Friedman: China beating US on low carbon energy

Thomas Friedman is now doubtful that China will follow an American lead towards a greener economy, as he suggested in his book Hot, Flat and Crowded reviewed here. He considers rather that it is more likely to pull ahead of the US. He writes from China in his recent column in the New York Timesthat he’s been astonished to learn of how many projects have got under way in China in just the last year –- wind, solar, nuclear, mass transit and more efficient coal burning.

He quotes Bill Gross, head of a solar-thermal Californian company, eSolar, announcing the biggest solar deal ever, a 2 gigawatt, $5 billion deal to build solar thermal plants in China using California-based technology. Gross comments that China is being more aggressive than the US. His company applied for a US Department of Energy loan for a 92 megawatt project in New Mexico. In less time than it took them to do stage 1 of the application review “China signs, approves, and is ready to begin construction this year on a 20 times bigger project!”

Friedman goes on to instance other developments. Solar panels are one. He says so many new solar panel makers emerged in China in the last year alone that the price of solar power has fallen from roughly 59 cents a kilowatt hour to 16 cents. 50 new nuclear reactors are expected to be built by 2020, while the rest of the world may manage 15. High speed trains are breaking world records. A high speed rail link from Shanghai to Beijing means trains will cover the 700 miles in just five hours, compared with 12 hours today (and 18 hours for a similar distance from New York to Chicago in the US).

China is on the way to making green power technologies cheaper for itself and for everyone else.

“But even Chinese experts will tell you that it will all happen faster and more effectively if China and America work together — with the U.S. specializing in energy research and innovation, at which China is still weak, as well as in venture investing and servicing of new clean technologies, and with China specializing in mass production.”

Friedman concludes with a call to America to put in place a long-term carbon price that stimulates and rewards clean power innovation. “We can’t afford to be asleep with an invigorated China wide awake.”

Meanwhile India has plans to be a world leader in solar power, as announced by the Prime Minister a couple of days ago. He launched the National Solar Mission with a target of 20,000 megawatts of solar generating capacity by 2022. It will be helped along by a regulatory and incentive framework. Manmohan Singh hoped the new laws and incentives will “lead to a rapid scale up of capacity. This will encourage technological innovation and generate economies of scale, thereby leading to a steady lowering of costs. Once parity with conventional power tariff is achieved, there will be no technological or economic constraint to the rapid and large-scale expansion of solar power thereafter”.

He said he was “convinced that solar energy can also be the next scientific and technological frontier in India after atomic energy, space and information technology”. The scheme has pride of place in India’s National Action Plan on Climate Change.

7 thoughts on “Friedman: China beating US on low carbon energy”

  1. 2009 is going to be recognised as the year China claimed leadership in many areas. China is still spending nearly 1% of it’s GDP in R&D ( genuine physical sciences R&D, not social sciences etc. ). Combined with the market size and short product cycles, they are able to refine processes and products very quickly – faster than even Japan and South Korea.

    I know peoples’ eyes glaze over when I mention chemistry, but in 2009 China surpassed the USA in chemistry-related patent applications ( which includes the material sciences underlying solar panels, nuclear, etc ).

    Over the last decade the US chemistry patents grew by 240%, the Chinese by 2600%. The number of new chemicals listed by Chinese patents increased 2400%. Chemical patents are important because they provide monopoly status for a couple of decades – ironic given how China often disregards IP belonging to others.

    Chinese authors now make up a significant % of all journal articles as well, showing they are building both applied and fundamental knowledge.

    China has also encouraged a lot of ex-pat researchers back from the West to help establish industries. Pretty brutal stuff – back on good contracts for a couple of years, and then the contracts are renegotiated down, knowing it’s hard to return to the US with all the Pharma chemist layoffs..

    If you’re interested in China’s new domination of chemistry, there’s a very interesting, and easy-to-read, article in the US chemistry magazine C&E News, entitled “China Ascendant”.

  2. Interesting about the patents Bruce, seems the statement “…the U.S. specializing in energy research and innovation, at which China is still weak,” may be heading for a little more equity quicker than some people think.

  3. There is also an “environmental” city of 300,000 planned. Solar and wind powered and with high rise farm buildings producing food within the city and recycling waste etc. A new approach to the building of cities. This has been tried before – the garden towns of England in the early 1900’s for instance. But how do we change our existing cities to be more energy efficient? We have to do this, or the game is lost.

    1. Farm buildings for crops such as Lettuce and Tomatoes could well be the future of farming from all points of view. Once the price of the extra capital required drops below the price of land they may take off.

      Exciting development all right and really shows the limitlessness of our ability to feed an ever growing population.

  4. True Doug. There is no way an ever growing population is sustainable, and it is debatable if the human population isn’t already over the limit. With developed nations taking up about 10 hectares of arable land per person, it doesn’t leave much over for those in developing and undeveloped countries.
    The task is to firstly reduce the requirement for earths resources from those in developed and developing nations and to improve the quality of life for those in undeveloped Nations in order that the human reproduction rates in all countries can begin to fall to a sustainable level.
    It wasn’t that long ago C3 that dairy herds and piggeries were in central London. Animals were held at Smithfield Market for slaughtering. The advent of Rail led to the supply of fresh country milk at Sainberry’s and the ultimate demise of the cheaper, but less “savory”, town supply milk. This move of course added “food miles” to the equation. But then, who cared! Since then our cities, and the supply of food to them in particular, have become dependent upon transportation, first by rail and then by road. As cities have grown bigger and bigger, no longer constrained by the limitations of the transportation of food to the citizens, they have also become less and less efficient from the perspective of energy.
    The advent of international food (eg frozen mutton from NZ in the 1880s, although the Romans imported most of their grain from Africa and oysters from the Thames estuary) doesn’t help either. But then who are we (NZers) to fuss about this. We can’t wait for a free trade deal with the USA in order to supply even more international food – our economy is dependent upon it. I see that there are plans to re-introduce sailing ships – there have been designs with highly efficient aerofoils etc. around for years, but have never come to fruition. Sea transport is a fairly efficient mode of transportation anyway, but the use of solar and wind energy could improve the efficiency further.

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