CHONGQING — Every day since 2014, a train leaves from the western German city of Duisburg. It winds its way across Europe and Asia to finally reach Chongqing, a megalopolis of 28 million inhabitants in southwestern China. Huge cranes there extract gigantic matchbox-like containers from the train. BMW cars made in Germany are taken from the train while HP laptops and iPads produced in the Chinese Foxconn factory nearby make their way to Europe.
The Old Continent has now become a lot closer to this western Chinese enclave. Most of the products here have been brought from Europe by train. This railway line is one of the first tangible achievements of Chinese President Xi Jinping's ambitious new Silk Road strategy. Xi hopes to stretch the railway to the Belgian port city of Antwerp as early as this year.
The train journey across Eurasia, which includes passing Russia and Kazakhstan, is still chaotic and lasts between 12 and 15 days. But this path is still a lot faster than the 25 days the journey takes by ship, which is often further delayed by customs on the Chinese coast and travel into Chongqing. By road, it can take up to 60 days door-to-door from western Europe to the Sichuan megalopolis.
This railway line has enabled Olive Zhang to raise funds to build a "Euro Shopping Park," a 72,000 square-meter warehouse that uses a locomotive-shaped logo and is located in the outskirts of Chongqing. In a brick building constructed in a vaguely British style, Orange Le Creuset casseroles costing 1540 yuans ($220) take center stage on the immaculate shelves. Under the spotlights, Victorinox Swiss knives are displayed on shelves next to German UHT milk cartons and French Dodie baby bottles. Outside the window, a fog partially conceals the Sichuan mountains.
"Chinese mothers want the best brands for their children," explains a vendor at Euro Shopping Park. Chinese consumers want European products, which are seen as safer and healthier, and this warehouse helps meet that demand.
Zhang, Euro Shopping Park's chief executive, has also developed an e-commerce application on which shoppers can find more than 500 European brands, including 80 French ones. "70% of the transportation costs are covered by government subsidies. Without those, this business wouldn't be viable," says Zhang, who took over her father's old business to turn it into an international operation.
If the new railway line beats the sea route in terms of speed, it's nonetheless more expensive and less competitive. Still, the young woman, who opened a branch in Germany, sees the rail as a way to distribute European products directly to consumers.
She's sure of the New Silk Road's prospects and has traveled with Prime Minister Li Keqiang to Lithuania and Kazakhstan in November to persuade these countries to invest in the sprawling railway network.
But Beijing is having difficulties in convincing its partners to modernize their stretch of the railway, which has been affected by technical issues especially in central Asia, where refrigerated containers are threatened by power shortages and frequent delays.
"There are doubts about governments' political will to invest and bring the railway up to date," says Kevin Martin, a representative of the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China, which is based in Chongqing. Brussels, which fears that Xi's project might be a one-way road that benefits only Chinese exporters and infrastructure companies, has made its reluctance clear.
It's true that Chinese authorities, after having multiplied the number of highways and high-speed rails, are now looking for new prospects. Zhang, whose warehouse lies next to an amusement park that reproduces Europe's most famous monuments in miniature, hopes to convince Brussels that the Old Continent, and not just China, can benefit from the president's new Silk Road.
With loans and solar panels from China, the massive solar park has been opened a year and is already powering the surrounding areas. Now the Chinese supplier is pushing for an expansion.
CAUCHARI — Driving across the border with Chile into the northwest Argentine department of Susques, you may spot what looks like a black mass in the distance. Arriving at a 4,000-meter altitude in the municipality of Cauchari, what comes into view instead is an assembly of 960,000 solar panels. It is the world's highest photovoltaic (PV) park, which is also the second biggest solar energy facility in Latin America, after Mexico's Aguascalientes plant.
Spread over 800 hectares in an arid landscape, the Cauchari park has been operating for a year, and has so far turned sunshine into 315 megawatts of electricity, enough to power the local provincial capital of Jujuy through the national grid.
It has also generated some $50 million for the province, which Governor Gerardo Morales has allocated to building 239 schools.
Abundant sunshine, low temperatures
The physicist Martín Albornoz says Cauchari, which means "link to the sun," is exposed to the best solar radiation anywhere. The area has 260 days of sunshine, with no smog and relatively low temperatures, which helps keep the panels in optimal conditions.
Its construction began with a loan of more than $331 million from China's Eximbank, which allowed the purchase of panels made in Shanghai. They arrived in Buenos Aires in 2,500 containers and were later trucked a considerable distance to the site in Cauchari . This was a titanic project that required 1,200 builders and 10-ton cranes, but will save some 780,000 tons of CO2 emissions a year.
It is now run by 60 technicians. Its panels, with a 25-year guarantee, follow the sun's path and are cleaned twice a year. The plant is expected to have a service life of 40 years. Its choice of location was based on power lines traced in the 1990s to export power to Chile, now fed by the park.
Chinese engineers working in an office at the Cauchari park
Chinese want to expand
The plant belongs to the public-sector firm Jemse (Jujuy Energía y Minería), created in 2011 by the province's then governor Eduardo Fellner. Jemse's president, Felipe Albornoz, says that once Chinese credits are repaid in 20 years, Cauchari will earn the province $600 million.
The Argentine Energy ministry must now decide on the park's proposed expansion. The Chinese would pay in $200 million, which will help install 400,000 additional panels and generate enough power for the entire province of Jujuy.
The park's CEO, Guillermo Hoerth, observes that state policies are key to turning Jujuy into a green province. "We must change the production model. The world is rapidly cutting fossil fuel emissions. This is a great opportunity," Hoerth says.
The province's energy chief, Mario Pizarro, says in turn that Susques and three other provincial districts are already self-sufficient with clean energy, and three other districts would soon follow.
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