A coal yard in northern China comes with a Buddha. Coal reserves could run low in a few decades, making green energy in China a must. www.greggirard.com
A coal yard in northern China comes with a Buddha. Coal reserves could run low in a few decades, making green energy in China a must. www.greggirard.com

Can China Go Green?

No other country is investing so heavily in clean energy. But no other country burns as much coal to fuel its economy.

Rizhao, in Shandong Province, is one of the hundreds of Chinese cities gearing up to really grow. The road into town is eight lanes wide, even though at the moment there's not much traffic. But the port, where great loads of iron ore arrive, is bustling, and Beijing has designated the shipping terminal as the "Eastern bridgehead of the new Euro-Asia continental bridge." A big sign exhorts the residents to "build a civilized city and be a civilized citizen."

In other words, Rizhao is the kind of place that has scientists around the world deeply worried—China's rapid expansion and newfound wealth are pushing carbon emissions ever higher. It's the kind of growth that helped China surge past the United States in the past decade to become the world's largest source of global warming gases.

And yet, after lunch at the Guangdian Hotel, the city's chief engineer, Yu Haibo, led me to the roof of the restaurant for another view. First we clambered over the hotel's solar-thermal system, an array of vacuum tubes that takes the sun's energy and turns it into all the hot water the kitchen and 102 rooms can possibly use. Then, from the edge of the roof, we took in a view of the spreading skyline. On top of every single building for blocks around a similar solar array sprouted. Solar is in at least 95 percent of all the buildings, Yu said proudly. "Some people say 99 percent, but I'm shy to say that."

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