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While U.S. energy and climate policy flounders, China forges ahead

By Elizabeth Wilson

I stood in awe as a thin strand of metal was sheared from the outside of the 40-foot-high AP-1000 nuclear reactor vessel, landing in a 5-foot-high pile of curly steel shavings. In the background, my tour group could see huge hunks of Japanese steel being molded into five other reactors in various states of construction. Our guide told us this facility, a building the size of several city blocks in an industrial area outside Shanghai, could produce seven to nine 1,000-megawatt nuclear reactors each year. All told, 25 nuclear plants are currently under construction in China, with 60 more in the planning stage

We were visiting the Shanghai Electric Company factory as part of a World Resources Institute/Tsinghua University study tour I had been invited to join after spending a year in China as a visiting professor. To say the experience was eye opening would be an understatement.

I work on energy and environmental policy, and to me China is the most interesting place in the world right now from a clean energy, climate and coal perspective. Until that day, I had never seen a nuclear reactor vessel being built. Not surprising: The U.S. hasn't built a nuclear power plant in over 30 years. As I craned my neck to see the Westinghouse-designed vessel being trimmed to shape, I gained new appreciation for the international nature of energy innovation and development.

The next building our group toured held massive wooden cases full of high-grade steel from Japan, Italy and France waiting to be transformed into steam turbines for coal-fired plants to further meet China's booming demand for electricity. Currently electricity demand in China is increasing 9 to 13 percent per year, the same fast pace the U.S. saw post-World War II as we invested in industry and infrastructure to build a modern America. Projections estimate China will add an additional 1,000 gigawatts of new coal-fired power plants by 2035 - roughly two times the TOTAL capacity of coal plants in the U.S. today.

The third facility we visited that day was filled with row upon row of 1.5 to 3 MW wind turbines. Wind turbines are being installed in China at breakneck speed: Installed capacity grew from 1.3 GW in 2005 to an estimated 41 GW at the end of 2010, making the country the global leader in installed wind capacity. Although an estimated 20 to 25 percent of Chinese wind turbines are not yet connected to power lines, investment in a smart grid--focused mainly on transmission--aims to alleviate this problem.

We also stopped at the largest coal-to-methanol gasification plant in the world (which uses a GE gasifier), a privately owned thin-film solar photovoltaics factory (tapping Applied Materials technology), and the soon-to-be-opened GreenGen integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC) demonstration power plant.

China is working furiously to build infrastructure to power its booming economy. While serious challenges remain--the air quality gave me a new appreciation for the Clean Air Act, and coal is still projected to generate over 70 percent of electricity in 2035--it's clear this is a nation intent on pushing the boundaries of innovation when it comes to electric power technologies. Massive state investment fuels academic and industry research, and large-scale deployment allows for rapid adoption of the latest gasifiers, nuclear reactors, wind turbines, solar water heaters and more efficient coal plants.

As Americans, we like to think of our nation as the international epicenter of innovation. But just as manufacturing and production have done in the past, innovation is rapidly going global.

We also picture ourselves as good world citizens--but this, too, is changing. Throughout the tour we were continually asked, "Why should we reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, when the U.S. isn't doing anything to reduce yours?" Whether China's push for low-carbon electricity technologies is driven by a desire to reduce greenhouse gas emissions or an eagerness to spur domestic innovation for future economic growth, the results are reshaping global energy innovation.

I went to China to look and learn. What I witnessed gave me a new appreciation for the challenges, rewards and sheer pace of development to be found there. It taught me that international innovation has important implications for the future of technology, in both China and the U.S. Perhaps most important, it showed me that U.S. inaction on climate and energy undermines both our moral authority to ask others to alter their systems and our ability to compete in the international innovation arena.

Two weeks before my visit to the Shanghai Electric Company, the U.S. Senate decided not to pursue a bill that would have capped greenhouse gas emissions and created a low-carbon energy policy. My experience in China made it clear to me how shortsighted this decision really was. It eroded not only our ability to design and deploy new energy technologies, but also the very foundation of America's innovation capacity - and with it, I fear, our long-term economic prosperity.

Without a comprehensive climate and energy policy, we face a real risk of being left behind in the shaving pile as China and other nations forge ahead. Creating such a policy could be a redeeming first step toward reclaiming our title as global innovators and good world citizens. That, I believe, is a goal we all can agree on.

Originally printed in the Institute on the Environment's Momentum, Spring 2011

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