China Introduces New Law to Boost Clean Energy

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 buyall the electricity produced by renewable energy generators, in a movethat will increase the proportion of energy that comes from renewablesources in coal-dependent China. The amendment to the 2006 renewable energy law was adopted onSaturday 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 energydepartment, together with the State Council finance department and thestate power authority, to “determine the proportion of renewable energypower generation to the overall generating capacity for a certainperiod.”

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.”

The New Yorker piece is great news from the perspective ofthose who want to see widespread dissemination of low-cost low-carbontechnology, but alarming to any American who understands that suchtechnology will be the among the biggest source of high-wage jobs andeconomic 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 weaponsscientists—each a veteran of the missile and space programs—sent aprivate letter to Deng Xiaoping, the leader of the country. Theirletter was a warning: Decades of relentless focus on militarization hadcrippled the country’s civilian scientific establishment; China mustjoin the world’s xin jishu geming, the “new technologicalrevolution,” they said, or it would be left behind. They called for anélite project devoted to technology ranging from biotech to spaceresearch. Deng agreed, and scribbled on the letter, “Action must betaken on this now.” This was China’s “Sputnik moment,” and the projectwas code-named the 863 Program, for the year and month of its birth. Inthe years that followed, the government pumped billions of dollars intolabs and universities and enterprises, on projects ranging from cloningto underwater robots. Then, in 2001, Chinese officials abruptlyexpanded one program in particular: energy technology. The reasons wereclear. Once the largest oil exporter in East Asia, China was now addingmore than two thousand cars a day and importing millions of barrels;its energy security hinged on a flotilla of tankers stretched acrossdistant seas. Meanwhile, China was getting nearly eighty per cent ofits electricity from coal, which was rendering the air in much of thecountry unbreathable and hastening climate changes that could undermineChina’s future stability. Rising sea levels were on pace to create morerefugees in China than in any other country, even Bangladesh.

In 2006, Chinese leaders redoubled their commitment to new energytechnology; they boosted funding for research and set targets forinstalling wind turbines, solar panels, hydroelectric dams, and otherrenewable sources of energy that were higher than goals in the UnitedStates. China doubled its wind-power capacity that year, then doubledit again the next year, and the year after. The country had virtuallyno solar industry in 2003; five years later, it was manufacturing moresolar cells than any other country, winning customers from foreigncompanies that had invented the technology in the first place. AsPresident Hu Jintao, a political heir of Deng Xiaoping, put it inOctober of this year, China must “seize preëmptive opportunities in thenew round of the global energy revolution.”

So China’s leaders are committed to aggressive government policiesthat will ensure their leadership in clean energy.  Sadly, in thiscountry, such vision is shared only by progressive political leadersand 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 aquestion of if it’s going to happen, it’s just when it’s going tohappen.  The sooner the better for me, because the jobs of the futurelie in energy independence and cleaning up the environment.”

Duh.  Sadly, most of the conservative movement not only doesn’tagree, but has actively worked to thwart or gut efforts by progressivesto 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 beprofitable in the West can become economical once China is involved;DVD players and flat-screen televisions were luxury goods until Chineselow-cost production made them ubiquitous. So far, many of the mostpromising energy technologies—from thin-film solar cells to complexsystems that store carbon in depleted oil wells—are luxury goods, butthe combination of Chinese manufacturing and American innovation ispowerful; Kevin Czinger, a former Goldman Sachs executive, called it“the Apple model.” “Own the brand, the design, and the intellectualproperty,” he said, and then go to whoever can manufacture thetechnology reliably and cheaply. A few years ago, Czinger began lookingat the business of electric cars. Detroit was going to move slowly, hefigured, to avoid undermining its main business, and U.S. startups,including Tesla and Fisker, were planning to sell luxury electric carsfor more than eighty thousand dollars each. Czinger had something elsein mind.

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

In the spring of 2008, Czinger signed on as the C.E.O. of MilesElectric Vehicles, a small electric-car company in Santa Monica thatwas looking to expand, and he went searching for a Chinese partner. Heended 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 in1998 the Chinese government launched a push to catch up. Lishenreceived millions in subsidies and hundreds of acres of low-cost landto build a factory. The company grew to two hundred and fifty milliondollars in annual sales, with customers including Apple, Samsung, andMotorola. Last year, the 863 Program gave Lishen a $2.6-million grantto get into the electric-car business. That is when Czinger showed up.“We hit it off immediately,” Qin Xingcai, the general manager ofLishen, said.

Czinger, who by now was heading up a sister company called CodaAutomotive, added components from America and Germany and a chassislicensed from Japan. If all goes as planned, the Coda will become thefirst mass-produced all-electric sedan for sale in the United Statesnext fall, with a price tag, after government rebates, of aboutthirty-two thousand dollars. The Coda looks normal to the point ofbanal, a Toyota-ish family car indistinguishable from anything youwould 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 expensivealternatives.

The race to make the first successful electric car may hinge on whatengineers call “the pack”—the intricate bundle of batteries that is themost temperamental equipment on board. If the pack is too big, the carwill be too pricey; if the pack is too small, or of poor design, itwill drive like a golf cart. “Batteries are a lot like people,” PhilGow, Coda’s chief battery engineer, told me when I visited the Tianjinfactory, a ninety-minute drive from Beijing. “They want to have acertain temperature range. They’re finicky.” To explain, Gow, aCanadian, who is bald and has a goatee, led me to one of Lishen’sproduction lines, similar to the car-battery line that will be fullyoperational next year. Workers in blue uniforms and blue hairnets weremoving in swift precision around long temperature-controlled assemblylines, sealed off from dust and contamination by glass walls.

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

A slogan on the wall declared “Variation Is the Biggest Enemy ofQuality.” Gow nodded at it gravely. A bundle of batteries is only asgood as its weakest cell; if a coating is five-millionths of a metretoo thin or too thick, a car could be a lemon. The new plant will haveup 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 forthe cost of one person in the U.S.,” Mark Atkeson, the head of Coda’sChina operations, said.

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

Czinger, in that sense, had found his niche. By November, hewas crisscrossing the Pacific, leading design teams on both sides; inthe months since we first met, he had grown only more evangelical inhis belief that, if Americans would stop feeling threatened by China’sprogress on clean technology, they might glimpse their own strengths.Only his American engineers, he said, had the garage-innovation cultureto spend “eighteen hours a day for two years to develop a newtechnology.” But only in China had he discovered “the will to spend oninfrastructure, 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 emptyfield!”

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

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

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