Given the lift-off achieved by China's roaring wind industry, it shouldn't come as a surprise that the country's now warming up to solar power. China has become one of the world's leaders in solar photovoltaic technology, second only to Japan in the production of solar PV. While nearly all of the technology is for the export market, China's clean energy tycoons are hopeful that the government's support for solar tech will spur domestic demand. The Guardian recently spoke with Shi Zhengrong--"the world's first solar billionaire"--about his sparkling expectations for the future:
of Suntech's output is exported, but Shi expects demand to grow rapidly
in China once the price of solar energy falls to "grid parity" –
effectively the cost of power generated by coal. Ambitiously, he wants
to achieve this by 2012. He is advising the Chinese government on
renewable energy policies. So far, they have focused on wind energy,
but Shi informs the politicians change is just around the corner."
Solar is not 10 or 20 years away, it is just five years away."
Sure, cheap labor has made Chinese solar companies more competitive, but there's also no lack of government subsidies and national investment in clean technology. A new report by The Climate Group says that China's investment in renewable energy--about $12 billion in 2007--as a percentage of GDP puts it almost on par with world leader Germany. (The report also kindly reminds us that China's fuel efficiency standards are 40% higher than those in the U.S.)
I don't think that America needs any more of an insecurity complex about China than it already has. But the supersonic rise of China's wind and solar industries should be proof enough that a renewable energy economy can drive both growth and sustainability. Private capital or government subsidies alone won't cut it: it will take both cleantech corporate tycoons and politicians who are willing to provide the start-up capital and infrastructure for a fledging industry. Either party alone won't be able to the implement the technology at the speed and scale that America's renewable energy industry needs--to make any significant environmental impact, or to be competitive in a global economy. Even if we cut back on foreign oil, are we going to be importing Chinese solar panels instead?
On a side note, the American city that may be the closest in spirit to growth-hungry China will be hosting an energy all-star gathering later this month. Harry Reid will be back in Las Vegas to host the National Clean Energy Summit, whose pre-DNC agenda makes a big push for the economic and business incentives of renewables. Nevada's biggest clean energy resource? That hot blazing sun, of course.
Suzy Khimm is a senior editor at The New Republic.