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The Green Polymath: China's cleantech ambitions

The Green Polymath: China's cleantech ambitions

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China, the world's top polluter, has a reputation for producing smog and lead-tainted toys. But the eastern power is banking on cleantech as its next lucrative export.

Editor’s Note: This is the fourth installment of a new guest column: “The Green Polymath,” by Vinnie Mirchandani. Over the next few weeks, Vinnie will discuss how some of our most familiar enterprise corporations are leveraging an array of new technologies to solve not just their own daily issues, but also the “grand challenges” the world faces. You can read the first installment here, the second here and the third here.

This is the fourth in my guest column series excerpting from my upcoming book, The New Polymath. The book defines the term as an enterprise that excels in multiple technologies — infotech, cleantech, healthtech, biotech and other emerging areas — to create new medicine, new energy and new algorithms.

Over the last few weeks, we discussed the GE Net Zero concept and the Kleiner Perkins green portfolio. These represent two of the most promising U.S. entries in the burgeoning global cleantech industry. We also discussed Germany's lead in dominating the industry.

This week, we will discuss China's cleantech ambitions.

In November 2009, China announced a $10 billion aid package for Africa. That package cemented a relationship China has aggressively fostered with the continent for a few years now. In the process, it locked up supplies of oil and other strategic materials.

Buried in the announcement was a statement that China was also committed to "100 clean energy projects" in Africa. That promise stands in sharp contrast to the images of smog that clouded its recent showpiece, the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. Worse, China has recently been accused of exporting contaminated milk and lead-tainted products.

At the Copenhagen summit in December 2009, ABC News reported the following: "China, the world's top polluter, doggedly resisted pressure for outside scrutiny of its emissions."

But it is another China that John Podesta, former chief of staff for president Bill Clinton and current president and CEO of the Center for American Progress Action Fund, asked Congress not to underestimate.

In Senate testimony on October 29, 2009, after a visit to China with a U.S. trade delegation, he said:

China fully grasps the strategic economic opportunity that the clean energy sector represents. As Li Keqiang, first vice premier of China and Premier Wen Jiabao's deputy, has publicly said on various occasions, the development of new energy sources represents an opportunity to stimulate consumption, increase investments, achieve stable export opportunities, and adjust China's energy structure, all while enhancing its international economic competitiveness.

For example, China is investing $300 billion in a bullet train system that, at speeds of up to 220 miles an hour, will connect most of the country and cut travel time between its two major cities, Beijing and Shanghai, down to five hours. Better still, it would be much cleaner than comparable traffic on highways or by air.

Meanwhile, Gansu Province in northwest China is planning a wind farm by 2020 that will have an installed capacity wind power base capacity of 20 gigawatts, more than 10 times the current capacity. China projects that the rest of the country will be accessing another 100 gigawatts from wind power by 2020.

Moreover, China's innovation in energy storage technology has led to emerging leadership in electric vehicles. The world's first mass-produced, plug-in hybrid is the F3DM, launched by China's BYD Auto last December. Just six years ago, BYD Auto only manufactured batteries for mobile phones.

All these investments are positioning China to become an even bigger exporter to the world.

In his Senate testimony, Podesta said: "Where some five years ago there were virtually no domestic manufacturers of wind components, now there are as many as 70 to 100 companies, with Sinovel now the seventh-largest in the world."

He added: "[China] accounts for nearly 40 percent of the global production of solar photovoltaic panels."

Other Chinese manufacturers are also starting to emphasize energy efficiency. Huawei, the telecommunications equipment manufacturer, cites the example of the southern Pakistan village of Theri Mirwah. The cost of maintaining traditional wireless base stations in the region using diesel was prohibitively high. Leveraging the area's abundant sunlight, Huawei tailored a solution using solar base stations in harsh conditions where daytime temperatures can exceed 130 degrees.

It's clear that China expects to be a major cleantech player, starting with emerging economies. With the manufacturing scale and experience that China can provide, it is well positioned to compete aggressively for other markets around the world.

Vinnie Mirchandani is the founder of Deal Architect, a site about technology trends and economics. He’s a former Gartner technology industry analyst, PwC outsourcing executive and entrepreneur.

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Vinnie Mirchandani

Vinnie Mirchandani is the founder of Deal Architect, a site about technology trends and economics. He's a former Gartner technology industry analyst, PwC outsourcing executive and entrepreneur.