Going Green in China, Case by Case
ORDOS REGION, CHINA — This region of Inner Mongolia, home to one of the biggest deserts in China, is being transformed into the site of a pine forest that will stretch across its low hills as far as the eye can see.
The local government's tree-planting program is part of a plan to "assume our green responsibilities and build a civilized way of life," Du Zi, the local Communist Party secretary, told energy executives at a conference last month in Beijing.
Also on tap: the world's biggest plant to convert sunlight to electricity, built by First Solar of Tempe, Arizona, part of a 12-gigawatt wind, solar and biomass power-generating zone. And General Electric is helping the land of Genghis Khan cut wastewater emissions into the Yellow River, which borders the region.
"This shows what local leadership can do in China these days," said Kenneth Lieberthal, head of the Brookings Institution's China Center in Washington, which played host to Mr. Du and other provincial officials at the Oct. 21-23 conference. "They've gone flat-out."
Regions are vying to outdo one another in a race to develop alternative-energy sources and reduce pollution. Gansu Province in western China is building a wind farm equivalent to about 20 nuclear power facilities. In the east, Zhejiang Province is installing solar panels on roofs. Beijing bans motorcycles from the city center in favor of electric bikes.
Their efforts demonstrate that China, the world's largest producer of the emissions blamed for global warming, will continue to accelerate development of energy from renewable sources, even as it resists binding targets for reducing carbon emissions ahead of a U.N. summit meeting in Copenhagen next month aimed at forging a new treaty to curb greenhouse gases.
Some regional officials now see environmental projects as a way to bolster their economies after decades when companies were allowed to poison the air and water without penalties while expanding output.
And First Solar surged $12.94, or 11 percent, to close at $134.41 on Nasdaq on Sept. 8, the day Wu Bangguo, China's highest-ranking leader after President Hu Jintao, visited the company's Tempe headquarters. The next day the company made the Ordos agreement public.
Mr. Du, 54, cites a list of achievements in Ordos: increasing the portion covered by vegetation to 81 percent last year from 20 percent in 2000, closing 1,200 polluting factories and installing 100 megawatts of wind capacity.
The 20-gigawatt, 120 billion yuan, or $17.6 billion, Gansu project, set for completion in 2020, would be the biggest wind farm in the world. The Roscoe Wind Complex in Texas, currently the largest, generates less than one gigawatt — a billion watts — of electricity.
China is under pressure from the international community to accelerate its push toward alternative energy. It has refused to accept binding restrictions on carbon pollution, saying controls will crimp economic growth. Instead, China has pledged to cut emissions voluntarily in proportion to gross domestic product, without committing to include the policy in a global agreement.
Mr. Hu called climate change "a grave challenge to mankind" and pledged to work for "positive outcomes" in Copenhagen during a speech Sunday at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Singapore.
Collaboration between the United States and China on alternative energy was on the agenda for the talks this week in Beijing between Mr. Hu and President Barack Obama. Such projects are already under way in Ordos, Mr. Du says.
General Electric, based in Connecticut, is working with Elion Chemical Industry of Ordos City to cut its wastewater discharge into the Yellow River. The project is slated to be completed next year, said G.E., the biggest maker of power-plant equipment in the world.
First Solar, the largest U.S. producer of solar modules, is looking for more business following the planned groundbreaking next year for the new photovoltaic facility.
"We hope this will be the first of many projects in China," said Brandon Mitchener, a company spokesman based in Brussels. "China has the potential to become one of, if not the, largest solar market in the world."
The Bloomberg World Energy-Alternate Sources Index has risen 21 percent in the last year as of Nov. 16, compared with a 27 percent rise in the Standard and Poor's 500 Index.
Ordos, among the nation's wealthiest areas, has the means to push big, government-backed projects. It claims one-sixth of China's proven coal reserves and one-third of its natural gas, giving the region of 1.6 million people a per capita income of 102,128 yuan, the third highest of any Chinese municipality.
Mr. Hu is signaling that he is serious about changing China's energy mix. The goal is to produce 15 percent from renewable sources by 2020, according to a 2006 energy law.
China will see an even greater push by provinces and cities if the Communist Party begins to reward and promote officials on the basis of their ability to promote alternative energy, says John Thornton, a former co-president of Goldman Sachs who is now chairman of Brookings and was co-host of the October conference in Beijing.
"China is really quite an impressive, well-oiled machine in its ability to do large-scale things decisively," Mr. Thornton said.