It’s common knowledge that China is building more coal fired power plants than the rest of the world combined. But what is less reported is that China is now the leading producer of both solar panels and wind turbines. China needs energy to feed growing demand, but it also understands that renewable energy will be a vital part of the energy supply of the future. While it is certainly good for the world that China has embraced clean technology, it could potentially be a problem for the United States. It is quite possible that if the United States does not aggressively pursue renewable technology now, which will result in developing new and improved solar panels and new and improved wind turbines, we will end up buying those products from China.
Currently renewable supply only a small percent of China’s needs, but China intends to produce 8 percent of its energy needs from renewable, including wind, solar and biomass, by 2020. Renewable also produce jobs. According to a recent New York Times article, China employs over 1 million people in its renewable energy sector, and is adding over 100,000 jobs a year.
This growth in renewable energy in China is the direct result of government intervention in the economy, and China recently created a National Energy Commission to oversee all energy needs and to push for increased use of renewable.
The New York Times article notes that China has an advantage in developing renewable energy: it is starting from scratch. It has an increased need, and it is just as easy (actually easier) to build a renewable facility as a coal fired power plant. And since everything is starting from scratch, the cost of installing clean versus coal is roughly competitive. In the United States, and other developed markets, the issue is replacement of existing power generation, and so renewables are competing with an existing market.
Renewable energy does cost more than coal energy in China. Wind is as much as 40 percent more expensive than coal, and solar is about twice as expensive. But increased production drives down costs, and eventually the cost for energy from renewables will come down. And, as coal use goes up worldwide the price will go up as well, and perhaps the two cost models will meet and the cost per kilowatt will be the same.
But Chinese renewable energy companies are also interested in dominating the world market for solar panels and wind turbines. This will allow them to recoup some of their development costs by selling equipment overseas. It will also result in their domination of the supply of these products. So, there is the distinct possibility that we will trade reliance on Middle Eastern oil for our energy needs for reliance on Chinese technology for our energy needs.
So we have a couple of choice. One is to ignore renewable energy, and then when we do need alternate sources of energy we will be forced to go to China to buy the equipment. The other option is to begin developing sources of renewable here at home. I like the second choice.