Solar-powered Sheep

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Publish Time: 2022-07-11 Author: From: China Daily Global

The summer sunlight lingers long into the evening on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. Sonam Drolma, a 31-year-old Tibetan herdswoman from Shangtamai village, Chabucha township, Gonghe county, rides a motorcycle through the gaps among a sea of dark blue photovoltaic panels, driving her sheep back to the circle for water, in the Talatan Photovoltaic Industry Park in Gonghe county, Hainan Tibetan autonomous prefecture, northwest China’s Qinghai province.

Herding sheep among photovoltaic panels is an unintentional positive outcome for the herdsmen. In 2012, the prefecture government began to install China’s first 10 million kilowatt-class solar power generation base in Talatan (Tala sand land). Ten years later, the photovoltaic park there covers an area of 609 square kilometers, which is close to the land area of Singapore. With the installed 8,430 megawatts, the park tops the chart with the largest photovoltaic power generation capacity in the world.

Talatan is nearly 3,000 meters above sea level. This means that it is pummeled with radiation from the sun which is not suitable for plant growth. It was an ambitious plan by the local government to build a photovoltaic power station there, as the original desertification rate was up to 98.5 percent. The panels are prone to damage by the sand and gravel disturbed up by the strong gusts of wind. Grass seeds have been heavily planted in the base to stop the sand from being blown away.

The locals took a dim view of the grass growing, let alone thriving, in such a barren place. Unexpectedly, the grass here has kept growing prolifically, and the photovoltaic panel park has turned into an oasis. "The laying of photovoltaic panels reduces the wind erosion on vegetation. The water we use for daily cleaning of photovoltaic panels infiltrates beneath the surface, which has a certain nourishing effect on the grass," says Zhu Mingcheng, general manager of the Hainan branch of the Yellow River Hydropower Co.

The grass grows and the sand settles, but new challenges arise. The grass grows haphazardly, blocking the photovoltaic panels, reducing their conversion rate, and literally, stacking up fire hazards in winter. The staff have tried manual weeding, spraying herbicides, and even thinking about raising the photovoltaic panels, but they could not fully solve the dilemma. And then nature, as is so often the case, came up with its own solution.

"Rather than paying someone to mow the grass, it’s better to let herdsmen put their sheep here," says Zhu as he recalled his flash of "inspiration" at that time. The park invited the surrounding villagers to raise "photovoltaic sheep". They built four sheep pens for free, so that the "photovoltaic shepherd" could start their "old business" at zero cost.

Sonam is among the many herdspersons who have agreed to drive their flocks to the park to graze. The grass here is enough to feed the sheep, and the shadow cast by the photovoltaic panels is especially suitable for the sheep to rest in the shade. Manure can serve as a natural fertilizer for the grass. Speaking of the biggest difference in sheep herding today, Sonam says, "The sheep eat well and they have a higher survival rate. Now my flock has doubled in number, and my annual income has increased by 40,000 to 50,000 yuan ($5,960-7,450)."

In addition to being a "photovoltaic shepherd", villagers can also expand their income sources by cleaning photovoltaic modules, mowing grass, and handling cargo in the park.

The photovoltaic power station in Talatan not only provides clean energy, but also attracts herdsmen to return, creating a cycle of activity that improves the ecological environment on the Gobi Desert. "It kills three birds with one stone," says Zhang Zhenfei, director of the energy bureau of Hainan Tibetan autonomous prefecture. "The current Talatan not only has an average annual power generation of 80 million kilowatt-hours, but also achieves a 50 percent reduction in wind speed in the park, a 30 percent reduction in soil moisture evaporation, and a recovery of vegetation coverage of 80 percent. With the desertification of the land curbed, the annual output of pasture has reached 110,000 tonnes, and the number of ’photovoltaic sheep’ has reached more than 20,000."

In the Talatan Photovoltaic Industry Park in Gonghe county, Hainan Tibetan autonomous prefecture, northwest China’s Qinghai province, herdsmen driving their sheep back to the sheepfold for water. KUANG LINHUA/China Daily

From top: Yang Ruoyi, an employee from the Longyangxia Hydro-Solar Hybrid Power Station, elaborating on the ecological improvement of the Gobi Desert; an 18-year-old Tibetan making ends meet by working as a temporary worker in the park. KUANG LINHUA/China Daily

Yu Yang, 32, and his colleague conducting photovoltaic maintenance work. KUANG LINHUA/China Daily

The staff in the Talatan Photovoltaic Industry Park cleaning the photovoltaic panels. KUANG LINHUA/China Daily

Herdswoman Sonam Drolma riding a motorcycle to herd sheep among the photovoltaic panels. KUANG LINHUA/China Daily

Herdswoman Sonam Drolma watering the sheep in the pasture. KUANG LINHUA/China Daily

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