Spatiotemporal perspectives on urban energy transitions: a comparative study of three cities in China – Urban Transformations

Results consist of a historical analysis of the three dimensions of transitions dynamics (experimentation, urban politics and socio-spatial configurations) and a detailed discussion on the factors that drive the urban transition trajectories of each city, in line with the analytical framework.

Dimensions of urban transitions in the three cities


The emergence and growth of socio-technical niche experimentation of the three cases show that there are varied dynamics of innovation at work.

In Foshan, the Sanshui Industrial Park (a national-level High-tech Development Zone) is a critical PV manufacturing cluster locally and regionally (interview, FS4 and FS5). In 2011, the Park produced 70% of PV cells installed in Guangdong province. The provincial government has designated the Sanshui Industrial Park as a strategic manufacturing base for solar PV, and the Park has a national designation as a distributed solar PV demonstration zone in 2013 (Guangdong DRC 2014; NEA 2014; People’s Government of Sanshui 2014). The Park is home to some well-known solar PV companies (e.g., Aikosolar, Powerway, Guangdong NRE Technology, Guangcheng Aluminum). Their operations have strong political support. For instance, programs such as the national solar FIT and the Guangdong Solar PV Power Generational Development Plan were introduced in 2014 (interview FS1). The municipal government’s solar policy also introduced a FIT of RMB 0.15/kWh (based on generation, 3 years) and a direct subsidy (RMB 1/W) on installed capacity (interview, FS1 and FS4). The Sanshui Industrial Park also enjoys investment and policy benefits as a national-level high-tech development zone (interview, FS1 and FS4). Some village committees have shown leadership to become “solar villages” by piloting solar PV demonstration projects (interview, FS8 and FS9). Capitalizing on the emerging niche market, market agents, particularly private solar installers, have developed new business models to create economic value for new solar products and services (interview, FS8 and FS9). State-affiliated banks and insurance companies provide PV loans and insurance with the support of the Foshan government (interview, FS8 and FS9).

In Wuxi, we observe vigorous entrepreneurial activities in the development of SWHs. By the year 2016, over 100 core solar enterprises had clustered in Wuxi, among which Leiyu solar Co., Ltd., Sun-tech Power Holdings Co., Ltd., and Wankang Solar Water Heater Co. Ltd., played leading roles in the global market (interview, WX2). For example, Sun-tech, founded in 2001 with the support of $6 million investment from local state-owned enterprises and government, had its initial public offerings on the New York Stock Exchange in 2005 and became the biggest PV module supplier in the world in 2011. With Suntech’s fast growth, many affiliated enterprises and suppliers have been established in Wuxi forming a solar power industry cluster. Wankang, as a new technology enterprise, has established a large-scale base to produce about 250,000 sets of solar heaters every year (interview, WX10). These local companies made public campaigns and established national research centers for solar energy technology innovation. Since 2009, the city of Wuxi began to annually host the Chinese Renewable Energy Conference and product exhibitions, which were highly influential events embraced by politicians, planners, technicians, suppliers, and market buyers. These events led to the booming of local business opportunities and the establishment of SWH legitimacy. In 2016, the roof area with installed SWHs and distributive PV stations in Taihu was over 1.6 km2 (interview, WX12).

Niche experimentation with water-in-glass evacuated tube SWHs in Rizhao shows innovation driven by unmet social needs. There is a long tradition of citizen-led technological experimentation in Rizhao. For example, in the 1980s, residents put “solar water bags” on the rooftops to absorb solar energy for water heating. Bags were eventually replaced by more durable materials such as iron tanks, an embryonic form of integral passive SWHs (interview, RZ16 and RZ17). Linyi city’s wholesale market became well-known for selling SWH parts and accessories in Shandong. At the time, residents and self-employed entrepreneurs purchased SWH accessories and assembled them by themselves (interview, RZ5 and RZ6). In 1984, Professor Zhiqiang Yin at Tsinghua University developed the technology to produce SWHs with evacuated glass tubes (interview, RZ14). It was not until the late 1990s when industrial enterprises such as Himin (founded in 1996) started to produce complete machines at a large scale that the market for SWHs was opened up and expanded rapidly. After that, entrepreneurs actively mobilized resources, in terms of diffusing knowledge, attracting investment, and creating legitimacy (Huang et al. 2018b). In the early 1990s, the mayor supported the local solar panel industry by providing subsidies to firms engaged in solar technology research to encourage the continued expansion of the sector (interview, RZ4), which eventually led to an integral SWH policy in 2004. In 2003, a local SWH manufacturer that specializes in wall-mounted flat plate SWHs, which are better suited for high-rise buildings, was founded in Rizhao (interview, RZ7 and RZ8).

