Green Giant: Beijing's Crash Program for Clean Energy

Joe Romm

China introduces yet another new law to boost renewable energy.

China’s clean-tech advances should be a warning to the U.S.China is going to eat our lunch and take our jobs on clean energy — an industry that we largely invented — and they are going to do it with a managed economy we don’t have and don’t want,” as I’ve said.  Our only chance of matching them is to pass the bipartisan climate and clean energy bill.

Two new articles underscore America’s challenge.  The first is a short Reuters piece on China’s new renewables law, and the second is a long New Yorker piece.  Reuters reported Sunday:

A new Chinese law requires power grid operators to buy all the electricity produced by renewable energy generators, in a move that will increase the proportion of energy that comes from renewable sources in coal-dependent China.

The amendment to the 2006 renewable energy law was adopted on Saturday by the standing committee of the National People’s Congress, China’s legislature, the Xinhua news agency said.

The amendment also gives authority to the State Council energy department, together with the State Council finance department and the state power authority, to “determine the proportion of renewable energy power generation to the overall generating capacity for a certain period.”

Such legislation is not how we do business, which is why, I repeat, “The only way to win the clean energy race is to pass the clean energy bill.”

frhigt The New Yorker piece is great news from the perspective of those who want to see widespread dissemination of low-cost low-carbon technology, but alarming to any American who understands that such technology will be the among the biggest source of high-wage jobs and economic power this century (see “Invented here, sold there”).  I recommend reading the whole  piece, but I’ll single out two must-read extended excerpts.  First, the overview:

On March 3, 1986, four of China’s top weapons scientists—each a veteran of the missile and space programs—sent a private letter to Deng Xiaoping, the leader of the country. Their letter was a warning: Decades of relentless focus on militarization had crippled the country’s civilian scientific establishment; China must join the world’s xin jishu geming, the “new technological revolution,” they said, or it would be left behind.

They called for an élite project devoted to technology ranging from biotech to space research. Deng agreed, and scribbled on the letter, “Action must be taken on this now.” This was China’s “Sputnik moment,” and the project was code-named the 863 Program, for the year and month of its birth. In the years that followed, the government pumped billions of dollars into labs and universities and enterprises, on projects ranging from cloning to underwater robots.

Then, in 2001, Chinese officials abruptly expanded one program in particular: energy technology. The reasons were clear. Once the largest oil exporter in East Asia, China was now adding more than two thousand cars a day and importing millions of barrels; its energy security hinged on a flotilla of tankers stretched across distant seas. Meanwhile, China was getting nearly eighty per cent of its electricity from coal, which was rendering the air in much of the country unbreathable and hastening climate changes that could undermine China’s future stability. Rising sea levels were on pace to create more refugees in China than in any other country, even Bangladesh.

In 2006, Chinese leaders redoubled their commitment to new energy technology; they boosted funding for research and set targets for installing wind turbines, solar panels, hydroelectric dams, and other renewable sources of energy that were higher than goals in the United States. China doubled its wind-power capacity that year, then doubled it again the next year, and the year after.

solar china The country had virtually no solar industry in 2003; five years later, it was manufacturing more solar cells than any other country, winning customers from foreign companies that had invented the technology in the first place. As President Hu Jintao, a political heir of Deng Xiaoping, put it in October of this year, China must “seize preëmptive opportunities in the new round of the global energy revolution.”

So China’s leaders are committed to aggressive government policies that will ensure their leadership in clean energy.  Sadly, in this country, such vision is shared only by progressive political leaders and a very few conservatives, such as Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) who said this month:

“I believe the green economy is coming.  That’s not a question of if it’s going to happen, it’s just when it’s going to happen.  The sooner the better for me, because the jobs of the future lie in energy independence and cleaning up the environment.”

Duh.  Sadly, most of the conservative movement not only doesn’t agree, but has actively worked to thwart or gut efforts by progressives to maintain or increase clean energy funding — see “Hill conservatives reject all 3 climate strategies and embrace Rush Limbaugh“ and “Who got us in this energy mess? Start with Ronald Reagan” and “Why is our energy policy so lame? Ask the three GOP stooges.

The second excerpt should be equally motivating to Americans:

In the same way, technology that is too expensive to be profitable in the West can become economical once China is involved; DVD players and flat-screen televisions were luxury goods until Chinese low-cost production made them ubiquitous.

So far, many of the most promising energy technologies—from thin-film solar cells to complex systems that store carbon in depleted oil wells—are luxury goods, but the combination of Chinese manufacturing and American innovation is powerful; Kevin Czinger, a former Goldman Sachs executive, called it “the Apple model.” “Own the brand, the design, and the intellectual property,” he said, and then go to whoever can manufacture the technology reliably and cheaply.

A few years ago, Czinger began looking at the business of electric cars. Detroit was going to move slowly, he figured, to avoid undermining its main business, and U.S. startups, including Tesla and Fisker, were planning to sell luxury electric cars for more than eighty thousand dollars each. Czinger had something else in mind.

cars “These cars should be far simpler and far cheaper than anything that’s manufactured today,” he told me when we met last spring in Beijing. At fifty, Czinger has brown hair swept back, sharp cheekbones, and an intensity that borders on the unnerving. (“Kevin Czinger was the toughest kid to play football at Yale in my thirty-two years as head coach,” Carm Cozza, the former Yale coach, wrote in a memoir. “He was also the most unusual personality, probably the outstanding overachiever, maybe the brightest student, and definitely the scariest individual.”)

