Making solar energy accessible — and adorable

(Courtesy of South China Morning Post)

(Courtesy of South China Morning Post)

Ada Li Yan-tung creates panda-shaped solar farms to engage Gen Z in renewable energy.

Like many teens, Ada Li Yan-tung loves watching panda videos on Instagram and YouTube. The environmental advocate had been thinking about ways to get her friends interested in sustainable energy and was inspired to merge these seemingly disparate interests. In a post on Weibo, one of China’s most popular social media sites, then 15-year-old Ada floated her idea: panda-shaped solar farms.

Three years later, her adorable dream is now a reality. The first panda solar farm opened in northern China in 2017 and now Ada is helping plan their expansion around the world.

Ada began learning about the climate crisis in middle school. She realised that if her generation didn’t want to inherit a planet crippled by rising seas, wildfires, melting glaciers and storms, it was up to them to protect it.

“The future belongs to us. And the environment ultimately belongs to us. So I think having a role as youth is really crucial. When the government officials are making decisions in the meeting rooms, I think that there should be a platform and a way for us teenagers to have our voices heard,” Ada said in a speech at her school.

(Courtesy of Social Good Summit)

(Courtesy of Social Good Summit)

While brainstorming other ways to engage her peers, Ada had her panda-sized epiphany. The premise was simple: “Why not bring an image that is really vivid and really adorable together with these bulky solar panels to make them more interesting?” Using solar panels instead of fossil fuels (like gas or coal) for energy helps to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and other pollutants in the atmosphere. Panda bears are of course cute, but Ada knew that they also have “many layers of meaning.” They’re a mascot of China, an emblem of peace and a symbol environmental protection.

Her idea caught the attention of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) who reached out to Ada. They connected her with the China Merchants New Energy (CMNE) group who told her they wanted to build her farms. Just over a year after Ada posted on Weibo, the first panda-shaped solar farm opened in Datong, northern Shanxi province. “In China, a lot of things are very efficient,” Ada says of this accelerated timeline.

The 50-megawatt solar farm is shaped as two baby pandas — and provides one million people in the area with energy for half a year. Ada’s farm is part of a wider trend across China to support renewable energy. Although China is the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, the country is now investing hundreds of billions of dollars in domestic renewable energy and creating millions of jobs in clean power.

(Courtesy of South China Morning Post)

(Courtesy of South China Morning Post)

Now at age 19, Ada balances applying to university with expanding her farms around the world. In France, she is designing a panda holding hands with a rooster, while a farm in Australia will feature a koala with a panda.

For Ada, the success of her idea can be seen not in the number of panda solar farms built, but in her friends’ newfound interest in renewable energy. “I think I succeeded because a lot of my friends say, ‘I didn’t know about solar panels until I saw this really fun and interesting power station,’” she says with a smile. Because who said that combating climate change couldn’t also be cute?


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Tess Thomas is editor of Assembly, a digital publication and newsletter from Malala Fund. She loves books, cats and french fries.