Altruism aside, green energy means greenbacks in the US. Losing ground to China in this lucrative sector has some American politicians fuming. Senator Charles Schumer, a Democrat from New York, minced no words when he told reporters he was "furious" at learning that US$450 million of US$1.5 billion in stimulus money going to a wind-farm in Texas would be used to import power turbines from China. The project could create as many as 3,000 jobs, but most of them will be in China. "China is fast emerging as one of our main rivals in the race to build the technology that can help us achieve energy independence. We should not be giving China a head start in this race at our own country’s expense," Schumer said. Schumer has drafted a letter which he plans on giving to US Energy Secretary Steven Chu, who has previously expressed concern that China is overtaking the US in the green energy race.
The Texas windfarm is being built by a joint venture between US Renewable Energy Group, Cielo Wind Power, and China’s Shenyang Power Group. Cielo President Walt Hornday said the stimulus package money was necessary to fund the project and without it, there would be no windfarm until energy prices rose to their previous levels.
The most recent case in point: Evergreen Solar Power cited drops in demand and price as the reason it is moving its solar panel manufacturing arm to a factory in Wuhan. The Chinese government provided the company with a US$33 million loan to help cover their expenses. Massachusetts will be sad to see it go — the state had already provided the firm US$23 million in grants. Evergreen isn’t the only firm to make the move; Applied Materials plans to open a solar power research and demonstration center in Xi’an and First Solar is going to build the world’s largest solar power plant in Ordos City, Inner Mongolia.
Low operating and manufacturing costs are enticing, and energy firms handicapped by the global economic crisis have to cut corners where they can to make up for their losses. But that’s not to say that China is necessarily doing things above the board by free market standards. Just a few months ago, Western nations were frustrated at being locked out of the bidding for windfarm projects in China paid for with Chinese stimulus money, so Schumer is only suggesting a policy that China has already implemented.
Regardless, the increasingly protectionist contest between competing green sectors in the West and developing nations is paradoxically weakening the Copenhagen talks, leaving environmentalists wondering whether the point of climate change agreements is saving the environment or incubating national green technology champions with public money. China has successfully created some of the world’s most competitive solar and wind power firms, yet it says without technology transfer it cannot commit to emissions cuts, which is ridiculous. At the same time, the US has still shown little interest in changing the energy-intensive ways its citizens live, work and spend, which would have far more impact than any top-down global framework. It would be disappointing if this sort of wrangling over which nation’s cleantech companies is entitled to subsidies ends up destroying the very global agreement on which much of the green business sector’s profitability depends.