Urban politics

The interviewees were keen to highlight examples that show the alignment of national agendas, urban priorities, business interests, and household incentives. Differing motivations of governments (at the national, provincial, and city levels), market agents (including grid companies and solar installers), and households eventually converged to support solar technologies. In each case, solar technologies have constituted a response to context-specific environmental politics.

In Foshan, the alignment of diverse economic and regulatory interests strengthened the legitimacy of solar PV. Solar PV emerges as a suitable response to current constraints to industrial development (interview, FS8). In Foshan, industrial policies tend to support less-polluting industries at the expense of traditional manufacturing sectors (interview, FS1 and FS8). As air pollution and contaminants have become a cause for concern among the rising middle class in Foshan, the local government has made active efforts to deliver and enforce environmental policies (interview FS2 and FS8). Conflicts have emerged in the industrial landscape. In 2017, for example, TetraPack closed a factory that had operated in Foshan for 26 years, relocating the production to other plants in Jiangsu province, the Inner Mongolia autonomous region, and Beijing (Zhu 2017).

In Foshan, the solar industry has provided an alternative model of industrial growth that fits national development priorities and local environmental concerns. The central government has prioritized solar PV as one of the energy options to promote industrial growth, alleviate national poverty, mitigate climate impacts, and enhance national energy security (interview, FS1, FS4 and FS5). Local support for distributed PV grew after the establishment of renewable targets at the national level. Grid companies and their local subsidiaries in Foshan since then have provided enhanced services to connect PV systems to the grid (interview, FS1 and FS2). A local power grid company also set up ‘a solar PV counter’ to streamline grid-connection permitting procedures for PV owners (interview FS2). Urban policy changes have subsequently followed. The municipal government, for example, supported the establishment of a PV manufacturing cluster in Sanshui Industrial Park and framed solar PV as a driver for regional industrial growth (interview, FS4 and FS5).

In Wuxi, the development of SWH technologies has been linked to political crises. In 2007, a blue algae outb
reak in Taihu Lake, a lake in the center of the city, posed an environmental and public health crisis that reverberated throughout the city and triggered political support for the development of clean energy (Chen et al. 2009). In 2008, the municipal government required the mandatory installation of SWHs in all new housing buildings under 12 floors. The municipal government also took responsibility for the installation of SWHs in public buildings, including hotels and commercial-residential buildings. Government-built affordable housing and relocation housing also have mandatory SWHs (interview, WX1, WX4,WX5, WX6 and WX13). In 2009, Party Secretary Yang Weize stated at a clean-tech symposium in Stockholm that “The Taihu Lake Blue Algae outbreak two years ago taught us a good lesson. (…) Thus we like to shift from the traditional metallurgical and mechanical industries to more environmentally friendly industries as we encounter the environmental problems now.” The municipal government has engaged in the delivery of Wuxi’s image as a leading clean-tech industry node. The portfolio of policy measures to support clean-tech in Wuxi includes preferential taxes, improved legal services, reduced business fees, technology consultancy services, and improvement of the financing service system (Oberheitmann 2012). From 2010, Wuxi implemented a ‘4610 plan’ (four policies to accelerate 6 technologies in 10 demonstration projects), which established a ‘building energy-saving fund’ to support the installation costs of solar technologies (interview, WX3, WX5 and WX7). The municipal government has also established a special fund for low carbon projects, with specific support for PV (Philipps et al. 2012).

Moreover, the development of the solar PV industry in Wuxi is part of the city’s wider economic restructuring in response to national policies of encouraging low-carbon high-tech industries. The municipal government has established international partnerships to showcase Wuxi as a global example of a low-carbon city. Partnerships include, for example, cooperation with the Swedish Government to build a low carbon eco-city (Yin et al. 2016) and with the German foundation Stiftung Mercator on the ‘Low Carbon Future Cities’ project (Dienst et al. 2013).

In Rizhao, the municipal government’s actions have been directed towards harnessing citizen-led initiatives to develop the local industry. In 2007, the municipal government enacted the mandatory installation regulation of SWHs in newly built low-rise and multistory residential buildings.Footnote 4 In response to intensified promotion of clean energy sources at both the national and provincial levels, the Rizhao municipal government extended the mandatory installation regulation of SWHs to high-rise buildings in 2010 (Huang et al. 2018a; Westman et al. 2019). This regulation granted political legitimacy to SWH products. The SWH industry then witnessed a renewed wave of prosperity and the opening up of a new market segment in construction projects (interview, RZ5 and RZ6). The Rizhao case study is also an example of the power of low carbon agendas to shape political careers. After the campaign, local officials explained that the mayor responsible for initiating the scheme gained credit as both a politician and a policy entrepreneur (interview, RZ4).

