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China Wind-Power? Gimme More! April 3, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in China, clean energy, climate, sustainability.
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Recently, in several different places (Huffington Post, NYT, CNN), I’ve read laments that the US is “falling behind China in clean energy technology innovation/investment/capacity.” In 2009, China became the first nation to add more wind-power generation capacity than the US. And by the end of 2010, China will have more total wind-power generation capacity than the US. And presumably, that gap will continue to grow indefinitely.

Forget about the development of clean energy technology for a moment. From a climate perspective, it doesn’t matter which country develops the best technology as long as that technology is adopted and used to best effect. And in any case, statements about rates of innovation are fundamentally fuzzy and based on strange metrics. This one is based on number of patents issued which has more to do with a country’s patent laws than with actual innovation. Personally, I would strongly doubt that there is more innovation–in any field–going on in China than in the US seeing as of the top 100 research universities, 88 are in the US and only 1 is in China.

As for investment and capacity, if you are lamenting that the US is not investing enough in domestic wind and solar, then you would be right. But the fact that China is investing in these, especially in wind, is great news! In fact, if it were up to me (and of course, it is!), the US and other financially able developed countries, as well as the private sector, would actively help China ramp up its wind power generation capacity as fast as possible. At the expense of their own domestic efforts! That’s right! It is more important for the US to invest in wind in China, than it is to invest in domestic wind. The US and the rest of the developed world should actively help China become the leader in clean energy production! Why? Because if we don’t, China will become that anyways. Oh, and it will also become the leader in dirty energy!

Because of effective environmental resistance, the US hasn’t built a new coal-fired power plant in years, with many proposals being defeated and few current proposals standing even a slim chance of gaining an operating permit. Despite this, and despite relatively low penetration of clean energy domestically, electricity prices have stayed low because US electricity demand is simply not increasing that rapidly. The US doesn’t need more generating capacity, at least not until plug-in hybrids become common. It needs to convert its existing capacity to cleaner forms and to improve efficiency. China, on the other hand, needs as much new capacity as it can get its hands on. China is building one new coal-fired power plant a week!

The world’s goal should be to minimize the total number of coal-fired plants. And the most straightforward and efficient way of doing that is to prevent new ones from being built. It’s more efficient to build a wind-farm in China than it is to build a wind-farm in the US, shut down a coal-fired plant in the US and build a coal-fired plant in China. And it’s this more global view of efficiency that the US should strive for.

P.S. Some interesting analysis of Obama’s partial lift of the offshore drilling ban. Also, loved the use of “Palinized.”

P.P.S. You sir, are half of an oxymoron.

P.P.P.S. I tried to keep this post short because reader 0 (computer scientists start counting at 0) complained that my posts were too long. Resolved! Perhaps a blog post should be like a technical abstract, which is limited to 200 (sometimes 250) words. Of course, it usually takes six times as long to write a 250 word abstract than it is to write a 750 word one. See, the way you write a 250 word abstract is by first writing a 750 word one, then whittling it down to 500, 350, 300, 270, 262, 258, 255, 259 (dammit, undo), 252, 251, 251, 251, and 250 words. Unresolved!

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