Sputnik Moment: Historic Meeting Between U.S. and China May Spur a Clean Energy Race
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And Energy Secretary Chu recently framed the new relationship between the U.S. and China as a "Sputnik Moment." Referencing the first satellite launched by the Soviet Union in 1957, which demonstrated its technological advantage and led to the Cold War-era space race, Chu warned that the U.S. risks falling behind China in the clean technology race.
U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke already noticed this trend in 2009 when he said, "Ten to fifteen years from now, we're going to be saying, 'How did Shanghai become the Silicon Valley of clean energy?'"
Yet whether this new clean technology race pits the U.S. against China competitively, as the Cold War-era space race did, or allows for scientific partnerships between the U.S. and China remains an open question.
The new joint U.S.-China Clean Energy Research Center (CERC), which will be featured at next week's meeting, forms one sign of collaboration. The center will facilitate joint research and development on clean energy. Priority topics include building efficiency, clean coal, carbon capture and storage, and clean vehicles. Despite this sign of cooperation, the U.S. and China have exhibited remarkably different approaches to the development of clean technology and how to transition from a fossil fuel-based economy to one predominantly reliant on renewable energy.
Although historically China has relied on coal and hydropower for its electricity, it is investing in renewable energy at breakneck speed.
Currently, 70 percent of China's economy is coal-powered. But policy changes are afoot. Although it is not an official figure yet, China's energy bureaucrats seek to drop coal reliance from 69 to 63 percent by 2015. According to Zhang Guobao, Director of China's National Energy Administration, China has saved more than 300 million tons of coal in the past five years by replacing dirty and outdated thermal power plants.
Another new policy puts forth that 15 percent of China's energy must be derived from renewable energy. In addition, China's new energy policies focus on energy efficiency compliance, considered a green technology in China.
China's ramped up clean technology also draws on renewable energy. A 2007 report released by the World Watch Institute stated that "China has become a global leader in renewable energy." Its renewable energy sources encompass biomass energy (derived from sugarwastes and rice husks) and biofuel (produced mainly from corn), as well as solar and wind power. (In China, nuclear energy is not included as a renewable as it is in the U.S.)
Overall, China is the world's biggest manufacturer of solar panels. Suntech Power in Wuxi is the world's third largest producer of solar power. Moreover, while China produced 50 percent of the world's solar panels in 2010 it receives about 2 percent of its total energy from solar. Under new aggressive government plans for investment in renewable energy, however, this number will likely grow rapidly. In Rizhao, a city in northern China, 99 percent of households use solar water heaters.
Recently, an Arizona-based company, First Solar Inc. signed a deal with China Guangdong Nuclear Solar Energy Development Co., a Chinese state-owned energy company to build one of the world's largest solar power facilities in Inner Mongolia.
Wind power has also seen dramatic increases in China in the past five to six years. The wind industry has doubled in size each year since 2004. And as the New York Times reported just this week: "More than three times as much wind power capacity was installed in China last year than in the United States."
Here, too, policy played a strong role. Greenpeace's Li Yan told AlterNet that "a law required that 70 percent of wind had to be manufactured domestically. This stipulation helped to create jobs and to boost China's wind power, which has overtaken other previous leaders, such as Denmark, Spain and Germany to take the number one spot."