Prelude to Obama's China Visit: U.S.-China Clean Energy Dialogue

With President Obama’s arrival in Beijing this afternoon, discussions of climate and energy are in high gear. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke and Energy Secretary Steve Chu kicked off bilateral discussions with a roundtable at the Chinese State Guest House with their Chinese government counterparts from the Ministry of Science and Technology and the National Energy Administration, as well as a group of Chinese and American businesspeople, academics and NGOs.

Secretary Locke presented an ambitious mission to the group, suggesting the United States and China together “have the power and obligation to alter history for all people on the planet” by averting dangerous climate change.

Both Secretary Chu and Chinese Minister of Science and Technology Wan Gang came to the dialogue directly from the first meeting of the new U.S.-China Clean Energy Research Centers. The two governments will each contribute $75 million over 5 years to fund a pair of research centers, one in each country. The official launch for the centers will be Tuesday at the Great Hall of the People as part of a plethora of deal signings – including other research projects, commercial deals, and some specific government-to-government climate-related projects.

Not surprisingly, themes of discussion included the need to work together and the advantages of synergies and global integration. Solar panel producer Suntech said it uses machinery from Germany, raw materials from the United States and Japan and technology from Australia. Suntech also announced today its first solar manufacturing site in the U.S., a 30 MW plant scheduled to go on line by 3rd quarter 2010. U.S. company Coda Automotive is designing new electric vehicles with joint U.S.-China design teams. Intel and the Chinese State Grid Corporations are working together on smart electric grid technologies, and U.S. solar leader First Solar is working with the city of Ordos, Inner Mongolia to build a 2 GW solar power plant.

Participants from the NGO, business, and academic communities urged the secretaries and ministers to support a full range of policy tools to “green” the two economies – from massively increasing energy efficiency efforts to supporting clean technology R&D. Participants noted the need for research in areas ranging from traditional engineering-type technology to better work on policy and financing.

It is true that international energy executives, researchers and policymakers regularly visit Beijing, and new programs are almost a weekly event. But this week will see more movement than usual on the clean energy front. Yesterday, Tsinghua University, Cambridge University, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology launched a partnership on clean energy and climate research; the three universities will also be part of the launch ceremony tomorrow (at the Great Hall of the People) for the U.S.-China Joint Research Centers. Significantly, the two major funders for the three-university partnership are the Chinese government and BP. Chinese R&D spending is growing rapidly, and China has also shown itself willing to invest in international partnerships.

Businesses are also taking advantage of the visit. In addition to active participation in the dialogue, a major U.S.-China GreenTech Summit takes place this week, and a number of commercial deals are expected to be inked tomorrow at the Great Hall of the People. While businesses were enthusiastic about growing market opportunities in clean energy and low-carbon technology, they also made clear that truly comprehensive climate policies, especially movement in the ongoing UNFCCC global negotiations, could really spur green industries.

With the Copenhagen climate talks less than a month away, perhaps the most important part of the visit will be President Obama and President Hu’s private discussions. One would expect there will be some sort of joint statement at the end of the visit, but given the nature of this type of statement, what may be more important is whether the two Presidents come to understand each other and each country’s needs better as they go into the final weeks of the global discussion.

The Chinese press has been quite upbeat on the upcoming visit. Take a look at this CCTV news coverage of potential in energy cooperation and of one of our projects. The People’s Daily said the visit “bodes well for the relationship.” Finally, you can get an overall picture of the coverage at the Xinhua News Agency website, China View.