China: The Next Alternative Energy Powerhouse?

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In China, one doesn't have to look far to see the country's commitment to renewable energy

In cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, rooftops are now covered with solar water heaters. On the grasslands of Inner Mongolia, towering white wind turbines are popping up where only cattle, sheep and herders on horseback once roamed. While coal consumption is expected to climb more than 3% annually for the next two decades, the government has also required that electrical companies add a significant amount of alternative energy to their portfolios. With the global economy languishing, China — which is not only the world’s most populous country, but also the most polluted — offers the promise that its green-energy drive can become a major source of demand for international wind and solar companies.

That expectation was given a boost in September when First Solar, the Arizona-based solar-module manufacturing giant, announced that it had landed a deal to build a solar field bigger than Manhattan near the city of Ordos, Inner Mongolia. The project will dwarf the largest solar plants to date, and eventually generate enough electricity to power the equivalent of 3 million Chinese homes. To fulfill the huge demands, First Solar says it’s considering building a solar-module manufacturing facility in the city to support the project. While financial details were not released, news of the deal caused First Solar’s stock to jump 11% on the day of the announcement. “This major commitment to solar power is a direct result of the progressive energy policies being adopted in China to create a sustainable, long-term market for solar and a low-carbon future for China,” First Solar CEO Mike Ahearn said in a statement.

China, the world’s leading producer of greenhouse gases, is taking an aggressive path to develop alternative sources of energy. Already the world’s leading generator of hydropower — a renewable but sometimes controversial power source because of the impact on river ecosystems — China now aims to be the front runner in wind- and solar-power generation. In 2007 the government directed that by next year at least 3% of large power companies’ generating capacity should come from renewable sources (excluding hydropower); this target jumps to 8% in 2020. That may not sound like much, but according to a recent study by the China Greentech Initiative, a coalition of Chinese and foreign businesses, NGOs and government organizations, environmental technologies including renewable energy could become a $1 trillion market in China by 2013. In a recent commentary, Pulitzer Prize – winning journalist and author Thomas Friedman wrote that China’s decision to go green “is the 21st-century equivalent of the Soviet Union’s 1957 launch of Sputnik.”

The fast-growing country’s huge appetite for electricity is behind the push. While China’s total power capacity will nearly double by 2020, the amount that could come from wind and solar is expected to jump more than fivefold, aided by significant government assistance. Beijing announced in March it will subsidize 50% of costs for certain solar-panel projects, and 70% in remote regions.

But as often happens in China, this potential bonanza could prove to be a mirage for foreign companies. The country’s policymakers are nurturing a domestic alternative-energy industry on a massive scale. China is home to more than 100 wind-turbine manufacturers and some 400 solar-panel companies. The country has quickly grown into the world’s largest maker of photovoltaic cells. Yet more than 95% of PV cells produced by China in 2008 were exported, indicating the country’s output far exceeds domestic demand. Not surprisingly, foreign companies think they are being blocked from the mainland market. The European Union Chamber of Commerce in China has complained China has erected alternative-energy trade barriers, focusing specifically on the treatment of wind-turbine makers. In a position paper released in September the group said, “The use of bidding requirements to bar international [wind-turbine] companies from competing is a cause for grave concern for these players who have all invested heavily in the market to live up to stringent local content requirements.”

Paulo Fernando Soares, China chief executive for Indian wind-turbine maker Suzlon Energy, says his company has successfully bid for provincial-level projects, but Suzlon and all other foreign firms have been shut out of national-level wind-base projects in Gansu, Hebei and Inner Mongolia. While the Chinese manufacturers are able to sell turbines cheaper than foreign firms, Soares argues they can’t match foreign-made equipment in terms of reliability and overall track record. “The Chinese government has decided that they want to develop wind bases, that they want to promote a local industry and that they want to have local suppliers working in those big wind bases,” he says. “Then the Chinese government says the foreign companies are so much more expensive than the local companies. If the turbine price is the only selection criteria, then fine. If you take into account risks and performance and tariffs and everything, I can tell you in most of the cases, if not all of the cases, the international suppliers are more competitive than the local suppliers.” (Read “Is China Now the Climate Change Good Guy?”)

China’s Ministry of Commerce rejected the European chamber’s complaints of protectionism, saying the country tries to offer a level playing field for all foreign and domestic businesses. But because China has not signed the World Trade Organization agreement that limits protectionism for government procurement, foreign governments have little recourse. China’s National Development and Reform Commission said in June that except in cases where the necessary technology is unavailable domestically, funds from the country’s $586 billion stimulus package should buy Chinese-made equipment.

Soares points out that Suzlon has built a factory in Tianjin with more than 900 employees to satisfy Chinese requirements for 70% local parts content in turbines. “They want to promote local industry. But then the question is, What is local?” says Soares. “More than 95% of my employees are Chinese. I’m an investor here, a producer here and pay taxes here. So why is there this difference?” Adding insult to injury, Chinese firms are proving to be tough competitors in markets outside China’s borders. In Germany, where government subsidies helped stimulate global solar-panel production, an industry association is investigating claims that Chinese panelmakers are dumping their products. Non-Chinese solar firms complain they are undercut in European and American markets by Chinese companies selling similar products for 30% less than rivals. The dispute has the potential to increase trade frictions between China and the West. Earlier this year, U.S. customs officials ruled that imported solar panels were subject to a duty of 2.5% (panel imports were previously duty-free).

Shi Zhengrong, founder and CEO of Suntech Power, China’s biggest solar-panel maker, says his company doesn’t sell panels below cost anywhere in the world. And he points to First Solar’s Ordos deal as evidence that foreign firms can succeed on the mainland. “As long as companies have a competitive renewable-energy technology and product offering,” he says, “there will definitely be opportunities in the Chinese market.”

Some overseas firms insist that China is simply repeating an economic development strategy that has propelled the country’s rapid progress in many other manufacturing sectors. The country has been able to use the lure of huge potential markets to entice foreign companies to hand over technology and know-how in exchange for lucrative deals, later using that knowledge to produce competitive products cheaper than those of overseas originators. Foreign companies built the generators for the first stage of the massive Three Gorges hydroelectric dam, but the generator contracts required the foreign makers to transfer technology to Chinese partners, who took the lead in later phases of construction. A similar pattern appears to be playing out in alternative energy. Foreign wind-turbine manufacturers held nearly 60% of the Chinese market in 2006. By last year that position was reversed, with Chinese firms taking 74% of new installations, says Jun Ying, chief China representative for the consulting firm New Energy Finance. In fact, the number of Chinese turbine manufacturers has expanded so rapidly that the government, fearing a glut, warned in October that applications for new factories might not be approved.

Given the number of foreign companies that have set up their own facilities in China, the government is unlikely to let them fail completely, says New Energy Finance’s Ying. “If they have manufacturing capacity in China, they generate GDP, generate tax revenue, generate employment, I do not see a reason why the Chinese government would let them die,” he says. “A parent may like one child more than the other, but at the end of the day I think they will continue to do well and continue to do business in China.” With the rest of the global economy still stagnating, life as China’s stepchild may be the best some international firms can hope for.

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