Beijings crash program for clean energy. By Evan Osnos
Chinas clean-tech advances should be a warning to the U.S.
On March 3,
1986, four of Chinas top weapons scientistseach a veteran of the
missile and space programssent a private letter to Deng Xiaoping, the
leader of the country. Their letter was a warning: Decades of relentless focus
on militarization had crippled the countrys civilian scientific establishment;
China must join the worlds xin jishu geming, the new technological
revolution, they said, or it would be left behind. They called for an
élite project devoted to technology ranging from biotech to space research.
Deng agreed, and scribbled on the letter, Action must be taken on this
now. This was Chinas Sputnik moment, and the project
was code-named the 863 Program, for the year and month of its birth.
In the years that followed, the government pumped billions of dollars into
labs and universities and enterprises, on projects ranging from cloning to
underwater robots. Then, in 2001, Chinese officials abruptly expanded one
program in particular: energy technology. The reasons were clear. Once the
largest oil exporter in East Asia, China was now adding more than two thousand
cars a day and importing millions of barrels; its energy security hinged on
a flotilla of tankers stretched across distant seas. Meanwhile, China was
getting nearly eighty per cent of its electricity from coal, which was rendering
the air in much of the country unbreathable and hastening climate changes
that could undermine Chinas future stability. Rising sea levels were
on pace to create more refugees in China than in any other country, even Bangladesh.
In 2006, Chinese
leaders redoubled their commitment to new energy technology; they boosted
funding for research and set targets for installing wind turbines, solar panels,
hydroelectric dams, and other renewable sources of energy that were higher
than goals in the United States. China doubled its wind-power capacity that
year, then doubled it again the next year, and the year after. The country
had virtually no solar industry in 2003; five years later, it was manufacturing
more solar cells than any other country, winning customers from foreign companies
that had invented the technology in the first place. As President Hu Jintao,
a political heir of Deng Xiaoping, put it in October of this year, China must
seize preëmptive opportunities in the new round of the global energy
A China born
again green can be hard to imagine, especially for people who live here. After
four years in Beijing, Ive learned how to gauge the pollution before
I open the curtains; by dawn on the smoggiest days, the lungs ache. The city
government does not dwell on the details; its daily air-quality measurement
does not even tally the tiniest particles of pollution, which are the most
damaging to the respiratory system. Last year, the U.S. Embassy installed
an air monitor on the roof of one of its buildings, and every hour it posts
the results to a Twitter feed, with a score ranging from 1, which is the cleanest
air, to 500, the dirtiest. American cities consider anything above 100 to
be unhealthy. The rare times in which an American city has scored above 300
have been in the midst of forest fires. In these cases, the government puts
out public-health notices warning that the air is hazardous and
that everyone should avoid all physical activity outdoors. As
I type this in Beijing, the Embassys air monitor says that todays
score is 500.
China is so
bigand is growing so fastthat in 2006 it passed the United States
to become the worlds largest producer of greenhouse gases. If Chinas
emissions keep climbing as they have for the past thirty years, the country
will emit more of those gases in the next thirty years than the United States
has in its entire history. So the question is no longer whether China is equipped
to play a role in combating climate change but how that role will affect other
countries. David Sandalow, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of Energy for Policy
and International Affairs, has been to China five times in five months. He
told me, Chinas investment in clean energy is extraordinary.
For America, he added, the implication is clear: Unless the U.S. makes
investments, we are not competitive in the clean-tech sector in the years
and decades to come.
One of the firms that are part of the 863 Program is Goldwind Science and
Technology Company. It operates a plant and a laboratory in a cluster of high-tech
companies in an outlying district of Beijing called Yizhuang, which has been
trying to rebrand itself with the name E-Town. (China has been establishing
high-tech clusters since the late nineteen-eighties, after scientists returned
from abroad with news of Silicon Valley and Route 128.) Yizhuang was a royal
hunting ground under the last emperor, but, as E-Town, it has the sweeping
asphalt vistas of a suburban office park, around blocks of reflective-glass
buildings, occupied by Nokia, Bosch, and other corporations. Local planning
officials have embraced the vocabulary of a new era; E-Town, they say, will
be a model not only of e-business but also of e-government, e-community, e-knowledge,
When I reached
Goldwind, the first thing I saw was a spirited soccer game under way on a
field in the center of the campus. An artificial rock-climbing wall covered
one side of the glass-and-steel research center. I met the chairman, Wu Gang,
in his office on the third floor, and I asked about the sports. We employ
several coaches and music teachers, he said. They do training
for our staff. A pair of pushup bars rested on the carpet beside his
desk. At fifty-one years old, Wu is tall, with wire-rim glasses, rumpled black
hair, and the broad shoulders of a swimmer. (I can do the butterfly,
he said.) For fun, he sings Peking opera. Wu said that he had not been a robust
child: My education was very serious. Just learning, learning, learning.
