China Looks to Capitalize on Clean Energy as U.S. Retreats
LIULONG, China — China’s devastating pollution problems began here, in coal country, where legions of workers toiled and often died to exhume the rich deposits that fueled the country’s sooty rise to economic power.
Today, these muddy plains are home to a potent symbol of China’s new ambition: to bypass the United States and cement its dominant role in clean energy.
On a lake created by the collapse of abandoned coal mines, China has built the world’s largest floating solar project, enough to provide light and air conditioning to much of a nearby city. The provincial government wants to expand the effort to more than a dozen sites, which collectively would produce the same amount of power as a full-size commercial nuclear reactor.
The project reflects China’s effort to reshape the world order in renewable energy as the United States retreats. Such technological expertise will form the infrastructure backbone needed for countries to meet their climate goals, making China the energy partner of choice for many nations.
The wave-proof solar panels are an affordable and viable option for power-hungry countries. Delegations from Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam, Singapore and elsewhere have come to study the project while the maker, Sungrow, prepares to license the technology for overseas sale.
China is capitalizing on the leadership vacuum left after President Trump said last week that he would pull the United States out of the Paris accord to limit climate change.
China has already started an expensive campaign at home and abroad to solidify its considerable hold on solar, wind and other energy-saving businesses. If successful, China would win the economic and diplomatic spoils that the United States and some European countries have long enjoyed from dominating businesses like software, computer chips and airplanes.
China’s sway will be on display in Beijing this week at the Clean Energy Ministerial, a gathering of top energy officials from two dozen countries and the European Union that represent producers of three-quarters of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. While the United States will be there, its representatives reflect the country’s deep split. Energy Secretary Rick Perry, an enthusiastic supporter of fossil fuel industries, will attend, along with Gov. Jerry Brown of California, a vocal supporter of renewable energy.
China is an unlikely champion in fighting climate change. The country is the world’s largest polluter, and its problems could grow as people buy more cars and use more power. It remains deeply dependent on coal, an especially dirty source of power.
And the race in renewables hasn’t been won. The United States and European Union accuse Beijing of unfairly subsidizing its green industries and have raised trade barriers against Chinese-made goods. American companies and local governments are set to continue their clean-energy push despite Mr. Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris accord.
As with much in China, the clean-energy drive is much more about economic advantage, national security and political stability than an idealistic commitment to saving the earth.
The country’s “Made in China 2025” program, the heart of Beijing’s domestic industrial policy, calls for heavy spending on clean-energy research and development, as a way to bolster the economy. State-owned banks are pouring tens of billions of dollars each year into technologies like solar and wind along with energy conservation strategies like high-speed rail and subway lines.