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Michigan Tech Student From China Brings Solar Power To His Home Village

HOUGHTON (WWJ) -- As New Year's traditions go, this one stinks.

Every Chinese New Year, the people in Zao Yuan, a rural village of about 2,000 people in China's Shanxi Province, celebrate by watching TV and cooking food on electric appliances.

And every Chinese New Year, the local power grid can't handle the load of everybody using everything at once -- and so every Chinese New Year, there's a blackout in Zao Yuan.

Yawei Wei is from Zao Yuan, but right now he's studying for a master's degree in power engineering at Michigan Technological University. And thanks to his studies, he got to wondering: How do we stop the New Year's blackout back home?

Grid improvements would be too costly. Like rural America in the 1930s, rural China lags behind cities when it comes to electrical service.

But how about using modern technology to leapfrog the grid? Wei knew he could at least bring a few solar panels to sunny Zao Yuan. Specifically, to his cousin's roof.

Wei had the skills to design and build a small solar installation, and he had the encouragement of his advisors -- Bruce Mork, the Wiitanen Professor of Electric Power Systems, and Sumit Paudyal, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering. Professors Leonard Bohmann and John
Lukowski also offered insight and support. The biggest hurdle was back home.

"The most difficult thing was trying to convince my family," Wei said. "That took three or four months."

No one else had ever done anything like this in Zao Yuan, and it's always hard to be the first at anything. Still, the project had advantages. Including a big financial one: To encourage rural electrification and support its overbuilt solar panel industry, China was offering a heck of a deal to its citizens -- install solar panels capable of generating up to 100 kilowatts and hook them to the grid, and the government will buy your electricity for twice the going retail rate.

Wei figured it would take about 10 years to pay back the cost of the solar panels, and he convinced his cousin to install a 10-kilowatt system of 48 panels above his roof. He formed a family-based company to install solar panels, and the project was completed in July with the enthusiastic support of the local power utility.

"They think it might be part of a solution to help balance our electrical demand," he said. "People are using much more electricity than they used to, even five years ago."

As the first rural solar power project in Shanxi Province, it drew the attention of the Chinese news network CCTV, which broadcast the story nationally in November. Wei and his family had visitors from several other rural regions throughout China who were interested in launching similar enterprises.

So far, the system has generated about $200 worth of electricity and has worked so well Wei and his cousin plan to add a 20-kilowatt system. And they are also encouraging others in their village to get on the solar bandwagon.

"People really know nothing about electricity, only that it can kill people," he said. "My cousin is teaching people in the neighborhood about it, and they are getting interested. It can be complicated, but if you follow the steps, you can have your own photovoltaic system."

He hopes his experience will inspire others. "I wanted to share this idea with other Michigan Tech students, not only Chinese but Indian and African," Wei said. "If I can do this in my hometown to benefit my people, maybe they can too. Mine is not a lonely case."

But what about the upcoming New Year's celebration, which falls on Jan. 31? The solar panels probably won't help the residents of Zao Yuan this year. But if the energy could be stored in batteries, or if the town had a wind generator, maybe the lights wouldn't go out. Maybe incorporating smart-grid technologies would make a difference.

"We are talking with the local utilities," Wei said. "I think we can use technology to really help my people. It makes me feel really excited."

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