I wanted to jump out of that!
his hobbies into his work life in the manner of a California entrepreneur.
He once led seventeen people, including seven Goldwind employees, on a mountaineering
expedition across Mt. Bogda, in the Tian Shan range, in western China. We
Chinese are very weak in this fieldteamwork, Wu said. He recently
put his workers on a five-year self-improvement regimen; among the corporate
announcements on Goldwinds Web site, the company now posts its in-house
sports reports. (All the vigorous and valiant players shot and dunked
frequently, according to a recent basketball report on a game between
Wu was born and raised in the far-western region of Xinjiang, home to vast
plains and peaks that create natural wind tunnels, with gusts so ferocious
that they can sweep trains from their tracks. In the nineteen-eighties, engineers
from Europe began arriving in Xinjiang, in order to test their wind turbines,
and in 1987 Wu, then a young engineer in charge of an early Chinese wind farm,
worked alongside engineers from Denmark, a center of wind-power research.
He immersed himself in the mechanics of turbinesWhere are their
stomachs, and where are their hearts? he said. In 1997, state science
officials offered him the project of building a six-hundred-kilowatt turbine,
small by international standards but still unknown territory in China. Many
recipients of government research funding simply used the money to conduct
their experiments and move on, but some, like Wu, saw the cash as the kernel
of a business. He figured that every dollar from the government could attract
more than ten dollars in bank loans: We can show them, This is
money we got from the science ministry.
Wu saw little
reason to start from zero: Goldwind licensed a design from Jacobs Energie,
a German company. Manufacturing was not as simple. Early attempts were a terrible
failure, Wu said. Whole blades dropped off. He shook his
head. The main shafts broke. It was really very dangerous.
Goldwind shut down for three months. The company eventually solved the problems,
and, with the help of 863 and other government funding, it expanded into a
full range of large and sophisticated turbines. Many of them were licensed
from abroad, but, as they were built in China, they sold for a third less
than European and American rivals. Goldwinds sales doubled every year
from 2000 to 2008. In 2007, Wu took the company public, and garnered nearly
two hundred million dollars.
China has made up so much ground on clean tech in part through protectionismuntil
recently, wind farms were required to use turbines with locally manufactured
parts. The requirement went into effect in 2003; by the time it was lifted,
six years later, Chinese turbines dominated the local market. In fact, the
policy worked too well: Chinas wind farms have grown so fast that, according
to estimates, between twenty and thirty per cent arent actually generating
electricity. A surplus of factories was only part of the problem: local bureaucrats,
it turned out, were being rewarded not for how much electricity they generated
but for how much equipment they installeda blunder that is often cited
by skeptics of Chinas efforts.
They have a point; many factories are churning out cheap, unreliable turbines,
because the government lacks sufficient technical standards. But the grid
problem is probably temporary. China is already buying and installing the
worlds most efficient transmission linesan area where China
has actually moved ahead of the U.S., according to Deborah Seligsohn,
a senior fellow at the World Resources Institute. In the next decade, China
plans to install wind-power equipment capable of generating nearly five times
the power of the Three Gorges Dam, the worlds largest producer.
After I met with Wu Gang, the companys director of strategy and global
development, Zhou Tong, an elegant woman in her thirties, handed me a hard
hat and walked me next door to the turbine-assembly plant, an immaculate four-story
hangar filled with workers in orange jumpsuits piecing together turbine parts
that were as big and spacey-looking as Airstream trailers. The turbines were
astonishing pieces of equipmentlarge enough so that some manufacturers
put helicopter pads on topand the technical complexity dispelled any
lingering image I had of Chinese factories as rows of unskilled workers stooped
over cheap electronics. Wandering among the turbines, we passed some Ping-Pong
tables, where a competition was under way, and stopped in front of a shiny
white dome that looked like the nose of a passenger jet. It was a rotor hubthe
point where blades intersectand it was part of Goldwinds newest
treasure, a turbine large enough to generate 2.5 megawatts of electricity,
its largest yet. Wow, this is a 2.5! Zhou exclaimed. I saw
the first one in Germany. This is the first one Ive seen here.
