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Clean Technology in China — a Difficult Balance Between Cooperation and Competition

Executives of ECOtality Inc. believed in 2009 that their battery charging technology would be a winner when plug-in electric vehicles began to hit the market this year. But with debts running far ahead of revenue, the San Francisco firm needed immediate financial support to stay in the game.
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The help came from China, through a $2 million investment that year by a Chinese company. In return, the Chinese company received the rights to make and sell ECOtality’s chargers in its country and in other Asian markets. The relationship is one example of the complex linkage between American clean energy technology and Chinese capital and markets that will be a subject in this week’s U.S.-China summit in Washington led by President Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao.

The relationship is contentious and collaborative at the same time, commented Georgetown University’s Joanna Lewis, writing in the latest assessment of China’s environmental activities for the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

The United States contends China is illegally subsidizing its wind power equipment manufacturers, effectively locking U.S. and other foreign suppliers out of key parts of its booming market. The Obama administration has taken the dispute to the World Trade Organization for adjudication. U.S. officials and American commentators noted progress, however, on the dispute over wind turbine technology during the December meeting of the Joint Commission on Commerce and Trade.

A key emphasis at this week’s meetings will be on clean energy collaboration, says David Sandalow, assistant secretary of Energy for policy and international affairs. “The United States and China are the two biggest energy producers and consumers in the world. We have many shared interests in finding climate solutions,” he said.

Robert Kapp, former president of the U.S.-China Business Council, said he assumes that U.S. companies have saved up announcements of new clean energy projects for this week.

Cooperative research to get another push

At the government level, in the past year, the two nations have been implementing a $150 million joint program of Cooperative Energy Research Centers, which includes research on carbon capture and storage at West Virginia University, on electric vehicles at the University of Michigan, and on building efficiency at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. This program will get another push forward this week, Sandalow said.

“We are focused on protecting U.S. interests, but in the course of that, there are ways we can learn from each other,” he said.

Other high-level technology partnerships under way include a U.S.-China Steering Committee on Clean Energy Science and Technology Cooperation, a U.S.-China Electric Vehicle Initiative, and a U.S.-China Renewable Energy Partnership, Lewis noted.

But, she added, “Despite the long list of official bilateral agreements signed between the United States and China in the area of clean energy and climate change, there have been many challenges to following through on the successful implementation of agreed upon activities,” beginning with inconsistent funding. “Cooperation is also hampered by the increasingly competitive relationship between the United States and China in the global economic marketplace,” Lewis said in the recently published Issue 11 of the Wilson Center’s China Environment Series.

“Clearly there is a long way to go to build the trust that will be crucial to scaling up clean energy cooperation between the United States and China that the world needs,” she said.

As the fastest-growing market for wind and nuclear power and the leader in solar power modules, and with a commitment to expand electric vehicles and carbon capture from coal plants, China is the place to be for American clean energy companies with global aspirations.

“Certainly we should find something in between to make it win-win,” said Zou Ji, China country director for the World Resources Institute in Beijing. “Some people believe now Chinese [clean] technology has been advanced, but that depends.

“In manufacturing, China has made great progress, but for R&D and design, China is still very weak.” The United States and China can collaborate on joint research and development and scale the technology up in China, where costs are lower, he said.

Concerns about China’s ‘very tough game’

But if access to China is tied to a drain of leading-edge U.S. technology, the hopes for future American leadership in clean energy development — a top priority for Energy Secretary Steven Chu — could be erased.


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