In the spring of 2008, Czinger signed on as the C.E.O. of Miles Electric Vehicles, a small electric-car company in Santa Monica that was looking to expand, and he went searching for a Chinese partner. He ended up at Tianjin Lishen Battery Joint-Stock Company.

A decade ago, Japan dominated the world of lithium-ion batteries—the powerful, lightweight cells that hold promise for an electric-car future—but in 1998 the Chinese government launched a push to catch up. Lishen received millions in subsidies and hundreds of acres of low-cost land to build a factory.

The company grew to two hundred and fifty million dollars in annual sales, with customers including Apple, Samsung, and Motorola. Last year, the 863 Program gave Lishen a $2.6-million grant to get into the electric-car business. That is when Czinger showed up. “We hit it off immediately,” Qin Xingcai, the general manager of Lishen, said.

Czinger, who by now was heading up a sister company called Coda Automotive, added components from America and Germany and a chassis licensed from Japan. If all goes as planned, the Coda will become the first mass-produced all-electric sedan for sale in the United States next fall, with a price tag, after government rebates, of about thirty-two thousand dollars.

The Coda looks normal to the point of banal, a Toyota-ish family car indistinguishable from anything you would find in a suburban cul-de-sac. And that’s the point; its tagline, “A model for the mainstream,” is a jab at more eccentric and expensive alternatives.

The race to make the first successful electric car may hinge on what engineers call “the pack”—the intricate bundle of batteries that is the most temperamental equipment on board. If the pack is too big, the car will be too pricey; if the pack is too small, or of poor design, it will drive like a golf cart.

“Batteries are a lot like people,” Phil Gow, Coda’s chief battery engineer, told me when I visited the Tianjin factory, a ninety-minute drive from Beijing. “They want to have a certain temperature range. They’re finicky.” To explain, Gow, a Canadian, who is bald and has a goatee, led me to one of Lishen’s production lines, similar to the car-battery line that will be fully operational next year.

Workers in blue uniforms and blue hairnets were moving in swift precision around long temperature-controlled assembly lines, sealed off from dust and contamination by glass walls.

chinese laptop battery The workers were making laptop batteries—pinkie-size cylinders, to be lined up and encased in the familiar plastic brick. The system is similar for batteries tiny enough for an iPod or big enough for a car. Conveyor belts carried long, wafer-thin strips of metal into printing-press-like rollers, which coated them with electrode-active material. Another machine sandwiched the strips between razor-thin layers of plastic, and wound the whole stack together into a tight “jelly roll,” a cylinder that looked, for the first time, like a battery. (Square cell-phone batteries are just jelly rolls squashed.)

A slogan on the wall declared “Variation Is the Biggest Enemy of Quality.” Gow nodded at it gravely. A bundle of batteries is only as good as its weakest cell; if a coating is five-millionths of a metre too thin or too thick, a car could be a lemon. The new plant will have up to three thousand workers on ten-hour shifts, twenty hours a day. “When you get down to it, you can have ten people working in China for the cost of one person in the U.S.,” Mark Atkeson, the head of Coda’s China operations, said.

It was easy to see China’s edge in the operation. Upstairs, Gow and Atkeson showed me America’s edge: their prototype of the pack. For two years, Coda’s engineers in California and their collaborators around the world have worked on making it as light and powerful as possible—a life of “optimizing millimetres,” as Gow put it. The result was a long, shallow aluminum case, measured to fit between the axles and jam-packed with seven hundred and twenty-eight rectangular cells, topped with a fibreglass case. It carried its own air-conditioning system, to prevent batteries from getting too cold or too hot. Rattling off arcane points, Gow caught himself. “There’s hundreds of things that go into it, so there’s hundreds of details,” he said. “It’s really a great field for people with O.C.D.”

Czinger, in that sense, had found his niche. By November, he was crisscrossing the Pacific, leading design teams on both sides; in the months since we first met, he had grown only more evangelical in his belief that, if Americans would stop feeling threatened by China’s progress on clean technology, they might glimpse their own strengths.

Only his American engineers, he said, had the garage-innovation culture to spend “eighteen hours a day for two years to develop a new technology.” But only in China had he discovered “the will to spend on infrastructure, and to do it at high speed.” The result, he said, was a “state-of-the-art battery facility that was, two years ago, an empty field!”

So Americans invent the stuff and the Chinese make it.  Thanks for the friggin’ “glimpse” of our strength weakness, our inability to elect leaders who would stop the Chinese and the rest of the world from eating our lunch — a lunch that we ever-so-thoughtfully designed for them!

For the first time in three decades, we have leaders who actually get both the threat of unrestricted greenhouse gas emissions and the clean energy jobs opportunity (see One year after his election, Obama on verge of audaciously fulfilling his promise as the green FDR and Obama announces $3.4 billion in smart grid investments “to build a clean energy superhighway.” Creating a clean energy economy will require an “all-hands-on-deck approach similar to the mobilization that preceded World War II…. I also believe that such a comprehensive piece of legislation that is taking place right now in Congress is going to be critical”).  Let’s hope they can overcome the anti-science ideologues and save a livable climate and U.S. clean energy leadership.

This post was created for    , a project of the Center for American Progress Action Fund    .  Joseph Romm is the editor of Climate Progress     and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.

More articles on Celsias:

Looking Down the Environmental Legacy Barrel of Chinese Drywall

On Energy, We're Finally Walking the Walk

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  • Posted on Dec. 30, 2009. Listed in:

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