Wu was set to unveil the new turbine at a press conference the next day. A
flatbed truck, loaded with turbine parts and idling in the doorway, was bound
for wind farms throughout Manchuria.
he prospect of a future powered by the sun and the wind is so appealing that
it obscures a less charming fact: coal is going nowhere soon. Even the most
optimistic forecasts agree that China and the United States, for the foreseeable
future, will remain ravenous consumers. (China burns more coal than America,
Europe, and Japan combined.) As Julio Friedmann, an energy expert at the Lawrence
Livermore National Laboratory, near San Francisco, told me, The decisions
that China and the U.S. make in the next five years in the coal sector will
determine the future of this century.
In 2001, the 863 Program launched a clean coal project, and Yao
Qiang, a professor of thermal engineering at Beijings Tsinghua University,
was appointed to the committee in charge. He said that its purpose is simple:
to spur innovation of ideas so risky and expensive that no private company
will attempt them alone. The government is not trying to ordain which technologies
will prevail; the notion of attempting to pick winners and losers
is as unpopular among Chinese technologists as it is in Silicon Valley. Rather,
Yao sees his role as trying to insure that promising ideas have a chance to
contend at all. If the government does nothing, the technology is doomed
to fail, he said.
Grants from the 863 Program flowed to places like the Thermal Power Research
Institute, based in the ancient city of Xian, in the center of Chinas
coal country. The impact was huge, Xu Shisen, the chief engineer
at the institute, told me over lunch recently. Take our project, for
example, he said, referring to an experimental power plant that, if
successful, will produce very low emissions. Without 863, the technology
would have been delayed for years.
After lunch, a pair of engineers took me to see their laboratory: a drab eight-story
concrete building, crammed with so many pipes and ducts that it felt like
the engine room of a ship. We climbed the stairs to the fourth floor and stepped
into a room with sacks of coal samples lining the walls like sandbags. In
the center of the room was a device that looked like a household boiler, although
it was three times the usual size, and pipes and wires bristled from the top
and the sides. It was an experimental coal gasifier, which uses
intense pressure and heat to turn coal dust into a gas that can be burned
with less waste, rather than burning coal the old-fashioned way. With a coal
gasifier, it is far easier to extract greenhouse emissions, so that they can
be stored or reused, instead of floating into the atmosphere. Gasifiers have
been around for decades, but they are expensivefrom five hundred million
to more than two billion dollars for the power-plant sizeso hardly any
American utilities use them. The researchers in Xian, however, set out
to make one better and cheaper.
One of the engineers, Xu Yue, joined the gasifier project in 1997. A team
of ten worked in twelve-hour shifts, conducting their experiments around the
clock. There was a bed there, he said, pointing to the corner
of a soot-stained control room. (The image of China as a nation of engineers
toiling for pennies is overstated; Xu Yue works hard, but he earns around
a hundred thousand dollars a year.) Beyond salaries, everything about the
lab was cheaper than it would have been in the U.S., from the land on which
it was built to the cost of heating the building, and when the gasifier was
finished it had a price tag one-third to one-half that of the equivalent in
When Albert Lin, an American energy entrepreneur on the board of Future Fuels,
a Texas-based power-plant developer, set out to find a gasifier for a pioneering
new plant that is designed to spew less greenhouse gas, he figured that he
would buy one from G.E. or Shell. Then his engineers tested the Xian
version. It was the absolute best weve seen, Lin told me.
(Lin said that the secret sauce in the Chinese design is a clever
bit of engineering that recycles the heat created by the gasifier to convert
yet more coal into gas.) His company licensed the Chinese design, marking
one of the first instances of Chinese coal technologys coming to America.
Fifteen or twenty years ago, anyone you asked would have said that Western
technologies in coal gasification were superior to anything in China,
Lin said. Now, I think, that claim is not true.
The 863 Program took much of its shape from the American research system used
by the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Defense: the government
appointed panels of experts, who drew up research priorities, called for bids,
and awarded contracts. In 1987, the government gave it an initial budget of
around two hundred million dollars a year. That figure was small by Western
standards, but the sum went far in China, according to Evan Feigenbaum, an
Asia specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations, who studied the program.
