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China seeks ways to meet rising rural energy demands while trying to cut emissions

SHANGHAI -- As if China didn't have enough problems with its voracious appetite for fossil fuels.

Rapidly changing patterns of energy use by China's small-town dwellers -- who account for half of the nation's population -- are adding more volume to China's demand for fossil fuels.

Villagers here used to collect firewood from forests to meet their energy needs. But with their rising incomes and growing desire for an easier life, more and more rural families began buying coal briquettes and bottled liquefied petroleum gas instead.

The nation, though, favors another option. In recent years, policymakers and climate activists have been scrambling for ways that would make clean energy more competitive than fossil fuel in the Chinese countryside.

If clean energy wins that competition, Chinese villagers will cook, heat showers and power their houses with less damage to the environment. If it doesn't, China's rural areas, with more than 600 million residents, will complicate the efforts of the world's biggest greenhouse gas emitter to combat global warming.

"The day that rural residents are not major greenhouse gas emitters is gone," said Chen Chongying, a rural energy researcher at the Global Environmental Institute, a non-governmental organization based in Beijing.

Currently, the daily energy needs of each villager can be met with slightly less greenhouse gases than those of an urban dweller, Chen said. But by the end of this decade, her research predicts, the emissions from Chinese villagers could soar.

The need to harness biofuels

Traditionally, villages had never been battlefields for Chinese to combat global warming. While urban architects committed to designing buildings that use less fossil fuel, rural builders didn't. And they still know little about how to do it.

There are rising efforts to close that knowledge gap. During the past two years, government-backed pilot projects have been launched in more than a hundred counties. Experts are searching for new designs that allow villagers to power their homes partly with geothermal and solar energy. Meanwhile, many rural households have been retrofitted to include a home-scale biogas power plant, which processes agriculture wastes into clean energy.

Such technology was first promoted by Chinese officials in the 1970s to solve villages' power shortages. It now gains wider government support due to its low emissions. In 2009 alone, budget planners here poured more than $2 billion into building biogas power plants for rural families. Once the plants are in place, though, villagers confront another knowledge gap.

Due to lack of training, few villagers know what to do when their family-run biogas power plants malfunction, said Feng Yuelang, who is in charge of rural China's clean energy program at the Asian Development Bank. Thus, those waste-to-energy plants often end up being wasted.

Sometimes, the buildup of such plants even does more harm than good to the Earth. If a biogas power plant isn't managed well, Feng says, it could cause gas leaks, releasing methane, which warms the planet 20 times faster than carbon dioxide. Methane can also explode.

The Asian Development Bank has been trying to arm tens of thousands of Chinese villagers with knowledge of how to maintain biogas power plants. For villagers who have little interest in becoming technicians, it came to the rescue with an easier fix: large-scale biogas power plants around villages. There, teams of professional operators can take care of the sometimes finicky nature of biogas power production.

Cap and trade to the rescue

Since 2010, the Asian Development Bank has financed two dozen such biogas power plants in rural China. While this is boosting villagers' clean energy use, the growth is largely tied to the amount of finance. And how long would it take for the nation to raise sufficient funds for its millions of rural residents?

Chen Xiaofu, an expert at the China Association of Rural Energy Industry, doesn't know the answer. But he knows a way to help.

Through Chen's program, villagers who abandon coal-fired stoves can buy advanced biomass stoves at a subsidized price. The new stoves protect them from choking on smoke while cooking. They also help villagers save money -- by stopping the need to buy coal briquettes from dealers and using free straw from their fields instead. That, in return, helps the program operator earn carbon credits, which are generated by using less coal and can be traded with anyone who wants to offset carbon emissions.

Recently, the program operator sold carbon credits to Swiss organization My Climate, helping more than 49,000 rural families say goodbye to dirty coal over the next seven years.

China has leveraged carbon trading to speed up its clean energy use for years. But its countryside barely benefited from such schemes. That's mainly because measuring, reporting and verifying the emissions from rural families scattered over a vast land is difficult and time-consuming for professionals, Chen said. So his organization partnered with Impact Carbon, a California-based nonprofit, as well as Beijing University of Chemical Technology, to do the job, hoping to clean up more villages through carbon trading.

But this approach, Chen admitted, has its own limits. Clean-energy solution providers earn carbon credits only by reducing previous emissions. If villagers didn't use fossil fuel before, yet want to start it from now, program developers can't get any credits by luring villagers to choose clean energy.

Squaring feng shui with solar power

According to the latest government data, in 2008, Chinese villagers still met more than two-thirds of their energy needs by burning emission-free sources like firewood, in a way that their ancestors did for thousands of years. They will need financial help to upgrade their energy-generation process. If carbon trading experts can't help, who else could do so?

The Climate Group, a non-governmental organization based in London, is trying to provide a further incentive. Through its "1,000 Village Program," since 2009, more than 40 Chinese villages that lack electricity for powering their public areas have been lighted up with solar-powered LED street lights. The lights were donated by companies in and outside China.

In the words of the Climate Group, what attracts companies to participate in the program isn't only its social impact, but also its business potential. As one program operator pointed out, the participation helps solar-lighting solution providers gain an early acceptance in rural China, where millions of villagers face power shortages and can be groomed as consumers for such technology.

Philips, a Dutch technology giant that cooperates with the Climate Group in the program, knows this better than others. For one thing, shortly after Philips donated its solar products to villages in western China, the company received a purchase order from local authorities.

As those solar-powered LED streetlights don't need extension of electric lines as conventional streetlights do, local officials liked that solution so much that they decided to install more for villages and remote tourist attractions, said Steven Kang, the project leader at Philips.

Surprisingly, Kang found, the solar-powered streetlights also outweighed a centuries-old Chinese philosophy.

"At the beginning, some villagers said having solar streetlights around would disturb their feng shui," he recalled, referring to the Chinese art that says people's fortune is affected by their surroundings. "But after seeing neighbors using our solar lighting solutions, those who first turned down our offer no longer talked about feng shui. Instead, they also asked for solar."