08 Feb 2010: Analysis

America’s Unfounded Fears of
A Green-Tech Race with China

There has been growing talk about a clean-tech race between China and the U.S., often cast in ominous tones. But the quest to develop and implement renewable energy can be one where both nations win.

by christina larson

At a factory in Wuxi, China, workers lift solar panels onto conveyor belts, while others in white lab coats move between machines as they check on a process for etching and engraving silicon wafers to form solar cells.

This scene in itself isn’t remarkable. But there is a new sort of excitement about the work. China’s production of solar panels has grown quickly in the past two years; it is it now the world’s leading exporter. When Matt Lewis, a representative of the California-based nonprofit ClimateWorks, visited the factory in October, he said it reminded him of his native Silicon Valley: The workers, even ordinary line workers, had a sense that they were part of building the future, the hot new industry.

This comparison makes some in the United States, and especially in Washington, nervous. Thomas Friedman has used the bully pulpit of his
China Production Line
Photo by Feng Li/Getty Images
A worker controls the production line at the plant of Tianwei Yingli Green Energy Resources Co., Ltd in Baoding, China.
influential New York Times column to warn that the United States is engaged in a global green-tech competition with China, whose potential dominance represents a “new Sputnik.” (“How do you say ‘clean your clock’ in Chinese?” he wrote.) This notion, conjuring residual memories of the days in which U.S. rivalry with Soviet Union was crystallized in the space race — when the word “Sputnik,” the name of the Soviet space program, inspired quivers of anxiety about America’s political and economic prowess and its existential place in the world — has today struck a resonant chord in Washington, drawing upon existing fears and mistrust of China.

While some U.S. politicians and commentators still paint China as the global pollution villain, especially after the disappointing outcome at Copenhagen, others are beginning to take green China seriously — as a threat. Last fall, for instance, when Senator Charles Schumer got wind of a planned wind farm in west Texas, announced by a partnership of American and Chinese companies, that would use some wind equipment made in China and potentially create new jobs across the Pacific, he recommended blocking stimulus money from the project, rather than help boost green China. The stimulus money “is supposed to create jobs in America,” he wrote in a letter to Energy Secretary Steven Chu. (The new wind farm would also have created 300 jobs in Texas, but Schumer was worried that a greater number could be created in China.)

Last month, a front-page Sunday piece by Keith Bradsher of the New York Times took the competition metaphor a step further and declared that China was in fact already winning the green-tech race. The article, “China Leading Race to Make Clean Energy,” made the rounds in Washington with its assertion that China had passed the U.S. and several western European countries to become the word’s top manufacturer of both solar panels and wind turbines; it quoted the CEO of a private equity firm in Beijing saying, ominously, “Most of the energy equipment [of the future] will carry a brass plate, ‘Made in China.’”

The Times article also raised another spine-tingling geopolitical comparison — this time not likening Beijing to the latter-day USSR, but to the modern-day Middle East. “[China’s] efforts to dominate renewable
China will gain thousands of jobs, but not necessarily at America’s expense.
energy technologies,” Bradsher wrote, “raise the prospect that the West may someday trade its dependence on oil from the Mideast for a reliance on solar panels, wind turbines and other gear manufactured in China.” In other words, China might become the Saudi Arabia of alternative energy; the implication seems to be that not only might green China pose an economic threat, but the sheiks of Beijing might soon wield undue political influence over a “dependent” United States.

Few business stories have ever been imbued with so much gravitas, so many fears, so many metaphors, so much geopolitical speculation, as the recent articles and coverage of China’s growing green-tech manufacturing sector.

Behind these fears, there is something worth probing — and some myths worth dispelling. Just what are Americans afraid of? To distill the cloud of anxiety, there seem to be three chief fears. The first is very tangible — jobs. The second is about America’s place in the world — will the U.S. remain a global leader in innovation? And the third is about leverage — will the U.S. control its future, or be beholden to a foreign energy gatekeeper, one that exerts undue pull on its economic or foreign policy?