When I mentioned to Xu Shisen, the coal engineer in Xian, that American
scientists are dubious of top-down efforts to drive innovation, he suggested
that the system is more competitive than outsiders imagine. It is very
intenselike a Presidential election, he joked, and he sketched
out the system: Normally, each project will have five to eight contenderssome
less, some morebut there is a broad field of innovators. A lot of companies
are doing the same thing, so everyone wants to have a breakthrough.
He went on, Its not possible to have a flawless system, but it
makes relatively few mistakes. It combines the will of the state with mass
R. & D.
expenditures have grown faster in China than in any other big countryclimbing
about twenty per cent each year for two decades, to seventy billion dollars
last year. Investment in energy research under the 863 Program has grown far
faster: between 1991 and 2005, the most recent year on record, the amount
increased nearly fifty-fold.
In America, things have gone differently. In April of 1977, President Jimmy
Carter warned that the hunt for new energy sources, triggered by the second
Arab oil embargo, would be the moral equivalent of war. He nearly
quadrupled public investment in energy research, and by the mid-nineteen-eighties
the U.S. was the unchallenged leader in clean technology, manufacturing more
than fifty per cent of the worlds solar cells and installing ninety
per cent of the wind power.
Ronald Reagan, however, campaigned on a pledge to abolish the Department of
Energy, and, once in office, he reduced investment in research, beginning
a slide that would continue for a quarter century. We were working on
a whole slate of very innovative and interesting technologies, Friedmann,
of the Lawrence Livermore lab, said. And, basically, when the price
of oil dropped in 1986, we rolled up the carpet and said, This isnt
interesting anymore. By 2006, according to the American Association
for the Advancement of Science, the U.S. government was investing $1.4 billion
a yearless than one-sixth the level at its peak, in 1979, with adjustments
for inflation. (Federal spending on medical research, by contrast, nearly
quadrupled during that time, to more than twenty-nine billion dollars.)
Scientists were alarmed. The starkest warning came in 2005, from the National
Academies, the countrys top science advisory body, which released Rising
Above the Gathering Storm, a landmark report on U.S. competitiveness.
It urged the government to boost investment in research, especially in energy.
The authorsamong them Steven Chu, then the director of the Lawrence
Berkeley National Laboratory and now the Secretary of Energy, and Robert Gates,
the former C.I.A. director and now the Secretary of Defensewrote, We
fear the abruptness with which a lead in science and technology can be lostand
the difficulty of recovering a lead once lost, if indeed it can be regained
They called for a new energy agency that could spur the hunt for transformative
technologies. It would inject money into universities and companies and would
be called the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, or ARPA-E, modeled
on DARPA, the Defense Department unit that President Eisenhower founded in
response to Sputnik. (DARPA went on to play a significant role in the invention
of the Internet, stealth technology, and the computer mouse, among other things.)
ARPA-E, they hoped, would shepherd new energy inventions from the lab to the
market, bridging the funding gap that is referred to in engineering circles
as the valley of death. Congress approved the idea in 2007, but
W. Bush criticized it as an expansion of government into a role
that is more appropriately left to the private sector. He never
requested funding, and the idea fizzled.
Other plans withered as well. In January, 2008, the Bush Administration withdrew
support for FutureGen, a proposed project in Illinois that would have been
the worlds first coal-fired, near-zero-emissions power plant. The Administration
cited cost overruns, saying the price had climbed to $1.8 billion, but an
audit by the Government Accountability Office later discovered that Bush appointees
had overstated the costs by five hundred million dollars. House Democrats
launched an investigation, which concluded, FutureGen appears to have
been nothing more than a public-relations ploy for Bush Administration officials
to make it appear to the public and the world that the United States was doing
something to address global warming. An internal Energy Department report
had warned that cancelling the project would set back the advance of carbon-storage
technology by at least 10 years. An e-mail between officials emphasized
that Bushs Secretary of Energy, Samuel Bodman, wants to kill
FutureGen with or without a Plan B. (Bodman denies that costs
After FutureGen foundered, China broke ground on its own version: GreenGen.
If it opens as planned, in 2011, China will have the most high-tech low-emissions
coal-fired plant in the world.
