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Wind and Solar Powered Street Lights in China

Wind and solar powered street lights are becoming more popular in China, but this is one “green” technology that makes me cringe.

Street lights powered by solar panels and windmills are becoming more of a common sight throughout China as “greening” cities becomes more of an objective and catchphrase. As I traveled out through rural Pudong last week I saw them everywhere, they lined the roads, they surrounded parking lots — just about every little town and village had them spinning in the breeze.

They are called holonic lights, as they make use of two sources of energy, and can be set up just about anywhere. They are fully self-powered, can run independently, completely off the grid — or if it is desired they can be wired up and send excess energy into the electrical grid to be used elsewhere. The theory is that days lacking in sunlight tend to have a reasonable amount of wind, so these lights are can function year round. The batteries, which are usually lead, can store three to five days worth of power, so there is little concern that they will run empty and leave the streets in the dark. These lights are either equipped with a photocell that triggers them to turn on and off in accordance to daylight or are programmed via an external communications system. For the most part, beyond maintenance there are no daily running costs.

The materials that make up these lights are currently more expensive than conventional lights, but it is thought that this will be made up for by the fact that they do not require wires sunk in the ground or a broader utility infrastructure. Also, China’s current five year plan calls for massive amounts of government subsidies applied towards “green” technologies, so the price for these lights will more than likely continue to get cheaper.

wind-solar-power-street-lights

Not taking into account the fact that Chinese brand products tend to have a much lower lifetime than their foreign equivalents (including those sourced from Chinese factories) and the general tendency for maintenance and upkeep to be half-assed, the turbines should last 20 years and the LED bulbs five years, though the lead batteries will need to be changed several times throughout the lifetime of the lights.

These lights sound pretty good don’t they? But I find myself cringing each time I see them, as I know that they are the wave of the future here in China.

Some time ago a small city in Hebei province received props in the international media and accolades from within China for decking out their streets with these solar/ wind power lights, and the floodgates were opened. China has the tendency of doing things to excess. This is one cultural trait that has lasted throughout this country’s history. The popular adage is that they never know when to stop, and this is a critique that is just as common for the Chinese to make of themselves through jokes as jests as it is for foreign observers through criticism. Though acknowledgement of this fact does little to stifle it. If something works for one person or entity it will often be replicate by a masses of others to the point of becoming overdone, unprofitable, and unsustainable.

Municipalities and various other government bodies also have the tendency of copying and trying to one up each other with some kind of keeping up with the Jones psychosis. Throw into the mix the fact that “green” or otherwise environmentally friendly developments, technologies, and projects are now a part of the criteria for local government officials to get promoted — or at least impress their superiors and the media — and these lights have the potential for becoming ubiquitous. Mix this with the fact that these lights are overtly visible (they line the streets) and are essentially big flashing billboards saying, “Never mind the smog, check out how green we are.”

These street lights are paraded as being better for the environment but I remain skeptical of all “green” energy sources that rely on lead batteries. The ebike craze has been an environmental catastrophe. The mining of lead and the production, recycling, and disposal of lead batteries have turned many places in China into virtually permanent environmental wastelands. A recent report by the Ministry of Environmental Protection pointed out that less than 30% of the 2.6 million tons of lead batteries that are discarded in China each year are recycled properly. The rest are bought up by illegal recyclers who engage in underground recycling operations that function without governmental oversight and tend to be environmentally devastating. Very near to where the holonic lights featured in this post provide “clean” energy dozens of children were found to have lead poisoning caused by emissions from a nearby lead-acid battery manufacturer.

Some will say here that lead batteries can be produced and recycled without drastic negative environmental impacts, but these are generally the same people who say that coal can be mined and burned somewhat cleanly. Yes, both may be true in theory, but it’s just not done like this in contemporary China.

With improvements in how coal is burned or after moving on to other energy sources, the smog clouds of post-industrial England and the USA dissipated rather quickly, which is something that could very well someday happen in China, but the poisoned soil and deranged environment from lead mines and battery dumps and recycling centers will remain that way for a very, very long time. These solar/ wind powered lights are an alternative to using coal produced energy to improve air quality, but they are simply trying to assuage one environmental catastrophe with another. Lead batteries are another problem, not a solution.

Filed under: China, Environment, Pollution

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3548 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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  • Bob L January 5, 2014, 12:28 pm

    Nickel Iron is a better, but seldom used solution, as they are rather expensive to make, and the only place making them is China, with the expected poor quality.
    They are not as efficient, but they last forever and can be abused much more than Lead-Acid batteries. These are called Edison batteries, and there are plenty still being used from his time period.

    Remote locations, such as street lamps away from power lines or other sources are a great place for solar/wind.

    I like how you qualify your statements to the effect that, yes, IF done correctly, Green solutions can be good, but often they are not done correctly. And when a country like China goes all in for something, but does not do it right, there are often disastrous consequences, even if the idea was originally a good one.

    Bob L

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    • Wade Shepard January 6, 2014, 3:46 am

      That’s true, there are ways to make these truly environmentally beneficial, though I am skeptical if that’s the real goal. But I suppose technologies like these are a start — it’s just a pity they rely on lead-acid batteries.

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  • Belcat2 November 9, 2015, 3:33 pm

    Pity they are using lead batteries. I believe in Canada they are recycled very well, and the metal recyclers pay good money for a battery ($10 for a regular car battery, more if it is heavier). While it would be nice for them to disappear completely, they remain the cheapest form a battery, so at least in Canada, they will be around for a while…

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