“Even when you are looking at these big numbers that are coming out of China today, I think it really pays to give a close look at what is actually happening on the ground,” says Elizabeth Economy, director of Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of The River Runs Black. “Then you begin to get a different, more nuanced picture than what is blasted on the business section of the New York Times.”

The first essential fact to be aware of is that most news stories about China’s greentech gains are about manufacturing. China is becoming the wind-turbine factory to the world for much the same reasons it has long been the TV and t-shirt factory to the world: lower wages, lower land prices, fewer regulatory and other requirements, etc. This isn’t particularly surprising, and it shouldn’t be seen as a reversal of the status quo. What’s changed most dramatically in the last five years has been growing global demand. With significant government investment, Chinese factories have planned for and stepped up production accordingly.

Yes, this is bad news for U.S. cities like Detroit, where planners have recently been retrofitting old hot-rod factories into wind-turbine factories, such as an old Ford Thunderbird plant in Michigan that’s being converted into a green-tech manufacturing center in a bid to boost the local economy.
China’s research labs are politically constrained, limiting their ability to attract top talent.
Manufacturing in China, especially low and medium-tech manufacturing, has certain clear economic advantages. But it’s also worth considering a few other facts. Most of the green manufacturing jobs that the U.S. stands to “lose” haven’t in fact been created yet; China will gain thousands of new jobs, but not necessarily at America’s expense. Moreover, the United States will still gain many new green-collar jobs, in installation and maintenance, which can only be locally based, as well as sales teams, conference planners, and other positions already arising to support the growing green-tech field.

Besides green-tech hardware, there’s also the question of the technology that enables it. Who will be responsible for the innovation that drives the low-carbon future? At present, America still has significant advantages — including the world’s leading university system and the entrepreneurial culture and venture-capital spigots of technology hubs, particularly Silicon Valley. “Intellectual property rights have done a lot to hamper China’s development of green technology,” says Linden Ellis, U.S. director of nonprofit China Dialogue. “People would rather come to Silicon Valley and develop a technology where they know it will be protected by the law, right down to every line, than go to China and try to develop a technology there where maybe the components will be cheaper and there is a lot of interest, but people do not trust that their findings will be protected.”

Similar concerns have, for the past two decades, grounded Beijing’s attempts to build a domestic airline industry, considered the pinnacle of high-tech manufacturing. Foreign companies and top-notch engineers have simply been unwilling to share technology with China (Boeing has even avoided building factories in China, for fear of commercial espionage). The result: Planes that fly from Beijing to Shanghai today are still built by Boeing and Airbus.

Of course, most green-energy equipment won’t match the complexity of assembling something like Boeing’s new Dreamliner, but the airplane situation sheds light on two points: that cheap labor is hardly the only factor driving business decisions, and that, despite substantial government support, China’s domestic aerospace engineers have not yet produced research to rival that of Western competitors. (China’s university system and research labs are famously politically constrained, limiting their ability to attract top global talent.)

Of course, China would like to change this. Beijing is doing its best to both allay the fears of international partners and to nurture its own homegrown innovators. A program known as the “State High-Tech Development Plan,” launched by Beijing in March 1986 and nicknamed the “863 Program,”
‘The clean-tech war is overblown from the start,’ says one American entrepreneur.
aims to develop top scientists in China and to incubate cutting-edge technology projects in energy and other sectors. So far, its results have been modest over two decades: birthing a family of computer processors known as Loongson, and some technology used in the Shenzhou spacecraft. While the 863 Program’s track record should certainly dispel Western assumptions that no good research can come from China, it also disproves the notion that money alone can clone a Steve Jobs or Bill Gates or Sergey Brin.

This should allay some anxiety in Washington about America having fallen behind, but it is not a reason to become complacent. America has neither relinquished, nor is forever assured, her innovation crown.

Meanwhile, folks in the green-tech and environmental frontlines — as opposed to politicians and commentators — don’t see a “race” at all. “I do not see such a pattern exists,” says Wen Bo, a Beijing environmentalist. “The clean-tech war is overblown from the start,” says Richard Brubaker, an American environmental entrepreneur in Shanghai. To them, the green-tech “race” is not one that one side wins and the other loses, but a scenario where partnerships are sought out and the final equation doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game.