Two summers ago, a truckload of Beijing municipal workers turned up in my
neighborhood and began unspooling heavy-duty black power lines, which they
attached to our houses, in preparation for a campaign to replace coal-burning
furnaces with electric radiators. Soon, the Coal-to-Electricity Project, as
it was called, opened a small radiator showroom in a storefront around the
corner, on a block shared by a sex shop and a vender of funeral shrouds. My
neighbors and I wandered over to choose from among the radiator options.
the price was subsidized by the city, which estimates that it has replaced
almost a hundred thousand coal stoves since the project began, five years
ago, cutting down on sulfur and dust emissions. I settled on a Marley CNLS340,
a heater about the size of a large suitcase, manufactured in Shanghai. It
had a built-in thermostat preprogrammed to use less electricity during peak
day hours and then store it up at night, when demand was lowera principle
similar to the smart meters that American utilities plan to install
in the next decade.
cutting their electricity bills by climbing up to their rooftops and installing
solar water heaterssimple pieces of equipment with a water tank and
a stretch of glass tubing to be heated by the sun. (China, which produces
fifty per cent of the worlds solar heaters, now uses more of them than
any other country.) And in the hardware stalls of the raucous covered market
nearby, where the inventory ranges from live eels to doorbells, coiled high-efficiency
light bulbs began crowding out traditional bulbs for sale. The government,
it turned out, had instituted a thirty-per-cent wholesale subsidy on efficient
bulbs. Without anybody really noticing, China sold sixty-two million subsidized
bulbs in ten months.
When Hu Jintao
called on China to adopt a scientific concept of development,
in 2003, he was making a point: Chinas history of development at all
costs had run its course. And, in ways that were easy to overlook, China had
embarked on deep changes.
In the summer
of 2005, Edward Cunningham, a Ph.D. student researching energy policy at M.I.T.,
was travelling in the Chinese countryside when he noticed something peculiar:
the government was allowing the price of coal to rise sharply, after decades
of controls. I said, How the hell? he recalled.
That cant be right. Maybe this is just some freak anecdotal evidence.
It was in fact a pivotal change: Manipulating the price of coal had
always insured that Chinese utilities would produce ever more electricity,
but the unhappy side effect was that utilities needed to build nothing more
efficient than the cheapest, dirtiest plants. Coal prices had begun to rise,
however, and that would leave power plants no choice but to install cleaner,
more efficient equipment. Cunningham, now a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard,
said that the effect had broad consequences.
going to see a huge amount of learning that we have not seen in the U.S.
Learning, in technology terms, is another way of saying reducing cost.
The more a technology is produced, the cheaper it becomes, and that can lead
to change as revolutionary as dreaming up an invention in the first place:
Henry Ford invented neither the automobile nor the assembly line. He simply
perfected their combination to yield the worlds first affordable cars.
In the same
way, technology that is too expensive to be profitable in the West can become
economical once China is involved; DVD players and flat-screen televisions
were luxury goods until Chinese low-cost production made them ubiquitous.
So far, many of the most promising energy technologiesfrom thin-film
solar cells to complex systems that store carbon in depleted oil wellsare
luxury goods, but the combination of Chinese manufacturing and American innovation
is powerful; Kevin Czinger, a former Goldman Sachs executive, called it the
Apple model. Own the brand, the design, and the intellectual property,
he said, and then go to whoever can manufacture the technology reliably and
cheaply. A few years ago, Czinger began looking at the business of electric
cars. Detroit was going to move slowly, he figured, to avoid undermining its
main business, and U.S. startups, including Tesla and Fisker, were planning
to sell luxury electric cars for more than eighty thousand dollars each. Czinger
had something else in mind.
cars should be far simpler and far cheaper than anything thats manufactured
today, he told me when we met last spring in Beijing. At fifty, Czinger
has brown hair swept back, sharp cheekbones, and an intensity that borders
on the unnerving. (Kevin Czinger was the toughest kid to play football
at Yale in my thirty-two years as head coach, Carm Cozza, the former
Yale coach, wrote in a memoir. He was also the most unusual personality,
probably the outstanding overachiever, maybe the brightest student, and definitely
the scariest individual.)
In the spring
of 2008, Czinger signed on as the C.E.O. of Miles Electric Vehicles, a small
electric-car company in Santa Monica that was looking to expand, and he went
searching for a Chinese partner. He ended up at Tianjin Lishen Battery Joint-Stock
Company. A decade ago, Japan dominated the world of lithium-ion batteriesthe
powerful, lightweight cells that hold promise for an electric-car futurebut
in 1998 the Chinese government launched a push to catch up. Lishen received
millions in subsidies and hundreds of acres of low-cost land to build a factory.
