 609 square kilometers, this solar power base boasts a power generation capacity of 8,430 megawatts, making it the largest in the world, according to Qeyang, deputy director of the administration committee of the Hainan prefectural green energy industry park.

It hosts 91 energy enterprises, which include 63 solar photovoltaic power enterprises and 28 wind power enterprises. "Green energy is the signature industry of Hainan prefecture and our annual output accounts for 54.08 percent of the total energy generated in Qinghai," Qeyang said.

At a deliberation with the lawmakers from Qinghai during the annual session of the National People's Congress in March 2021, Chinese President Xi Jinping gave instructions to build Qinghai into a highland of clean energies, a destination of international eco-tourism and a source of green and organic farm and livestock products, stressing efforts on fostering a green, low-carbon and circular economic system.

The Qinghai provincial government, since then, has accelerated its efforts to pursue high-quality development of the green energy industry based on local conditions.

Currently, the total installed power generation capacity in Qinghai is 54,970,800 kilowatts, with clean energy accounting for 51,079,400 kilowatts, or 93 percent, of the total. Talatan is also witnessing drastic changes.

A herder riding a motorbike tends his sheep at a solar photovoltaic power plant in Gonghe County, Hainan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in northwest China's Qinghai Province, April 15, 2024. (Xinhua/Zhang Long)

Located about 150 kilometers from Qinghai's provincial capital, Xining, Talatan sits nearly 3,000 meters above sea level and is bombarded with intense solar radiation, which hinders plant growth. By the end of the last century, the desertification rate of the land was as high as 98.5 percent, making the solar panels installed here vulnerable to damage from the sand and gravel stirred up by strong gusts of wind.

Grass seeds have been extensively planted at the base to prevent sand erosion. Surprisingly, the grass has thrived here, turning the photovoltaic panel park into an oasis during the summer months.

According to satellite remote sensing data released by a joint research team of the State Power Investment Corporation Limited and Xi'an University of Technology, wind speed has decreased by 50 percent, soil moisture evaporation has dropped by 30 percent, and vegetation coverage has reached 80 percent in the photovoltaic park over the past three years.

"It's a pleasant surprise. The land had remained barren for so long due to over-grazing in earlier years. Despite our efforts to combat desertification using various methods, we achieved little success," Qeyang said, adding that the photovoltaic power plant has unexpectedly transformed everything for good.

The photovoltaic panels reduce wind erosion on vegetation, while the water used for cleaning them infiltrates beneath the surface, nourishing the grass, and the manure can serve as a natural fertilizer, further benefiting the grass, explained Shen Yongping, a researcher with the Northwest Institute of Eco-Environment and Resources under the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

As the grass grows and the sand settles, new challenges emerge. Cao Jun, an engineer at Huanghe Hydropower Development Co., Ltd., anticipates that weeds will become a problem for the solar farm, as they could create shade-induced "hot spots," potentially leading to malfunctions or fueling wildfires in winter.

In an effort to avoid both the environmental costs of herbicide spraying and the financial expenses of manual weeding, Cao and his colleagues turned to sheep, viewing them as living mowers.

"We used to weed twice a year, but with sheep, we only do it once, saving costs," said Cao. The woolly weed-whackers are efficient, munching their way around the farm.

Staff members patrol at a solar photovoltaic power plant in Gonghe County, Hainan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in northwest China's Qinghai Province, April 15, 2024. (Xinhua/Zhang Long)

The solar power park has encouraged surrounding villagers to raise what they call "photovoltaic sheep" since 2018. They have been provided with four free sheep pens, enabling the locals to resume their traditional business at zero cost.

Gonghe, once a poverty-stricken county, was marred by harsh natural conditions and relied solely on animal husbandry. Its per capita annual income in rural areas was less than 12,000 yuan (about 1,688 U.S. dollars) until it finally shook off poverty in 2019.

The rise of photovoltaic parks has brought new job opportunities for locals and transformed their traditional nomadic lifestyle of long-distance grazing.

Yehdor recalled the scarcity of grass near their home pasture, prompting their frequent travels in pursuit of grazing grounds. They spent over half the year away from home.

He said the worst period, which he remembers vividly, was in 1998 when natural grass was insufficient, leading to starvation and weakness among their cows and sheep. Yehdor and his father had to travel to another village to buy hay to feed them, during which Yehdor injured his ankle while pulling a tricycle loaded with hay on their way back home.

Starting from the age of eight, Yehdor helped his family herd sheep and witnessed the ecological changes in his hometown. "Now is the best time for grass growth that I can remember," he said.

Yehdor is one of the first locals herding sheep at solar farms. He noted that his sheep are now bigger and fatter, fetching higher prices. "The sheep eat well and have a higher survival rate. My flock has almost doubled, and my annual income reached 100,000 yuan last year."

Other villagers have also seized opportunities to earn extra income at the solar farms by cleaning photovoltaic modules, mowing grass and handling cargo in the park.

According to Chen Kelong, deputy chief of the Academy of Plateau Science and Sustainability at the Qinghai Normal University, "photovoltaic sheep" serve as a great innovation in promoting economic and sustainable development in China.

A flock of sheep graze between solar panels at a solar photovoltaic power plant in Gonghe County, Hainan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in northwest China's Qinghai Province, April 15, 2024. (Xinhua/Zhang Long)

So far, 12 "photovoltaic sheep farms" have been built in Hainan prefecture. In 2023 alone, these farms sold 13,000 "photovoltaic sheep," bringing herdsmen a total income of 11 million yuan, according the department of publicity of the prefectural government.

It added that across the prefecture, 173 once poverty-stricken villages generated a combined income of 67 million yuan through involvement in solar photovoltaic farm-related businesses in 2023 while 53,000 locals earned an average additional income of 675 yuan per person.

"The 'photovoltaic sheep' farm exemplifies the development of 'new quality productive forces' tailored to the plateau's existing conditions through a scientifically informed approach," Chen said.

The prefectural government is working at an accelerated pace to upgrade its husbandry industry by establishing the Qinghai photovoltaic sheep brand. It initiated the "photovoltaic sheep" special project in April 2023.

More "photovoltaic sheep" farms will be constructed and a traceability system will be developed, with each sheep equipped with an electronic ear tag. The farms are expected to optimize grazing management and strictly regulate flock sizes to a maximum of 400 sheep per group, ensuring that quality standards are met.

The prefectural government also plans to collaborate with domestic and international social media and e-commerce platforms to promote Qinghai "photovoltaic sheep," fostering a modern husbandry industry that is beneficial to the economy and people's livelihood while conserving the environment, according to Chen.

(Reporting by Yi Ling, Gu Ling and Li Linhai; Video reporter: Zhang long; Video editors: Li Ziwei, Cao Ying, Zhang Mocheng) 

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