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June 29, 2009

Renewable Energy: A Reality Check in Rural China

Young engineer takes on a global challenge: Clean and sustainable energy, one village at a time

Abby Watrous learned an important engineering lesson while working in rural China.

Watrous, who has her master's degree in civil and environmental engineering and is working towards her doctorate, is helping to research renewable energy technologies in developing communities. While clean energy solutions such as wind and solar power may work in some places, she has to find different, cheaper possibilities for people making less than five thousand dollars a year.

A National Science Foundation (NSF) grant in 2008 allowed Watrous to visit nine provinces in China, where she worked with other engineering students from Tsinghua University in Beijing.

Finding affordable solutions

"I think a good place to start is cook stoves," she said. "If you find one that fits in with the cooking culture of the province, depending on what area of China you are in. It's something that is small, more affordable, to fit in with the family structure, and can make a huge difference right away."

Sometimes, she said, even something as simple as putting a chimney on a stove can help improve a family's health and decrease pollution.

While there are many stories about China's growing middle class and increased desire for consumer goods, hundreds of millions of residents still live at a subsistence level. Every day, families burn circular briquettes of charcoal, known as "honeycomb" coal. It's a mixture of clay and coal, and burns very dirtily. Watrous and her colleagues are looking at ways to help more people use biomass--organic material ranging from straw to corn husks to garden compost, all renewable resources.

Yunnan Province in southwest China is not the place for pricey, high tech solutions. So, researchers are finding answers from everyday life. Even modest homes usually have pigs, a garden and a latrine.

"At the Yunnan Eco-Center, there's a really fascinating little house, with a solar hot water heater, a latrine, pig sty and vegetable garden," said Watrous. "So the waste from the toilet, the pigs and the vegetable garden go into the biogas digester, which produces methane, and then you can cook on the clean methane."

Hands-on engineering

Watrous comes from a long family line of engineers, and began her studies in biomedical engineering. But, she says, she got frustrated staying in a laboratory, and started looking for a more hands-on realm of the profession. Environmental engineering fit the bill.

Her advisor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, civil engineering professor John Zhai, says it is a great choice.

"I was surprised to see the passion of Abby for this topic," said Zhai. "She learned quite a bit before she went to China on building systems and issues policy," he said.

Zhai said the collaboration of students from eastern and western cultures will pay off for everyone.

"We're trying to team up with universities, both in the U.S. and China, to have a regular exchange of scholars, so we can send more people out in the field," said Zhai. "I believe such an effort can help global engineers improve their vision and also (help them) understand the local conditions," he said.

Showing kids they can make a difference

During her China studies, Watrous also wrote a book to get youngsters excited about engineering.

"I'm really passionate about teaching little kids, third through fifth graders, about engineering, getting them into believing engineers are great and cool and wonderful," she said.

"So I wrote the book in English; my friends at Tsinghua translated it into Chinese. It's to teach kids about renewable energy; what's a solar panel, what's a wind turbine, what's a digester, and how do they work," she said. "And then, at the back of the book, there are some suggestions on how kids can make a difference."

Watrous will soon be headed back to China on a Fulbright scholarship. She will study Chinese language in Beijing full time for four months, then resume her research on energy education and rural energy.

China has an ambitious goal of having 15 percent of its energy produced from renewables by 2020.

While that is an enormous challenge in such a big country, "I think the government is taking it seriously. They are looking at some great ways to use renewable energy," said Watrous.

Miles O'Brien, Science Nation Correspondent
Marsha Walton, Science Nation Producer

Any opinions, findings, conclusions or recommendations presented in this material are only those of the presenter grantee/researcher, author, or agency employee; and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.