Overall, the three cases point towards the role of the municipal government in forging alignment between existing economic and industrial interests and the new emerging interests associated with the solar industry. In every city, a change in local environmental politics has motivated the adoption of the technology, whether by seeking new opportunities for development in a highly polluted city (Foshan), the constitution of the city as a low carbon exemplar (Wuxi), or the harnessing of citizen-led initiatives for large-scale industrial development (Rizhao). Every case study shows that economic development priorities and the strengthening of industry-municipal government alliances determined the development of solar innovations and the spread of the technology. At the same time, broader political interests and active processes of contestation- particularly from any actors outside the industrial-government complex- remain invisible.

Socio-spatial factors

Foshan is situated beside significant manufacturing hubs such as Guangzhou and Dongguan. Locally, Foshan is also home to the Sanshui Industrial Park and its solar PV manufacturing cluster and pilot demonstrator. Foshan has traditionally boasted an entrepreneurship culture (interview, FS2, FS8 and FS9). Approximately 95% of all Foshan businesses are small-to-medium enterprises. Foshan citizens have also been willing to accept feed-in-tariffs generally (interview, FS2). In this context, the solar PV industry has emerged in Foshan alongside innovative business models that provide new services and generate co-benefits, including the use of solar PV for retirement savings, PV loans, and PV-related insurance. The proximity between the financial industry and the solar PV industry has fostered the development of mutually beneficial institutional innovations. Nevertheless, these examples are only illustrative as the solar industry in Foshan is still emerging.

Solar PV technologies have spread through governance structures in urban villages. Urban villages have committees that operate as quasi-government actors. They have provided protected spaces for both niche experimentation and local networks to spread the use of solar PV. For example, the local leaders in Luonan Village, in Central Foshan, recently installed a 32.76 kW solar PV demonstration project on their villagers’ committee building (interview, FS9). The project is an example of self-regulation, in which the communities themselves provide spaces to display the latest solar technologies in situ. The proximity between individuals invested in both the villages and the solar industry enables the creation of such spaces. For example, in Luonan Village, an initiator was an employee at the Southern Power Grid (a national grid company of China owned by the central government) with a personal connection to the village. A solar distributor and installer interviewed in Foshan detailed how he mobilized family relationships to raise interest in solar technologies (interview, FS9).

Similarly, Wuxi’s positioning as a solar tech hub builds on a strong foundation of manufacturing and technology development capacity (interview, WX3 and WX8). The city has a long history of functioning as a hub of industrial development. As early as the 1930s, the establishment of a silk mill in the urban area contributed to the emergence of one of the country’s first large industrial urban agglomerations, and the city eventually became a center for metal smelting, electrical equipment processing, and manufacturing, chemical industries and textiles (Philipps et al. 2012). Moreover, Wuxi is located at the center of Yangtze River Delta, with good access to around forty universities and research institutes in Shanghai, Jiangsu Province and Zhejiang Province. The municipal government has actively encouraged information exchanges between academia and the private sector (Philipps et al. 2012). The positioning of Wuxi as an international leader in the development of solar technology is most often explained as a combination of industrial policy and access to global networks of capital and expertise (Wuxi Government, 2011). Local factors also stimulated the development of solar energy technology, particularly in the Taihu New Town (interview, WX12, WX19 and WX20). Eco-town discourses emerged alongside an increasing interest in ‘greener’ lifestyles, which residents now sought to enact in their everyday lives. After the construction of housing projects under a green science-tech label, building-integrated SWH technologies became the must-have eco-technology for middle-income homes and villas. For example, the real estate developer, Landsea, has actively engaged in the green
residential property development business by using various green technologies in their green buildings, including the installation of solar water heater. One of the interviewed residents claimed his purchase of the green-certificated property was due to the financial saving incentive for the utility bill (interview, WX11).

Socio-spatial factors have facilitated the expansion of SWHs in Rizhao. Many residents in Rizhao have developed an interest in SWHs since the 1980s (interview, RZ18, RZ24, and RZ25), further facilitated by proximity to an industry cluster of SWHs in Shandong province. Advanced technologies substituted improvised devices developed by residents. The symbolic significance of the idea of obtaining energy from the sun particularly fitted a city with a ‘Sun Worship Culture,’ something often mentioned in the interviews conducted in the city (see also Huang et al. 2018a). As explained by one interviewee (interview, RZ14):

“Rizhao’s name (“日照”) follows an old Chinese saying that it is the place illuminated by the first rays of the sun (“日出初光先照”)… A lot of elements from the ‘Sun Worship Culture’ have been inscribed into the generic identity of Rizhao.”

Citizens see the sun as an integral part of the city’s identity, which contributes to an inherently positive view of solar energy systems. When local industries looked towards an endogenous market for solar energy, they found that SWHs had seamlessly been integrated into Rizhao’s everyday life. The majority of citizens in Rizhao already used water-in-glass evacuated tube SWHs before the municipal government published supporting regulations in 2007. As indicated by one interviewee (interview, RZ27):

“I started to use the SWH around 1997. It was quite early… We all thought it was so convenient, and it was not expensive. We only needed to pay for the water.”

