How Photovoltaic Interventions Have Helped to Reduce Poverty in Rural China

28-05-2020 | By Liam Critchley

There are many parts of the world which are in poverty, and more often than not, rural communities, especially in large countries such as China, Russia, Australia and Canada, are often the worst hit. While it’s true that the high cost of cities can contribute to families living below the breadline, many rural communities in large countries often lack the infrastructure, local economy and the wages that the cities have. This means that while there is usually some localised poverty within more affluent areas (i.e. the cities), the communities as a whole in the rural areas are often a lot worse off financially – which also means that they are typically worse off in terms of education, health and living standards as a result.

Given the advances that have been made in technology over the last few decades, there is a big drive to not only get better infrastructure to rural communities, but there is a drive to reduce worldwide poverty, and rural areas are a crucial place to start. China has been implementing different strategies for several years, including investing in photovoltaic technology in rural areas, to try and reduce the poverty level of the country.

Poverty in Rural China

There is a big difference in the wealth levels between the high-tech cities of China and in the rural areas where agriculture are typically the main economic drivers. The large size of China makes it inevitable that some communities are going to well below the poverty line, including whole communities who live far away from any cities. Poverty in rural China is not something that is new and has been going on for many decades. In fact, in the 1950s the Chinese government switched from using traditional mandarin characters to the simplified mandarin characters used today, as many of the population could not read and write the traditional scripture – especially in the more rural areas.

China’s economy is always growing, and it is now one of the biggest economies in the world. However, back in 2000 – only 20 years ago – over 40% of the population lived below the international poverty line. A lot of strategies and initiatives to reduce poverty have been implemented in the last two decades. By 2010, only 11.2% of the population lived below the international poverty line, and now, this figure is less than 1%. The reason for the low numbers of poverty in the current day is due to the government recognising poverty alleviation as an essential development strategy for the nation, and 10 different initiatives for targeting poverty alleviation were established.

Establishing Photovoltaic Initiatives in China

A poverty alleviation initiatives established back in 2013 was the implementation of photovoltaic devices on households, and in rural villages, some of the results are now being published and analysed to see if the strategy has been a success so far. The initiative was called the solar energy for poverty alleviation program (SEPAP) and aimed to over 10 GW of solar capacity throughout the country, especially in rural villages, and the plan was that over 2 million citizens would benefit from the program.

The program was implemented in Hefei and Jinzhai in 2013, and by 2016 had been implemented in 211 provinces across China. The initiative involved three main projects – the installation of village-level arrays (up to 300 kW), village-level joint construction arrays (up to 6000 kW) and rooftop installations (several kW) – all aimed at targeting the high poverty villages around the country. 

Many Chinese banks and government departments came together in 2016 to state that with good sunlight conditions, the initiative should boost the village income of over 35,000 poverty-stricken villages around the country. The initiative looked to help the 2 million families who can’t work, and of whom there was a poverty file on. The aim at the end was that these families would be able to earn an additional income of at least 3000 Yuan per year from the excess energy generated by the photovoltaic devices.

Results of the Initiative

Overall, the implementation of photovoltaic technology has had a reduction in the poverty levels around the country, with the most significant effects being seen in the rural areas. The overall impact has been positive and has increased, on average, the per-capita disposable income in a county by 7-8%. The east of the country typically benefitted more than the west of the country, and the alleviation of poverty was more apparent in the poorer counties than it was in the wealthier counties.

By the end of 2018, over 15.4 million kW of photovoltaic power had been allocated around the country, with a total investment of around 174 million yuan, but the total cost at the end of the program could be as high as 30 billion yuan ($4.5 billion USD). It was found that even though there was an immediate impact, the effect of the initiative typically grew over time, and it took 2 to 3 years for the rural communities to benefit from the scheme entirely. The SEPAP program is only a recent initiative, and its effects could be more significant further down the line as more and more rural communities gain access to photovoltaic initiatives – especially in areas that don’t currently have the infrastructure to install photovoltaic devices.

What the initiative has shown is that it is possible to use renewable energy technologies to not only reduce our carbon footprint, they can also be used as a tool to pull people above the poverty line, especially in poor, rural areas that have a lot of sun. The initiatives implemented by China have been a success, and similar initiatives are being installed in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Palestine, so there is now a model to work off for any country looking to implement similar technological strategies. Overall, there are now more benefits associated with using renewable energy technologies beyond the reduced carbon footprint, and the hope is that similar initiatives and technologies can be used for both the good of the Earth and the human race simultaneously.

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By Liam Critchley

Liam Critchley is a science writer who specialises in how chemistry, materials science and nanotechnology interplay with advanced electronic systems. Liam works with media sites, companies, and trade associations around the world and has produced over 900 articles to date, covering a wide range of content types and scientific areas. Beyond his writing, Liam's subject matter knowledge and expertise in the nanotechnology space has meant that he has sat on a number of different advisory boards over the years – with current appointments being on the Matter Inc. and Nanotechnology World Association advisory boards. Liam was also a longstanding member of the advisory board for the National Graphene Association before it folded during the pandemic.