The soil is scorched black. The air tastes acidic. A thick silence engulfs the area. The uneven scenery is riddled with invisible caves and tunnels. Large swathes of land have given up and bowed to the unrelenting force of gravity. Water from nearby lakes and coastlines has moved into these spaces abandoned by the earth. However, there’s a smattering of derelict homes, long deserted, that dot the landscape. They still stand upright in a show of resilience that is characteristic of the people of the land. It’s almost symbolic.
And no, this isn’t some badly written fan-fiction version of George R. R. Martin’s next novel. This is a real place and this is a real story.
Around 311,000 residents now live on a desolate, barren, and cracked earth, retreating further inland every year as water swoops in to reclaim the sunken spots.
Welcome to the Huainan province of China. Since 2007, when the Huainan Mining Industry Co. Ltd. started exploiting the earth for coal during China’s decade-long coal boom, almost a tenth of Huainan City has folded into the earth. Around 311,000 residents now live on a desolate, barren, and cracked earth, retreating further inland every year as water swoops in to reclaim the sunken spots.
This story is not particular to China. It is a common vestige of coal towns. Years of (often reckless) boring and tunneling leaves the land broken, the water unusable, the air unbreathable, and the economy blighted with a lack of jobs. In extreme cases like Centralia – a near-ghost town in Columbia County, Pennsylvania, United States – the population has dwindled from more than 1,000 residents in 1980 to only 7 in 2013. Why? Because a coal mine fire has been burning beneath the land, in the abandoned mines, since 1962. Imagine that. A fire burning in tunnels beneath the Earth for an unnaturally long time. Sounds eerily similar to an extremely popular fictional place, doesn’t it?
Since the Huainan Mining Industry Co. Ltd. started exploiting the earth for coal in 2007, during China’s decade long coal boom, almost a tenth of Huainan City has folded into the earth.
Feeling uncomfortable yet? Feeling guilty about that one time you left the lights on when you left the room even though you knew they were being powered by “dirty energy”?
This isn’t a story about blighted histories and uncertain futures and our culpability in it all; that comes another day. This story is about a ray of sunshine piercing through the darkness.
In June of 2017, a poetic turn of events took place. In the middle of a heated global conversation about Climate Change and the need to move away from coal, a new kind of solar power plant quietly came to life. What was so special about this installation? Well, for starters, it’s built to float on water. Specifically, it is floating on top of one of the man-made lakes in the Huainan province – in a lake that formed when heavy rains filled the gaps left by the sunken coal mines. Like I said, poetic justice.
In the middle of a heated global conversation about Climate Change and the need to move away from Coal, a new kind of Solar power plant quietly came to life.
Built by the company Sungrow Power Supply, the solar “farm” floats on the water like a huge bed of water lilies. It will produce 40 megawatts – enough energy to power 15,000 homes yearly. The array is the largest floating solar project in the world. The whole setup is specially designed to resist the salt and humidity that comes from being on the water, while evaporative breezes from the water’s surface help keep the panels cool, reducing the chances of a failure. The floating solar energy farm also provides power without using up valuable land or damaging the ecosystem. In fact, it is using land and water that humans have rendered useless. Win-Win.
The Sungrow solar farm is just a minuscule part of China’s concerted effort in moving towards renewable energy. It recently announced that it would invest $361 billion in renewable power by 2020, and by 2022 could produce 320 gigawatts of wind and solar power and 340 gigawatts of hydropower. Currently, renewables are responsible for 11 percent of China’s energy and may reach 20 percent by 2030. Although the floating solar farm is a dot on the landscape of China’s solar energy production, it shows us something very important – the solutions for our sustainability crises can be as diverse as your imagination allows.
The conversation on Climate Change impacts and the possible safeguards against them will not reach a conclusion any time soon. However, this year, in particular, we have seen tremendous advancements by corporations and countries towards the adoption of renewable energy. On June 1, specifically, a ray of sunshine pushed through the dark, sooty air and nudged humanity one small step closer to a clean and green future.