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China leading the world in clean energy investment

By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 30, 2010; AA04

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.

"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.

In some cases, the Chinese vision of a bright, renewable energy future hasn't translated into reality. The government requires 4 percent of the installed energy supply for any new power plant to come from renewable sources. But that doesn't always happen, according to energy experts who cite idle wind turbines in Mongolia that were built for the government mandate but never hooked up to the grid.

In a similar vein, a year ago Chinese government officials signed a much-publicized agreement with Arizona-based First Solar to build the world's largest solar plant in the Mongolian desert. But there is rising skepticism about whether it will ever be built. With Chinese competitors complaining that First Solar received lucrative terms in its contract, local Chinese officials say they plan to open the site to competitive bidding.

In 2009, China installed wind technology that produced 13.8 gigawatts, compared with America's 10 gigawatts; the gap is expected to widen this year. China is projected to install capacity to produce about 14 gigawatts this year -- an amount that could provide power to millions of homes. But in the United States, the amount of new wind energy capacity installed in 2010 is expected to drop between 25 and 45 percent from last year.

American Wind Energy Association spokeswoman Debra Preitkis-Jones argues that China will continue to outpace the United States without measures such as a renewable energy standard, which would require utilities to obtain a certain percentage of their electricity supply from renewable sources such as wind and solar. "The U.S. has no long-term signal to support the wind industry," she wrote in an e-mail.

Business and labor groups here and in Europe are increasingly questioning whether there is an even playing field in China when it comes to renewable energy. The European Chamber of Commerce in China published a report this month complaining that "the world's most competitive [wind turbine generator] producers continue to be excluded from China's major wind power projects. Industrial experience shows that since 2005, no single international WTG manufacturer has won a major national tender."

Earlier this month the United Steelworkers union charged that China had violated the World Trade Organization's rules by subsidizing clean-energy exports.

When it comes to public relations, China is pouring much energy into Expo 2010, the largest and most expensive world fair in history. Running from May 1 to Oct. 31, it has already attracted more than 55 million visitors, drawing close to 400,000 visitors in a single day.

The overall theme of the expo is urban development. In addition to the Chinese, who have made clean energy a focus of their exhibits, several of the scores of countries participating in the "Better City -- Better Life" showcase are focused on how clean energy can improve quality of life. The U.S. pavilion boasts a green rooftop, onsite renewable energy and recycled rainwater. The Alcoa Foundation is funding a series of carbon offsets in China to compensate for the greenhouse gas emissions the pavilion emits during its six months of operation. Freiburg, the largest German city with a Green Party mayor, shows displays of enhanced bicycle networks, rainwater collection and other new efforts to reduce carbon emissions. It successfully lured visitors to its green message by offering chilled German white wine.

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