Because SWHs were seamlessly integrated into everyday life, residents found no inconvenience in the use of SWHs. While in other cities the irregular provision of hot water may be seen as a problem, in Rizhao, residents do not question it (Huang et al. 2018b).

Urban trajectories

A combination of the DUET configuration with the multi-phased model enables an investigation of the relationship between the configurations of urban processes and the dynamics of system changes over time. On the one hand, the phase model provides a picture of to what extent have the three cities facilitated solar energy transitions; on the other hand, the three dimensions of the DUET framework offer insights into the dynamics that have driven the transition trajectories of the three cities (answering the how and why question).

In Foshan, political factors provided the impetus for the transition, with an overall demand by the city’s government and its population to address the long-standing pollution problems stemming from its long history of industrial development. For instance, the designation of the Sanshui Industrial Park as a national demonstration zone for distributed solar PV and the introduction of programs such as the national solar FIT and the Guangdong Solar PV Power Generational Development Plan in 2014 facilitated resource mobilization, supported the proliferation of business, and generated a nascent interest in solar technologies, marking the entry into the breakthrough phase. Despite the popularity of solar PV technologies in urban villages, the actual spread of solar technologies still relies on isolated pioneers drawing on significant personal connections and expertise. Since 2016, Foshan has moved towards the acceleration phase. For example, the number of installed solar PV in Foshan went from less than a dozen in 2015 to 763 by the end of 2016 (interview, FS2, FS6 and FS7). Costs diminished rapidly. Payback periods were reduced from 15 to 8 years in the period from 2015 to 2016. Nevertheless, multiple elements from the previous phases remain, and there is as-yet little evidence of future consolidation (interview, FS1 and FS2). The potential for the solar sector relates to its potential to fill a new niche of acceptable industries, following the rise of environmental concerns in the political agenda.

In Wuxi, the drive towards solar technologies is part of a broader effort to constitute the city as an eco-city exemplar. The founding of Sun-tech in 2001 triggered the formation of a solar power industry in Wuxi, marking the breakthrough phase for solar transitions. Following health scares in the late 2000s, particularly the blue algae outbreak in Taihu Lake in 2007, Wuxi entered the acceleration phase for solar transitions, followed by a series of solar policies. The mandatory installation regulation of SWHs in 2008 and the ‘4610 plan’ in 2010 played facilitating roles in solar transitions. Simultaneously, many small enterprises have merged into larger suppliers able to meet the rising demand. Since 2015, Wuxi has reached the stabilization phase, with the total solar power generation reaching 90 MW. SWHs have become lifestyle items and must-have technologies in newly built developments, constituting a ubiquitous part of Wuxi’s energy landscapes (interview, WX8, WX9 and WX10).

In Rizhao, the coexistence of complementary but not exactly similar technologies complicates the phase analysis. For water-in-glass evacuated tube SWHs, a predevelopment stage emerged in the 1980s when grassroots groups experimented with the utilization of low-tech solar water heating systems (interview, RZ21, RZ22 and RZ23). In this case, public interest preceded, rather than followed, industrial innovation. The take-off stage could be dated to 1984, the year in which the technology to produce SWHs with evacuated glass tubes was developed. Since the late 1990s, the founding of leading enterprises such as Himin brought the technology to the breakthrough and acceleration stage. Mass production increased the cost-competitiveness and the market for SWHs was opened up and expanded rapidly. Rizhao already reached the stabilization phase in the early 2000s, with more than 70% of the urban households using SWHs. While for wall-mounted flat plate SWHs, the breakthrough phase could be dated to 2003, when a local SWH manufacturer specialized in wall-mounted flat plate SWHs was founded, marking the ability of mass production and cost-effectiveness. The mandatory installation of building-integrated SWH in Rizhao has greatly accelerated the market expansion of wall-mounted flat plate SWHs, marking the entry in the acceleration phase. However, there is no evidence that this new SWH technology will ever reach a stabilization phase.

Overall, none of the cases followed neatly the different phases of innovation described in the literature. Nevertheless, features of different phases at various stages of the development of solar technologies exist for each case study, as summarized in Table 3.Footnote 5 The analysis shows that within a similar innovation context, locally specific processes of experimentation, political dynamics, and socio-spatial factors have a defining influence on the possibilities for a transition and its consequences. The comparative analysis suggests that the close alliance between municipal governments and the solar industry is a crucial factor shaping urban energy transitions in China.

Table 3 A summary of the key events driving urban transition trajectories in Foshan, Wuxi, and Rizhao

Full size table

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