“For now at least, there is a great symbiotic relationship with California and the east coast of China on green technology,” says Linden Ellis. “Where California has the know-how, the technology, the universities and programs dedicated to developing technology, people who are interested in piloting it on a very expansive scale, or trying new combinations, often seek out research partners in China.” Similar partnerships can exist even when the focus shifts from research to commercial activity. Kevin Czinger, the CEO of a Santa Monica-based electric car company that partners with a Chinese battery company, noted in a New Yorker article that if the U.S. would stop feeling threatened by China’s progress on clean technology, it might begin to recognize its own strengths in this field.

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It is telling what is left out of the increasingly dominant “U.S. versus China” green-tech “race” narrative. For starters, there are a lot of other countries at work developing green-tech and becoming significant green-tech markets — the low-carbon future, after all, isn’t solely a G-2 aspiration. Yet because the politics are different (there’s not the anxiety of the reigning superpower nervously eyeing the new kid on the block), the green aspirations of any country not named China are viewed through an entirely different prism by U.S. commentators. Germany, for instance, is home to the world’s top two solar manufacturing companies. Yet we don’t read headlines about Old Europe “cleaning our clock” to the 21st century.

“You haven’t seen this green-tech race raised over last 10 years while the Europeans have been innovating in this space more than the U.S.,” says Charles McElwee, an international environmental lawyer for Squires, Samson, and Dempsey based in Shanghai, “although that would have made more sense [than a U.S. versus China frame].”

Even as China’s solar panel exports grow, it continues to purchase clean locomotives from an American company, GE. Germany has developed world-class “green” metro cars, with China being a top customer. And French companies are among the world’s top innovators in water solutions. In other words, green-tech encompasses a lot more than windmills and solar panels — and progress in developing it can be a two-way street.

POSTED ON 08 Feb 2010 IN Business & Innovation Climate Energy Policy & Politics Science & Technology Asia Asia North America 

COMMENTS


Larson and her sources seem completely out of touch with both the history of renewable energy and it's current state. U.S. industries have been hampered for decades at the behest of the big oil lobby, and yes concerns have been voiced. "It's ironic that at a time when California and much of the West is reeling from a shortage in electric generation capacity, the growth of one of the most promising and economical new electricity sources has been hampered by on-again, off-again federal government policies," stated American Wind Energy Association executive director Randall Swisher in 2001, referring to the cyclic removal of the production tax credit (PTC) that stalled renewable energy growth in past years. Obama and Friedman are both correct in pointing out that the future will be based on a clean energy economy, but with Congress stalling on incentives, it's likely that the U.S. will continue down our current path with 10% unemployment plus millions of so-called "discouraged" workers who don't even get counted... Trashing the NYT while quoting industrialists happy to partner with the Chinese for their own profits is hardly an analysis.

Posted by David Skarjune on 08 Feb 2010


I don't see the word "patent" used once in this article. The people who win are going to be the ones who hold the patents to the technology of the future.

I don't see the phrase "economies of scale" either, meaning that as more clean technologies are developed, the cost of the technologies will decrease with scale. Countries will inevitably do more business with the producers that can produce the most at the lowest price are going to be the ones reaping the benefits of the clean revolution.

Who makes the money producing the tools of clean energy and who owns the rights to production, both very good reasons for a rush to development.

Posted by Alex on 08 Feb 2010


Christina, thanks for the thought provoking piece. One thing to keep in mind - many people are pushing the "cleantech race" story because they understand that fear is perhaps the only proven motivator when it comes to the U.S. Congress. China is the perfect package to push those fears, whether they are well-founded or not. If scaring the U.S. Senate into thinking that their inaction will result in the wholesale export of the greentech revolution to China - so be it. I for one would welcome any movement toward comprehensive energy and climate legislation in the US, even if the catalyst is fear.

