It appears that Alex Wang, of the Natural Resources Defense Council in Beijing, must have stayed last month in the same part of the Green Lake View Hotel in Kunming that my wife and I recently occupied. Because the "look at all the solar panels!" pictures he took from the hotel window and posted recently on the NRDC Greenlaw site are amazingly similar to those I showed two days ago. If you're traveling to Kunming and want to get in on the fun, I suggest asking for room 2008 at the hotel -- also known as the "view that will impress foreigners worried about the environment" suite.
It turns out that the solar-paneled rooftops of Kunming are about as well known a feature of the city as are gabled rooftops for Paris. As one reader with a Chinese name wrote:
Your latest post of the roof with solar-thermal heating device in Kunming is a typical picture of Chinese city, especially of those second or third-tier cities. People in these cities mostly live in the apartments built in the last two decades. Solar heating device became extremely popular around 2000, for its cheapness, and governments then don't care about its impact on the outlook of the city,ie,barely any regulation.
He also pointed to this Greenpeace report on the city of Dezhou, in Shandong province, where many solar panels are manufactured -- and used. Also, this recent Danwei.org post that includes a Greenpeace video about the city. Les toits de Dezhou:
From a Western reader:
The ubiquitous solar panels are an example of something that I think is very common in China, especially with regard to modernization and development, which is that things that the Chinese regard as luxuries and real signs of coming up in the world would be considered unacceptable privations in the U.S.
Have you ever had to live with one of those solar water heaters? Even in a place like Kunming, where the sun shines most of the time, the amount of hot water you get from a roof top solar hot water heater is minimal. My Kunming apartment was on the top floor of an eight story building, which meant that that water had the shortest distance to travel and was therefore hotter than that of my downstairs neighbors. It also meant that the pressure was lower, meaning that the slow trickle from faucet would actually result in the hot water lasting longer. What I got during the winter, when outside temperatures were about 15 degrees centigrade (50 Fahrenheit) was about five minutes of lukewarm water, and this only in the evening after a full day of sunshine. For someone from the countryside this would be luxurious living, the height of decadence.
Speaking of apartments, an eighth floor walk-up is another thing no westerner would put up with. In the standard Chinese apartment building (not the new hi-rises, the regular, normal, five to ten story tiled buildings built in the 90s) the first floor usually has the advantage of a back door and maybe even a garden, but it's often damp. The second and third floors are the best, the fourth is ok. Anything above that involves planning trips out because of the extra time and effort involved in going down and back up the stairs. I wonder how many aging Chinese are essentially trapped in tenth floor apartments because they've gotten too old to climb those stairs more than once a week or so.
And what about all those little three wheeled "cars", hardly more than enclosed motorcycles? They go all of about 40 kph (25 mph) and a police officer friend told me they're death traps. And look at the electrical wiring in my apartment. I could go on for a long time.
Yet this is the life style to which all those hundreds of millions of peasants aspire to. If anything can save China from the impending collision between its stressed environment and limited resources and the increasing expectations of its large and growing population, it is this willingness to live with what to westerners is inconvenience, discomfort, crowding, and danger.