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China nomads on energy's cutting edge

China's plan to cut coal use has brought electricity to nomads and hopes for cleaner air by 2020.

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Gulinar Sitkan's contribution to China's pollution problem is four tons of coal a year. It forms heaping black piles outside the shepherd's log cabin in this mountainous village of China's northwestern Xinjiang Province.

Coal is cheap and readily available, and China burns nearly 2 billion tons a year for energy – more than India, Russia, and the United States combined.

But coal also contributes to polluted skies and respiratory disease, now a leading cause of death in China. As the government launches its campaign to get 15 percent of China's energy from renewables by 2020, it figures villages like Sorbastow – where people are waiting to get on the power grid – are a good place to start.

That's how Ms. Sitkan came across her tiny rooftop solar panel. Beijing hopes to get her and other new electricity consumers hooked on renewables.

One day last year, Sitkan and her husband were called to a meeting where 100 villagers waiting for a transmission line learned of an alternative to burning coal. After government subsidies, 500 yuan – a tenth of what Sitkan makes each year selling sheep's wool and meat – buys a photovoltaic solar unit that would provide enough electricity to power a small heater, a radio, a television, or a couple of light bulbs.

"Nearly everybody bought one," says Sitkan, a seminomadic shepherd who treks a well-traveled route each year with her family, 200 sheep, and a few cows. They journey between lamb breeding grounds, spare winter cabins, and yurts on green mountaintops. "It's rare now that people don't have electricity."

The Chinese and Dutch governments subsidize the cost of the panels, and a Shell Group subsidiary manufactures the units. In Xinjiang, 40,000 panels have been sold to rural customers – many of them ethnic minorities who are among China's poorest families.

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