The company grew to two hundred and fifty million dollars in annual sales,
with customers including Apple, Samsung, and Motorola. Last year, the 863
Program gave Lishen a $2.6-million grant to get into the electric-car business.
That is when Czinger showed up. We hit it off immediately, Qin
Xingcai, the general manager of Lishen, said.
by now was heading up a sister company called Coda Automotive, added components
from America and Germany and a chassis licensed from Japan. If all goes as
planned, the Coda will become the first mass-produced all-electric sedan for
sale in the United States next fall, with a price tag, after government rebates,
of about thirty-two thousand dollars. The Coda looks normal to the point of
banal, a Toyota-ish family car indistinguishable from anything you would find
in a suburban cul-de-sac. And thats the point; its tagline, A
model for the mainstream, is a jab at more eccentric and expensive alternatives.
The race to
make the first successful electric car may hinge on what engineers call the
packthe intricate bundle of batteries that is the most temperamental
equipment on board. If the pack is too big, the car will be too pricey; if
the pack is too small, or of poor design, it will drive like a golf cart.
Batteries are a lot like people, Phil Gow, Codas chief battery
engineer, told me when I visited the Tianjin factory, a ninety-minute drive
from Beijing. They want to have a certain temperature range. Theyre
finicky. To explain, Gow, a Canadian, who is bald and has a goatee,
led me to one of Lishens production lines, similar to the car-battery
line that will be fully operational next year. Workers in blue uniforms and
blue hairnets were moving in swift precision around long temperature-controlled
assembly lines, sealed off from dust and contamination by glass walls.
were making laptop batteriespinkie-size cylinders, to be lined up and
encased in the familiar plastic brick. The system is similar for batteries
tiny enough for an iPod or big enough for a car. Conveyor belts carried long,
wafer-thin strips of metal into printing-press-like rollers, which coated
them with electrode-active material. Another machine sandwiched the strips
between razor-thin layers of plastic, and wound the whole stack together into
a tight jelly roll, a cylinder that looked, for the first time,
like a battery. (Square cell-phone batteries are just jelly rolls squashed.)
A slogan on
the wall declared Variation Is the Biggest Enemy of Quality. Gow
nodded at it gravely. A bundle of batteries is only as good as its weakest
cell; if a coating is five-millionths of a metre too thin or too thick, a
car could be a lemon. The new plant will have up to three thousand workers
on ten-hour shifts, twenty hours a day. When you get down to it, you
can have ten people working in China for the cost of one person in the U.S.,
Mark Atkeson, the head of Codas China operations, said.
It was easy to see Chinas edge in the operation. Upstairs, Gow and Atkeson
showed me Americas edge: their prototype of the pack. For two years,
Codas engineers in California and their collaborators around the world
have worked on making it as light and powerful as possiblea life of
optimizing millimetres, as Gow put it. The result was a long,
shallow aluminum case, measured to fit between the axles and jam-packed with
seven hundred and twenty-eight rectangular cells, topped with a fibreglass
case. It carried its own air-conditioning system, to prevent batteries from
getting too cold or too hot. Rattling off arcane points, Gow caught himself.
Theres hundreds of things that go into it, so theres hundreds
of details, he said. Its really a great field for people
that sense, had found his niche. By November, he was crisscrossing the Pacific,
leading design teams on both sides; in the months since we first met, he had
grown only more evangelical in his belief that, if Americans would stop feeling
threatened by Chinas progress on clean technology, they might glimpse
their own strengths. Only his American engineers, he said, had the garage-innovation
culture to spend eighteen hours a day for two years to develop a new
technology. But only in China had he discovered the will to spend
on infrastructure, and to do it at high speed. The result, he said,
was a state-of-the-art battery facility that was, two years ago, an
America has a tradition of overestimating its rivals, and China is a convenient
choice these days. But, as with Japans a generation ago, Chinas
rapid advances in science and technology obscure some deeper limitations.
In 2004, a group of U.S.-based Chinese scientists accused the 863 Program
of cronyism, of funnelling money into pet projects and unworthy labs. (A proverb
popular among scientists goes, Pavilions near the water receive the
most moonlight.) When critics published their complaints in a Chinese-language
supplement to the journal Nature, the government banned it. Less than two
years later, Chen Jin, a star researcher at Shanghai Jiaotong University,
who had received more than ten million dollars in grants to produce a Chinese
microchip to rival Intels, was discovered to have faked his results.