Posted by William Brent on 08 Feb 2010


Is Boeing really the last remaining example of an industrial giant that still does it's business in the U.S.? In 2009, Airbus beat out Boeing for the first time in its long and heated competition, and heavy government subsidies and long term and stable government incentives have definitely played a role. Where has American industry placed its attention (in the interim): free trade and shipping jobs over seas, lobbying against union pension plans, health care plans, and card check, and playing fast and loose with Wall Street and Hedge Funds turning new found profits into wild CEO bonuses (and failing to re-invest in their own companies and R&D).

I don't know where the author gets her optimism concerning a turn-around in American manufacturing, she seems to ignore the effects of de-regulation and globalization that have placed American companies at such a competitive disadvantage. The fastest growing market for new energy products, as the author well knows, is China. And when will there be trade and monetary reform to allow U.S products access to that huge and expanding market.

Perhaps there will be a boom in green jobs as service providers to wind turbines manufactured by Siemens or Samsung (in Ontario) in the U.S., but this is hardly an inspired long term strategy. It will take a huge investment in our future to turn this limping ship of state around, in particular new sources of revenue (from an environmental tax or cap and trade), and frankly, with ideologues and corporate yes men running the show, I'm not so sure I see this inspired leadership anytime soon.

Posted by EL on 09 Feb 2010


With all due respect, I don't fully agree with the contents of the article. It is hard to see how the Chinese advancements in renewable energy sector will not impact the American markets.

Be it manufacturing or technology the Chinese, or for that matter the Indians, are stealing the show from Americans and the rest of the world. Chinese and Indian companies supply wind turbines to the U.S. at very cheaper rates. That is bound to impact the local manufacturing units.

China has seen tremendous growth in terms of technical advancement over the last few decades. Their solar PV industry has grown tremendously in terms of size and technology.

There is more potential for renewable energy in China as compared to the US which will take months if not years to approve a bill that supports renewable as the energy source of tomorrow. By that time China would have overtaken almost every country. And that process has already began.

If there is no market the advancements in the research and technology wouldn't be their and China is today the world's larget renewable energy market. Industrialists in India and China are today working to improve the efficiencies and reduce the costs fo renewable energy systems. Many of these companies have either bought European and American companies to get the technical know-how or have sent their professionals to learn about these technologies from European countries. These professionals come back and help their companies produce similar energy systems at lower cost and better efficiencies. And these companies sell these systems to the developed countries.

We have seen Indian and Chinese firms buying out renewable energy firms in the EU and US. It is because they are aggressive. They are in a better position to meet the demands from the developed countries because they produce the energy systems at lower costs despite the fact that their governments are yet to announce any comprehensive incentives for the industry.

Posted by Mridul Chadha on 09 Feb 2010


You wrote that the advancements are only in terms of manufacturing but that isn't true. You must have read the story, China has surpassed the United States and has become the world's leading wind energy producer. No other country in the world has announced and unveiled projects like the Chinese. If you look through the 2008-09 timeline the Chinese announced or unveiled record size solar and wind energy projects almost every month.

Posted by Mridul Chadha on 09 Feb 2010


I do think the author raised a good point that the educational system and political system in China could possibly block innovation in terms of renewable energy and other things. The Chinese educational system encourages following&repeating instead of innovating. This defines China's economic mode to some extent. Without innovation and the grasp of core technologies, China's development will encounter a bottleneck soon.

Political system: with China's one-party system, it's true that China can make decisions very quickly. While it's efficient, at the meantime, it could be dangerous. No other parties in China will prevent bad policies/regulations from taking into effect. China is in the situation where if they win, they win big; and if they lose, that can be a real disaster.

And it seems that the theory of "threaten of China" is prevalent in the U.S. I don't quite get it. China is big in terms of a country as a whole. But when it comes to per capita figure, China is far behind. Creating more jobs is probably more urgent in China than in the U.S. I get the feeling that this fear of China may come from unfamilarity and lack of understanding.

