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Monday, April 28, 2008

China and California Look for Green Energy Solutions

New America Media , News Report, Mary Ambrose, Posted: Apr 25, 2008

Editor's Note: Scientists, inventors and venture capitalists from the US and China came together in San Francisco last week to discuss ways to conserve energy. Mary Ambrose is the environmental editor for New America Media.

The Chinese government is in a conundrum about energy. They recognize their wildly increasing energy needs, but also want to reduce energy consumption and not loot their considerable natural resources.

In search of inspiration and possible collaborators, Chinese scientists came to California for a conference on clean energy, put on by The Asia Society on April 18th. Venture capitalists, inventors and energy policy makers met to discuss the latest science – addressing climate change, technical innovations and investment opportunities.

Both China and California share a sense of urgency about clean energy issues and both are grappling to discover which of the dozens of new technologies being developed to address global warming will succeed on a large scale. As one of the world’s largest economies, California has come a long way when it comes to reducing energy consumption.

Increased energy efficiency has been key to California’s success in this field, said Dian Grueneich – a commissioner with the California Public Utilities Commission and an expert on environment and energy. This is also the cheapest way to address energy needs. One billion dollars was spent on saving energy in the US, this resulted in two billion dollars saved, which Grueneich says is the kind of money, “China will need to build its infrastructure.”

The way to improve efficiency is simple, she said. Establish firm standards for energy use when creating new appliances and buildings, even low income housing. De-couple sales from revenue, so that utilities don’t lose money when they sell less energy. And finally, use the latest technology to develop a clear system of verification so you know how much energy is being consumed or wasted.

“This is consumer driven,” said Matthew Rogers who has consulted with a lot of oil companies, “don’t just look at the source” to save energy. “Green is the new lean,” he said, meaning making a company cleaner will make it richer and more secure over time.

Scientific breakthroughs hold part of the answer. Synthetic biology excites Regis Kelly – Director of QB3, a string of University of California labs working on biological alternatives – so much that he believes it’s “as transformative as computers.” Scientists are now able to write the DNA of cells and he is coordinating some 2,500 scientists who are working on creating bacteria that will help create clean energy.

But China is also poised to make use of the most cutting edge clean energy technologies. “85 percent of China will be brand new in 2030,” noted Zhou Dadi, the director of China’s Energy Research Institute and the Beijing Energy Efficiency Center, as well as advisor to the premier.

Wind and sun are popular clean energy sources and China and the US are leaders in chasing wind as the answer. But this energy source has few big problems: the wind is strongest at sea and at night. So it’s far away from where and when it’s needed – plus, no one has found an effective way to store it. In fact the head of the Chinese Association for Science and Technology, Zhao Zhongxian, believes that it will take a lot of technology and time before wind can fill more than 10 percent of China’s energy needs.

Solar energy has a firmer foothold in China, which is the top consumer of solar heated water heaters, mostly in rural areas. Solar energy technology is easier to store but more tricky to harvest. It’s only effective when positioned appropriately, pointed out Gary Conley whose company SolFocus is a leader in the field. In places with less sun, like Beijing, thin film works much better than solar roof panels. Solar devices can provide energy within a year of being installed. Nuclear power plants take nine years to design and build. Coal plants take six.

Biogas, derived from manure or some grasses, is also very efficient because it can be directly turned into energy. This means it doesn’t have to travel and be parceled out on the main grid. It’s becoming another popular alternative in China, which is less interested in ethanol, which every scientist dismissed.

“It’s not scientifically sustainable but apparently, it’s politically sustainable,” said Kelly of QB3.

Ethanol’s efficiency varies radically because it’s only efficient when it doesn’t demand a lot of irrigation. When the energy generated is dependent on abundant water availability, it’s unsustainable. This is especially true for China and California, which suffer water shortages, said Thomas Rooney, a long time consultant on the topic of water shortages.

All in all, the conference saw venture capitalists, trying to stay ahead of other investors, scribbled down the predictions of the scientists. In turn, the scientists are hoping to woo the brightest minds on either side of the Pacific Rim to work with them to develop ‘the big answers’ for clean energy. Right now, the future looks like a mix of solar energy during the day, wind energy at night and perhaps a little fossil fuel as a backup.

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