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China Needs A 'Game Changing' Renewable Energy Technology

Despite all the evident progress in China in fostering renewable energy, energy conservation and other sustainability initiatives, there still is a 60-70% chance that the smart phones or tablets we use were manufactured in China using electricity generated from a coal-fired power plant.

Six years ago, we first began writing about the Chinese renewable energy sector for Renewable Energy World.  In the interim, China Strategies has chronicled the growth of sustainability in China and commented extensively on the inevitable ups and downs of what has become a herculean effort by the Chinese. 

We have reported on the policies, international politics, industries, foreign trade and investment opportunities, triumphs and failures and other developments that have propelled China into the vanguard of renewable energy deployment worldwide. China watchers should not be surprised by the speed with which China has embraced renewable energy development; this impatient “making-up-for-lost-time” pattern has been repeated in countless industries throughout China since Deng Xiaoping first launched “Reform and Opening Up” in the late 1970s.  To take wind power as an example, from a negligible base in 2007 (about 4 GW), China’s capacity to generate power from wind is now the world’s second largest (about 60 GW, though some isn’t grid connected).  At the current pace of installations (about 15-20 GW/year) China likely will have more than 200 GW of installed wind capacity by 2020.

It is tempting to compare the alacrity with which the Chinese leadership has put in place public policy and capital to steer China’s economy onto a path of increasing sustainability, with the sluggishness of other nations in this regard.  Ironically, the United States’ economy is much better positioned to implement the aggressive renewable energy policies that China has pursued over the past six years and would have shown very impressive results and even greater restraint in carbon dioxide emissions had similar policies been put in place.

Yet for all of the demonstrable progress, China seems to be running in place as it tries to achieve the goal of transforming its economy into one marked by innovation and sustainability.  The stultifying photos of Beijing enveloped in a blanket of smog, which were broadcast worldwide last week, reminds us that for all the effort China has made to move to the forefront of renewable energy development, it continues to fall behind.

In 2011, China was responsible for 80 percent of the growth in global carbon emissions and according to the World Resources Institute, China and India combined will build 76% of the nearly 2000 coal-fired power plants now under development worldwide.  

Since 2006, when the U.S. emitted 5.8 billion MT and China emitted 6.2 billion MT of carbon dioxide, China has displaced the United States as the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases and the pace of that disparity has increased as China’s emissions have continued to grow rapidly, while U.S. emissions have leveled off.   Since 2008, as carbon dioxide emissions in the U.S. have remained relatively steady at approximately 5.5 billion MT/year, China’s emissions have increased precipitously, from 7 billion MT (in 2008), to 8.2 billion MT (in 2010) and further to 9.7 billion MT (in 2011).

So, this is the central conundrum that China (and the rest of the developing world) faces:  can it “turn the ship around” as the ship steams ahead at full speed?   While we have suggested that China “pause” to allow sustainability to catch up with the magnitude of the Chinese economy, it is unlikely that the exigencies of China’s inexorable economic ascent and the political and social context in which that is being accomplished would allow such a hiatus.

What China desperately needs now are new low-cost clean energy technologies that can be implemented quickly and on a scale that competes with coal-fired power plants (and the prospect of LNG imports from the U.S.).   Because China’s transition from an imitative to an innovation economy has lagged, for the time being at least, we likely must rely on the rich pool of inventors in North America and the EU (including many Chinese who earned advanced degrees in the West and chose to stay) for those ‘game-changing’ energy generating technologies that will enable China and the rest of the developing world to grow both rapidly and sustainably.   Fortunately, we have evidence that those inventions are on the horizon. 

In the case of generating energy from wind, an extremely hopeful innovation has arrived by way of a small company based in Chaska, Minnesota (Sheer Wind, Inc.), one that may become the vehicle for rapid deployment of wind power in China on a scale that will allow renewable energy finally to become the dominant source of energy in the foreseeable future.

The INVELOX (Increased Velocity of Oxygen) technology developed by SheerWind can be used across the energy demand spectrum, from grid-connected utility scale production to small remote off-the-grid applications.   SheerWind’s technology captures wind at cut-in speeds as low as 2-4 mph (so it can deployed close to where energy demand is located), and then accelerates it through an innovative application of the Venturi Effect (a patented process) to run turbines located at or below ground level (where maintenance is easier and cheaper).  

It is now clear that even an energetic effort by China to deploy traditional sources of renewable energy will be insufficient for it to satisfy its growing energy needs without choking itself on pollution.   Only by aggressively adopting more innovative renewable energy technologies will China be able to do its part in capping the alarming rise in carbon emissions.  To provide China with abundant, affordable clean energy that can be scaled easily and adopted widely, is an imperative; that there now may be such solutions to China’s nagging energy and environmental challenges on the horizon, is cause for optimism.

Lead image: Jigsaw puzzle via Shutterstock

[Editor's note: Want to understand more about China? Come to Solar POWER-GEN in San Diego next month and check out our session "China: Unraveling the Mystery."  Register for the show here.]

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