Posted by Cathy on 11 Feb 2010


This is the smartest story I've read on the U.S.-China "green race." Not only is this not a zero-sum game--it's a game with many winners. Indeed, the primary beneficiaries of innovation and certainly of clean tech innovation are consumers (not to mention those of us who care about the environment), so the fact that China, Germany, Denmark and others are developing wind and solar businesses will be good for the U.S. Just as Google and Apple have been good not only for their shareholders and employees but to consumers everywhere.

As for the fear factor--i.e., that writing scary stuff about China could motivate Congress to get moving--when the fears are unfounded, that doesn't seem smart. We are already an economically illiterate and xenophobic nation. Beating up on China will only make matters worse.

Posted by Marc Gunther on 11 Feb 2010


Whatever it takes to motivate the USA is good. Perhaps we should declare environmental solutions as Weapons of Mass Dividends?

Posted by dennis baker on 11 Feb 2010


I believe that China will move quickly and aggressively in the medium priced/affordable range of the electric car market because EVs are cheaper to run than vehicles that use crude oil, and China knows that consumers are definetely prepared to buy them. The American car industry will be left sitting in the dust because it has a vested interest in the crude oil business and wants consumers to stay addicted to oil. Obama should just hand GM to China and ask it to cancel America's debt.

Posted by Louise on 26 Feb 2010


China has labor advantages and disadvantages in intellectual capital and property law. Over time, we might hope for symbiosis as well as competition, to the benefit of both nations and the global environment.

Posted by chenjia on 12 Mar 2010


It seems that the theory of "threaten of China" is prevalent in the U.S. I don't quite get it. China is big in terms of a country as a whole. But when it comes to per capita figure, China is far behind. Creating more jobs is probably more urgent in China than in the U.S. I get the feeling that this fear of China may come from unfamilarity and lack of understanding.

Posted by lomboz on 12 Mar 2010


One issue to consider is that as energy becomes more expensive, shipping equipment overseas will not be as economically practical as it is now. Also, as China becomes more industrialized and their standard of living (and wages) rise, you can expect to pay more for their products. Establishing local renewable energy infrastructures, including a manufacturing base, makes sense from both an environmental and a long-term economic outlook point of view.

Posted by Jim on 26 Mar 2010


Climate Change is a battle for survival for human race. All nations now look for another alternative safer energy to save our planet earth, the green technology came into existence, but mainly to power industry how about for the none power industry, like cement factories, steel mills or any industries that uses tremendouse heat for operation. Should they stop? But here are always solution and the JPI Fuel Industry will assure.

Posted by Jaime P. Imbat on 02 Apr 2010


Your story is just in time when I am trying to convince US and Europian manufacturers to move to my principally new technology (FlowEngine design) in wind and water energy utilization. They do not want invest and intentially produce outdated equipment in order to make money today, with management not worrying what will be tomorrow, because they maybe woun't be around as soon Company stock goes down for some reasons. Our business becomes like Government (mostly internationally controlled without knowing local circumstances) and lost enterprenueral attitude. And this is a receipt for failure for Western civilization.

Posted by Dr. Arov on 28 May 2010


This is a well written article. I think the fact that other countries like China are producing these innovative technologies will be a good stepping stone for the the U.S. If others are having success, then there is hope that the U.S. can come out on top too.

Posted by L. Snickerman on 26 Jul 2010


Green tech race is the next decade race.. every country will get into this race and try to figure out the cleaner tecnologies. Let's see what happens..

Posted by John Carrier on 22 May 2011


Comments have been closed on this feature.
christina larsonABOUT THE AUTHOR
Christina Larson is a journalist focusing on international environmental issues, based in Beijing and Washington, D.C. Her reporting has brought her throughout China, as well Southeast Asia, and her writing has appeared in The New York Times, International Herald Tribune, The New Republic, The Washington Monthly, and Foreign Policy, where she is a contributing editor. She is a fellow at the New America Foundation. In previous articles for Yale Environment 360, she has written from China about failed plans to build “eco-cities” and how China may soon be both the greenest and most polluted place on Earth.
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