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China leading the world in clean energy investment

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By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 30, 2010

SHANGHAI -- As weary visitors wait to enter the Shanghai Corporate Pavilion at Expo 2010, a sprinkler system using recycled rainwater and powered through a solar thermal system cools them off with periodic misting. Once they enter the exhibit at the world's largest fair, tourists learn about high-speed trains and other energy-efficient inventions that have begun to proliferate in China.

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"Shanghai has developed so fast, its natural resources have disappeared," reads one placard at the expo. Several yards away, a film presentation plays in which the narrator asks, "What's the future of Shanghai?"

It is a question that is far from decided. But China's emphasis on developing clean energy sources has rattled some of its economic competitors and could transform the global energy marketplace.

In 2009, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts, China surpassed the United States and other members of the G-20 for the first time as the leader in clean energy investment. Last year clean energy investment in China totaled $34.6 billion, compared with $18.6 billion in the United States. Last month, Chinese officials announced they will spend $75 billion a year on clean energy.

"In China, the policy has gotten very aggressive," said Peggy Liu, chairperson of the Shanghai-based Joint U.S.-China Collaboration on Clean Energy. She said Chinese officials are trying out a range of new technologies: "It's like throwing spaghetti on the wall. They're very open to experimenting."

Zhou Dadi, vice chairman of the State Expert Advisory Committee to the National Energy Leading Group of China, said his nation is trying "to change the system" of how it uses and produces energy.

"Practically, you need to try everything," he said, adding that a few decades from now people will be able to judge whether China has managed to transform its energy system. "You cannot guarantee the results," he said.

Liu added that in contrast to the United States, where a major change in energy policy usually entails a lengthy legislative or regulatory battle, central government officials in China can make sweeping changes to their nation's energy landscape quickly. They are ramping up the number of nuclear power plants, installing high-speed rail systems and developing low-carbon cities, all without ballot initiatives and legislative debates.

"The key decision makers here have more power than in the U.S.," she said.

State Grid Corporation of China controls the electricity supply for more than three-quarters of China's land mass. China Electric Power Research Institute, a subsidiary of State Grid, has been working with IBM and other companies to develop a smart power grid that could improve the distribution of electricity and maximize efficiency across the country.

Brad Gammons, vice president of sales for IBM's energy and utilities unit, said he relocated from New York to Beijing a year ago "because of the amount of investment" China was making in renewable energy and energy efficiency. "It looked like they were going to move very rapidly and implement technology at scale."

For the most part, Gammons said, that rapid pace of investment has materialized, though the smart grid remains a work in progress.


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