Obama said just the other day that “the nation that leads the clean energy economy will be the nation that leads the global economy,” and I got into a little discussion about the rivalry between Obama and the President of China, Hu Jintao, on this topic.
I thought I would leave that issue for awhile to cover other stories, but then this landed at my feet and I couldn’t resist. China’s upcoming Big Clean Energy plans are HUGE and are likely to dwarf what are currently the largest wind power and solar power projects in the world.
Forbes, not exactly the most liberal publication, just did an article on “The World’s Biggest Green Energy Projects,” and it shows that 5 of the top 10 “largest renewable energy projects in the world” were built in the last two years.
Furthermore, though, those projects might look like LEGO® projects soon compared to China’s upcoming solar and wind projects.
The world’s largest wind power project is currently in Texas (with a capacity of 782 MW), but China “is in the midst of building a wind corridor that could grow to a staggering 20,000 MW, 25 times the size of Texas’ Roscoe Wind Farm.” (emphasis mine) This wind farm in China is expected to have a capacity of 5,000 MW by the end of this year.
Additionally, China just “announced it would build a 2,000 MW solar thermal project, five times bigger than the current largest one, California’s Solar Energy Generating System.”
And in the fall, China announced plans to build a 2000 MW solar photovoltaic farm, “33 times bigger than the world’s largest today, a 60 MW farm in Spain.” (empasis mine)
Washington State thought it would take the world title with a planned 75 MW solar PV plant — think again. It may complete this plant before China’s, but don’t think that it will be the big news for long.
Why Big Projects are More Difficult in the US
Jonathan Fahey of Forbes delves into some of the reasons why building such large projects in the US is such a big challenge:
“Though economies of scale help to reduce the cost per watt of bigger projects, bigger projects are riskier. ‘From the developer’s perspective, bigger is better,’ says Ethan Zindler, an analyst at Bloomberg New Energy Finance. ‘But from the utility’s perspective and the financier’s perspective, that’s not always the case.’
Another problem in the U.S. right now is that projects need to get up and running before government subsidies run out, and smaller projects are easier to complete. For example, at the end of this year a provision that allows developers to get a cash grant for 30% of the construction cost of certain projects is scheduled to expire.
Also, permitting and licensing bigger projects can be more difficult. There’s a rash of proposals for geothermal power plants rated at a relatively modest 49.9 MW, says Karl Gawell, executive director of the Geothermal Energy Association, because permitting is easier for plants under 50 MW.”
Of course, in the end, this makes it hard for Obama to claim, as he did in his State of the Union speech, “I do not accept second place for the United States of America.”
There is expectation that things might change when the economy recovers. “All the learning from this partnership will help us in the United States,” eSolar founder and chairman Bill Gross says. “I think as soon as the economy improves in the rest of the world and banks start lending, there will be a lot of competition in the U.S. and Europe. But, until then, China has the money and the demand.”
Bottom line: right now, China’s one-party government can say, “We want this now” and Obama simply cannot.
The positive thing (for the US) is that China’s two huge solar projects will use US technology — photovoltaic panels from Arizona’s First Solar (in its large photovoltaic farm) and technology from California’s eSolar (on the solar thermal farm).
This may be where the US can really win, Gerard Wynn of Reuters reports. “[So]me in the West believe the United States still has an advantage in innovation. The owner of patents, not factories, will likely earn the biggest profits and win the technology race.”
But China may always go back to its unpopular tactic of buying China-produced and China-patented technology. We will have to see. For now, at least, it seems content to buy some US technology for its major solar projects.
Wynn, like Obama, doesn’t give the gold medal to China straight away (see the “CAN THE MARKETS PREVAIL?” section near the bottom of his “Is clean tech China’s moon shot?” article).
Nonetheless, China definitely seems to be aiming for an early lead.
Image Credit: ♥ China ♥ guccio via flickr under a CC license