It confirmed what many Chinese scientists said among themselves: the Chinese
science system was riddled with plagiarism, falsified data, and conflicts
After the Chen
Jin scandal, the 863 Program made changes. It began publishing tenders on
the Web, to invite broader participation, and, to cut down on conflicts of
interest, it started assigning evaluators randomly. But those measures couldnt
solve a larger problem: the system that allowed China to master the production
of wind turbines and batteries does not necessarily equip China to invent
the energy technology that nobody has yet imagined. Add as many mail
coaches as you please, you will never get a railroad, the economist
Joseph Schumpeter once wrote. Scale is not a substitute for radical invention,
and the Chinese bureaucracy chronically discourages risk. In 1999, the government
launched a small-business innovation fund, for instance, but its bureaucratic
DNA tells it to place only safe bets. They are concerned that, given
that its a public fund, if their failure rate is very high the review
will not be very good and the public will say, Hey, youre wasting
money, Xue Lan, the dean of the school of public policy at Tsinghua
University, told me. But a venture capitalist would say, It is
natural that youll have a lot of failures. Financing is
not the only barrier to innovation. As an editorial last year in Nature put
it, An even deeper question is whether a truly vibrant scientific culture
is possible without a more widespread societal commitment to free expression.
he Obama Administration is busy repairing the energy legacy of its predecessor.
The stimulus package passed in February put more than thirty-eight billion
dollars into the Department of Energy for renewable-energy projectsincluding
four hundred million for ARPA-E, the agency that Bush opposed. (It also allocated
a billion dollars toward reviving FutureGen, though a final decision is pending.)
the opening of ARPA-E, in April, Obama vowed to return Americas investment
in research and development to a level not seen since the space race. The
nation that leads the world in twenty-first-century clean energy will be the
nation that leads in the twenty-first-century global economy, he said.
I believe America can and must be that nation.
version of that message is gaining currency in Congress; it frames American
leadership as manifesting not so much the courage to seize the initiative
as the determination to prevent others from doing so. Senator Charles Schumer,
one of several lawmakers who have begun to cast Chinas role in environmental
technology as a threat to American jobs, has warned the Obama Administration
not to provide stimulus funds to a wind farm in Texas, because many of the
turbines would be made in China. (We should not be giving China a head
start in this race at our own countrys expense, Schumer said in
a statement.) Senators John Kerry and Lindsey Graham, in an Op-Ed in the Times,
vowed not to surrender our marketplace to countries that do not accept
environmental standards, and suggested a border tax on clean-energy
The larger fact,
however, is that no single nation is likely to dominate the clean-energy economy.
Goldwind, Coda, and the Thermal Power Research Institute are hybrids of Western
design and Chinese production, and no nation has yet mastered both the invention
and the low-cost manufacturing of clean technology. It appears increasingly
clear that winners in the new-energy economy will exploit the strengths of
each side. President Obama seems inclined toward this view. When he visited
Beijing in November, he and Hu Jintao cut several deals to share energy technology
and know-how which will accelerate progress in both countries. This was hardly
a matter of handing technology to China; under one of the deals, for instance,
the Missouri-based company Peabody Energy purchased a stake in GreenGen, so
that it can obtain data from, and lend expertise to, a cutting-edge Chinese
the two Presidents reignited hopes that climate negotiations this month in
Copenhagen, which had been heading for failure, might reach a meaningful compromise.
Days after the Beijing summit, China and the U.S. provided specific targets
for controlling emissions. Their pledges were far from bold, and left both
sides open to criticism: Chinas emissions, after all, will continue
to grow over time, and cuts pledged by the U.S. still fall far short of what
scientists say is required to avert the worst effects of warming. Yet the
commitments, for all their weakness, serve a crucial function: They prevent
each side from using the other as a foil to justify inaction.
For the U.S.
and China, the climate talks boil down to how much money the rich world will
give poorer nations to help them acquire the technology to limit emissions
and cope with the droughts, rising sea levels, and other effects caused by
those who enjoyed two hundred years of burning cheap fossil fuels. Without
sharing costs and technology, it is not at all clear, for instance, that China
will invest in the holy grail of climate science: funnelling greenhouse gases
underground. The process, known as carbon capture and storage, or C.C.S.,
is so difficult and expensive that nobody has yet succeeded in using it on
a large scale. Like electric cars and coal gasification, C.C.S. would be cheaper
to develop in China than in the U.S., but China is not interested in paying
for it alone. As long as a Chinese citizen earns less than one-seventh what
his counterpart in America earns, China is unlikely to back down on the demand
that it should be paid to slow down its economy and invest even more in energy
technology. And on that point the sides remain far apart.
