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Tuesday, August 18, 2009

CS Monitor: China Aims to "Leapfrog" U.S. in Clean Energy Race

Originally Posted at The Breakthrough Institute

Imagining China as a giant green frog seems a little ridiculous, but, as Peter Ford of the Christian Science Monitor reported last week in a piece entitled "China's Green Leap Forward," China's intent to "leapfrog" the United States in the clean energy race is far from ridiculous - it may soon be a reality.

While the U.S. languidly inches forward in clean energy RD&D, China's burgeoning clean and renewable energy industries are growing at an unprecedented pace for a developing nation. Much more than a response to the suffocating pollution clogging the airways of its major cities, the explosion of clean energy technology is part of a national strategy to dominate the industry. As Ford succinctly puts it:

China price" and "China speed" are poised to snatch the lion's share of the next multitrillion-dollar global industry - energy technology... Indeed, China is pushing ahead on renewable technologies with the fervor of a new space race.

Indeed, China is approaching clean energy with a "space race" mind-set, however, the U.S. has yet to adopt the same sense of urgency. As Americans wait for a Senate decision on the significantly weakened American Clean Energy and Security Act (H.R. 2454), which will invest just $1 billion per year in clean energy R&D and $10 billion for clean energy investments broadly defined, China has already implemented a suite of clean energy policies beginning with the Renewable Energy Law of 2006.

By supporting the growing wind sector with subsidies, tariffs, and an obligatory renewable energy requirement for power companies, China now expects wind manufacturing to grow from 8GW in 2007 to between 12GW and 20GW by 2010. In comparison, the U.S. manufactured just 2.4 GW of wind turbines in 2007 despite having the largest wind market in the world.

While China is already the world's leading solar manufacturer and is preparing to launch the first mass-produced electric car, as Ford points out, the story of "clean coal" (i.e. carbon capture and storage technology, CCS) may be the best portent of the future of China's clean energy competitiveness. Neither the U.S. nor China will easily bump coal from their energy mixes in the near future. Since China and the U.S. glean 80% and 50% of their electricity from coal generation (respectively), both will need innovations in CCS technology to mitigate their dirty fuel usage.

Despite America's thirty-year head start in clean coal R&D, there is surprisingly significant uncertainty as to who will dominate the CCS market. Under ACES, $1 billion would be allocated to CCS demonstration and another $2.4 billion would be provided for deployment, improving the outlook for the more experienced U.S. Still, after watching the U.S. Futuregen project become mired in cost and political obstructions, China started the Greengen initiative, which is predicted to be the "most efficient and cleanest coal-fired power station every built." According to Chinese officials, it should begin operating at the end of 2010.

In the story, Zhang Hongmei, the director for technology strategy and development at China's largest privately owned clean energy provider, ENN, astutely assesses the CCS hold-up in the U.S.:
In America, some people say there is no such thing as clean coal. It is very controversial. Here [China] it's not a question of debate or lobbying. It's a question of doing something.

Ford reiterates a question Breakthrough's Jesse Jenkins and Teryn Norris recently asked in an op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle - will American lose the clean-energy race? - and, if China wins, what are the implications for the rest of the world?

In order to stay abreast of the China and the other Asian tigers in the clean energy race, Breakthrough has repeatedly called for increased investment in clean energy deployment, R&D, and manufacturing. Furthermore, Breakthrough is currently advocating for RE-ENERGYSE, President Obama's energy education program that was recently dropped from FY2010 appropriations budget. A science and math initiative that encompasses K-12, undergraduate, and graduate education, the program is designed to usher in a clean energy workforce prepared to compete in the global clean energy industry.

Both nations are fully cognizant of the economic advantages of clean energy dominance and the urgency of the clean energy race is more salient than ever as demand for "green jobs" dominates news headlines.

As President Obama, Breakthrough and others (see here and here)have cautioned, without a strong, comprehensive effort by the U.S. to expand its clean energy industry on a global scale, China's looming shadow, frog-shaped or otherwise, will be perfectly positioned to eclipse the U.S. as the world's next economic powerhouse.

Click here to see Breakthrough's complete coverage of the clean energy race...

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