Researchers in China, the world's leading provider of wind turbines and solar
panels, are working toward making renewable energy cheaper, more efficient and
a bigger part of the country's power grid.
But despite China's rapid leap to being a global leader in the renewable energy
field, more government investment is needed for research and development if
China is to truly blaze a path toward a clean energy future, researchers say.
Zhao Xingzhong, professor at Wuhan University's School of Physics and
Technology, is researching dye-sensitized solar
cells, a low-cost, high-efficiency alternative to more prevalent solid-state
semiconductor solar cell technology.
The practical implications are apparent, Zhao said.
"The production process of dye-sensitized solar cells doesn't produce carbon
dioxide, which means it won't induce environmental pollution," Zhao told IPS.
"And dye-sensitized solar cells cost only one-fifth of traditional
semiconductor solar cells made from crystalline silicon."
Although Zhao's team's research is unique at home and abroad, he said support
from the Chinese government is far from enough. He notes that Japan and South
Korea have jointly invested about US$1.6 billion on research on
third-generation solar technology since 2000. In China, however, Zhao said
there have been just five native projects in the solar field in the last
decade, with spending of around $4.5 million per project.
"It is difficult to break through the technological bottleneck because of the
inadequacy of [financial] input," Zhao said.
In recent years, China has become the global leader in renewable energy
technology manufacturing, surpassing the United States in terms of both the
number of wind turbines and solar panels it makes. The accounting firm Ernst
& Young in September named China the best place to invest in renewable
Chinese companies, led by the Jiangsu-based Suntech, have one-quarter of the
world's solar panel production capacity and are rapidly gaining market share by
driving down prices using low-cost, large-scale factories. China's 2009
stimulus package included subsidies for large solar instillation projects.
In terms of wind power, home-grown companies have rapidly gained market share
in recent years after the government raised local partnership requirements for
foreign companies to 70% from 40% (the government has since removed local
partnership requirements) and introduced major new subsidies and other
incentives for Chinese wind power companies.
By 2009, there were 67 Chinese turbine providers and foreign companies' market
share fell to 37% from 70% just over five years ago.
But most of the parts produced by Chinese companies are based on technology
developed from abroad, with scant focus on homegrown innovation in the
renewable energy field.
Wang Mengjie, deputy director of the China Renewable Energy Society and former
vice chairman of the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Engineering, works in the
biomass industry. He said bioenergy can be used to improve living standards in
rural areas, and he is involved in projects aimed at providing farmers will
equipment that can turn organic waste into clean biogas and fertilizer.
According to the Ministry of Agriculture, the number of biogas pools in China's
rural areas reached over 35 million as of the end of 2009, producing 12.4
billion cubic meters each year. The government has increased financing of
biogas pools in recent years, to 5 billion yuan (US$755 million) in 2009 from
an average of 2.5 billion yuan in 2006 and 2007.
Despite the investment, Wang said China still faces technological hurdles in
the biomass industry.
"In terms of biodiesel technology, Western countries like the United States and
Germany lead the world, while China is still at its infancy stage," Wang said.
"China has no definite regulations or policies on biomass energy right now.
Under the present circumstances, there's no possibility for relevant
enterprises to develop further."
Critics say China's interest in renewable energy is essentially a business
opportunity - most of what it produces is sold abroad - and that it is less
interested in applying the more expensive technology at home.
China has not yet caught up to the United States in terms of renewable energy
production. The country is the biggest consumer of coal in the world and is
expected to burn 4.5 billion tonnes of standard coal by 2020, according to
figures from the National Energy Administration.
While coal will still make up two-thirds of China's energy capacity in 2020,
the government has promised to invest billions of dollars into the development
of wind, solar and nuclear power. The country's top legislature, the National
People's Congress, now requires power grid companies to buy 100% of the
electricity produced from renewable energy generators.
Official statistics released last April said that low-carbon energy sources
would account for more than a quarter of China's electricity supply by the end
of 2010, according to the state-run Xinhua news agency. The figures revealed
that hydro, nuclear and wind power were expected to provide 250 gigawatts of
capacity by the end of 2010, while coal will account for 700 gigawatts.