I was spending much of my time at Tsinghua University, a center of clean-tech
research, seeing a string of new energy projects that might or might not succeed
someday. (My favorite, science aside, is a biofuel based on the process of
producing Chinese moonshine.) In a giant, bustling convention hall across
town, models in slinky evening gowns and white fur stoles arrayed themselves
around mockups of wind turbines as if they were hot rods. Beijing was so overrun
with visiting MacArthur geniuses and Nobel laureates and Silicon Valley eminences,
all angling to influence Chinas climate-change policy, that I had to
made it hard to get around. This year, China overtook the United States as
the worlds largest car market, and much of Beijing is gridlocked every
day. (Impossibly, the number of cars in the city is expected to double in
seven years.) In desperation, I decided to buy an electric bicycle. China
has put a hundred million of them on the road in barely ten years, an unplanned
phenomenon that, energy experts point out, happens to be a milestone: the
worlds first electric vehicle to go mass market. The 863 Program noticed,
and last year it added a program to build a micro-electric car, inspired by
bicycle components, for commuters. Researchers at Tsinghua did just that,
by attaching four electric-bike motors to a chassis. We call it the
Hali, Ouyang Minggao, the Tsinghua professor in charge of it, told me.
They took the name from the Chinese translation of Harry Potter.
The car is tiny and bulbous, and is being road-tested near Shanghai.
an e-bike, I ended up at a string of shops near the Tsinghua campus, where
each storefront offered a competing range of prices and styles to a clientele
dominated by students and young families. I settled on a model called the
Turtle Kinga simple contraption, black and styled like a Vespa, with
a five-hundred-watt brushless motor and disk brakes. Built of plastic to save
weight, it was more akin to a scooter than to a bicycle, and it ran on a pair
of lead-acid batteries, similar to those under the hood of a car. The salesman
said that the bike would run for twenty to thirty miles, depending on how
fast I went, before I would need to plug its cord into the wall for eight
hours or lug the batteries inside to charge. With a top speed of around twenty-five
miles per hour, it would do little for the ego, but, at just over five hundred
dollars, it was worth a try.
rang up the sale, and I chatted with two buyers who were students at the Beijing
University of Aeronautics and Astronautics. You must have tons of these
in the U.S., because youre always talking about environmental consciousness,
one of them, an industrial-design major wearing a Che Guevara T-shirt, said.
Not really, I told him; American drivers generally use bikes for exercise,
not transportation. He looked baffled. Around his campus and others in Beijing,
electric bikes are as routine as motorcycles are in the hill towns of Italy.
I eased the
Turtle King down over the curb and accelerated to full speed, such as it was.
I threaded through an intersection clotted with honking traffic, and the feeling,
I discovered, was sublime. The Turtle King was addictive. I began riding it
everywhere, showing up early for appointments, flush with efficiency and a
soupçon of moral superiority. For years, people had abandoned Beijings
bicycle lanes in favor of cars, but now the bike lanes were alive again, in
an unruly showcase of innovation. Young riders souped up their bikes into
status symbols, pulsing with flashing lights and subwoofers; construction
workers drove them like mules, laden down to the axles with sledgehammers
and drills and propane tanks; parents with kids seats on the back drifted
through rush-hour traffic and reached school on time. Before long, I was coveting
an upgrade to a lithium-ion battery, which is lighter and runs longer. (Lithium-ion
batteries have sparked interest in electric bikes in the West. They are a
high-minded new accessory in Paris, and more than a few have even turned up
As a machine,
the Turtle King was in desperate need of improvement. The chintzy horn broke
the first day. The battery never went as far as advertised, and it was so
heavy that I narrowly missed breaking some toes as it crashed to the ground
on the way into the living room. Soon, the sharp winter wind in Beijing was
testing my commitment to transportation al fresco. And yet, for all its imperfections,
the Turtle King was so much more practical than sitting in a stopped taxi
or crowding onto a Beijing bus that it had become what all new-energy technology
is somehow supposed to be: cheap, simple, and unobtrusive enough so that using
it is no longer a matter of sacrifice but one of self-interest.