Hungry for fuel, it emerges as a leader in alternative energy
BEIJING--At first glance, the Tian Pu factory looks like a typical warehouse on the outskirts of Beijing. The bright sun glints off the building's blue-tiled facade, and the surrounding fields are reflected in the smoky glass windows. But upon closer inspection, it becomes apparent that this is a vision of the future. Each tile is actually a solar panel, generating 50 watts of power. The windows up top are covered with higher-capacity panels, a darker, muted blue. Farther down, thick metallic tubes lean at an angle against the building. This factory, which produces solar water heaters, is a pilot project of China's Academy of Sciences--a fully self-sufficient facility run entirely on solar power.
While China is most commonly known as a voracious consumer of energy with a spotty environmental record, the emerging industrial giant is quietly becoming a world leader in developing renewable energy sources and technology. With its energy needs growing exponentially and the price of oil near record highs, Beijing is using every possible means to eke out extra kilowatts--and this means not only cutting oil deals with rogue regimes and building nuclear reactors but also putting into place some of the most aggressive renewable-energy policies in the world. A new Renewable Energy Law took effect January 1, and the government announced a goal of having 10 percent of the country's gross energy consumption be renewable by 2020--a huge increase from the current 1 percent. Renewable energies such as wind, solar, and biofuels are expected to grow into a $100 billion market over the next 15 years in China, making it a global powerhouse in renewables. "China is rapidly moving into a world leadership position in the industry," says William Wallace, an adviser to the United Nations Development Program in Beijing. "The government knows the limited oil supply is a situation it needs to pay attention to, from both an energy security and a development point of view. Its goals for the next five and 15 years are very aggressive."
The need for new energy sources is apparent everywhere in China. The streets of its major cities are crammed with cars driven by the new middle class. Gasoline shortages prompted massive lines at the pumps in the southern province of Guangdong late last year. More than two thirds of the country's provinces were hit by blackouts in 2004 because of disruptions in the supply of coal, which now generates 70 percent of China's energy. The country's economy has expanded at an average annual pace of almost 10 percent for nearly three decades. While 20 years ago China was East Asia's largest oil exporter, today it is the world's second-largest importer--accounting for 31 percent of the growth in the world's demand for oil. "China is taking the growth that the U.S. had over the past 100 years and compressing it into 20," says Mike Eckhart, president of the American Council on Renewable Energy. "It is adding cars at such a rate that by 2030, it will have the same number of cars as the United States. Twenty-five years from now, the country will be in a real serious situation."