China Breaking From the Pack in Renewables Race

(3BL Media/Justmeans) — We’ve all heard the stories about companies that didn’t see the future coming and ended up being left behind. Eastman Kodak comes to mind as one example. They blithely kept pumping out film and chemicals as the world switched over to digital photography. They now stand reduced to a shadow of their former glory.

These days one has to wonder, can the same thing happen to a country? The US has long been known as a leader in technological innovation and competitiveness. But in the area of energy, an unusually cozy relationship between the fossil fuel industry and the representatives whose campaigns they have supported has skewed the level playing field of the free market that those same politicians often claim to be the ideal law of the land. Even under Obama, who recognized the urgent need to move into renewables, entrenched subsidies for fossil fuels still exceed those for renewables by a factor of four to one. This, and the acompanying atmosphere of doubt about the science of cliamte change, has served to delay development and deployment of renewable energy sources.

The incoming administration is expected to double down on this backward-looking bias, having said as much in multiple campaign events. Meanwhile, the rest of the world, and China in particular, does not seem to be blinded by such self-serving patronage, and is leaving us in the dust.

Last week the Chinese National Energy Administration  announced that they would be investing $361 billion into renewable power generation by 2020. Just imagine what that that will mean for Chinese R&D efforts and for economies of scale, not to mention employment. Thirteen million new jobs will be created by the investment. That's almost twice the number of people currently unemployed in America. The funds and the work will be divided between solar ($140B), wind ($100B), and hydro ($70B), with smaller amounts going to tidal and geothermal. China does have an additional incentive to make these investments, which is dangerously poor air quality due to the massive amounts of coal being burned. There is no small irony in the fact that the reason the US does not suffer from the same problem is due to the unrelenting efforts of the EPA, an agency that the new administration appears poised to dismantle.

Amory Lovins told a group of supporters a few weeks back that “China is now leading in seven different categories of renewable technology. [Goldwind, a Chinese company passed GE in wind power last year.] They have installed more solar in the past year than the U.S. has in the past 59 years. Their strength lies in planned activities as well as a very dynamic and growing private sector.”

These leadership positions include:

  • Five of the world’s six largest solar-module manufacturing firms
  • The largest wind-turbine manufacturer
  • The world’s largest lithium ion manufacturer

According to the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) China also invested at least $32 billion overseas, a 60% increase over 2015.

According to IEEFA’s director, Tim Buckley, “The US is already slipping well behind China in the race to secure a larger share of the booming clean energy market. With the incoming administration talking up coal and gas, prospective domestic policy changes don’t bode well.”

Image credit: iStock