Solar Valley

China’s Green Revolution

Features Editor

On camera, HUANG MING appears a small, softly-spoken man. But beneath this grandfather’s persona lie great ambition and drive. During our interview he jokes about his nickname as ‘the solar energy mad man’. He is, in fact, the founder of one of the world’s most successful solar energy companies.

 

We meet Huang Ming at the SUN AND MOON BUILDING, the eye-catching centrepiece of SOLAR VALLEY and HQ for his company Himin Solar Energy Group. Huang Ming has spent the last thirty years building both his company and Solar Valley up from scratch. Today, Himin Solar is the world’s biggest producer of solar heaters as well a pioneer in the research and development of other everyday solar products. Goldman Sachs is among the company’s investors.

Like a proud father, Huang Ming lights up when he talks about the Sun and Moon building, describing it as one of his favourite buildings. It is an impressive, white semi-circular structure – its shape inspired by the pictographic characters for sun and moon. At night, photovoltaic powered LEDs light up its exterior, and inside, the hot water, heating, refrigeration is all solar-powered. The glass has been specially developed by Himin to insulate, capture natural light and provide sound-proofing. Across Dezhou, this impressive record continues. It has become a hub for green innovation, described by the International Solar Cities Congress as a ‘centre of gravity for renewable technologies’. The city hosts what Huang Ming believes to be the world’s first solar energy factory roof. Integrated solar thermal or photo-voltaic technology are in 95% of new buildings and solar water heater use in Dezhou exceeds 3 million square metres, approximately equal to the total amount installed in the EU and twice that of the US, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency.

More than 300km away, Himin’s technologies are also used in Beijing to power Mao Zedong’s Mausoleum. And across China, half the population use solar energy, making up 76% of the world’s solar consumption

But 30 years ago, it was all very different. Huang Ming worked in the oil industry and the Dezhou area was farmland. The 80s was a decade that changed Huang Ming’s life.

In 1985, recently married, Huang Ming took his new wife to his grandmother’s home in Wuxi, on the journey regaling her with tales of the beauty of the city’s Tai Lake. But when they arrived, the lake was dank, black, and smelly. Huang Ming was stung by the disappointment of his new bride, as well as the loss of this natural beauty.

The birth of his daughter followed several years after and Huang Ming became anxious about how her life would be without fossil fuel and clear skies. With the support of his wife, he decided to plough his savings and time into solar energy research. And so began his dream to create Solar Valley.

Solar Valley
As Huang Ming shows us round Dezhou in his green, company boiler jacket, he talks about his dreams for China. He is the first to admit that the innovations at Solar Valley might not always be the best, but they are the first. His Sun and Moon Mansion uses 10% of the energy used in conventional buildings. “Imagine, “ he says, “if electricity consumption could be cut to 10% of what we use today, we could solve environmental problems like pollution and the energy crisis.”

So, can China prosper AND step away from renewables?

The solar energy entrepreneurs in Dezhou generate an annual turnover of more than $3 billion USD.

 

 

China’s Robotic Revolution

Features Editor

Remember Jia Jia?   Sure you do – she’s the one with the glassy eyes and the stern face, who keeps popping up on your social media feeds.  No, this is not your ex-girlfriend from hell.  This is China’s latest innovation in artificial intelligence, and has been hailed as the first interactive robot.

We blogged on these pages not long ago about China’s technological advances – from FAST, the world’s largest radio telescope, to Solar Valley, where 95% of the new buildings in Dezhou City are powered by renewables.

I knew it would only be a matter of time before we would once again be talking tech.

So back to Jia Jia.  Jia Jia is a humanoid robot who can talk – she refers to her creators as ‘Lord’ – can make different facial expressions and moves her arms.  She was developed over a mere 3 year period by a team at the University of Science and Technology in Hefei, who plan to expand her emotional repertoire to laughing and crying.  Right now, in our humble opinion, she looks like she’s had way too much botox and needs a sense of humour transplant, but that’s exactly where her creators intend to go next – giving robots learning abilities and facial recognition so that their interactions with us mere mortals can become more natural.

But why exactly does Jia Jia exist and should we be worried?

Firstly, forget the end-of the-world films you’ve seen where robots seek to dominate the human race and take over the world.  Sure there are serious ethical dilemmas to be considered – one expert believes that we could be marrying robots by 2050 – but behind the scenes and in less glamorous areas of life than our love-life, we already rely on robots and that will only increase, especially in China.

Last year, China unveiled a national 10 year plan, known as ‘Made in China 2025’ focusing on making its manufacturing industry the best in the world.  Robotics is one of 10 industries specifically mentioned in the plan.

That’s because, although China is already the world’s largest market for robotics, the robots are predominantly used in the automotive industry only.  The city of Wuhu for example is tipped to become the first to truly embrace driverless cars.

But other areas of industry are yet to catch up and that’s when the big boost in robotics will come  – when robots are used in everything from creating home appliances to pharmaceuticals.  One newspaper recently reported how in one factory, 9 robotics now do the job of 140 fulltime workers with the company reportedly seeking more ways to replace humans with robots.

These robots, with their more mundane appearances and jobs won’t hit the headlines in the same way as Jia Jia.  And I doubt Jia Jia with her good looks and language skills will be joining them in operating a production line anytime soon.  As David Bisset, former head of Dyson explains, the primary role of humanoid robots like Jia Jia is to make us pay attention and be amused

Nevertheless I continue to be fascinated by China’s development in robots with artificial intelligence and here’s my favourite example – Beijing’s Robot Monk.

Standing at 2 foot tall and called Xian’er, this robot was developed by monks at Beijing’s 500 year old Longquan Buddist Temple to answer questions about Buddhism and the meaning of life for a 21st century audience.

But does Xian’er or Jia Jia know how to clean my house or make me the perfect cup of Chinese tea?  Apparently the computer says no.