Researchers race toward renewable energy

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-sensitised solar cells, a low-cost, high-efficiency alternative to more prevalent solid-state semiconductor solar cell technology.

The practical implications are apparent, Zhao says.

“The production process of dye-sensitised solar cells doesn’t produce carbon dioxide, which means it won’t induce environmental pollution,” Zhao tells IPS. “And dye-sensitised solar cells only cost one-fifth of traditional semiconductor solar cells made from crystalline silicon.”

Although Zhao’s team’s research is unique at home and abroad, he says support from the Chinese government is far from enough. He notes that Japan and South Korea have jointly invested about 1.6 billion U.S. dollars on research on third-generation solar technology since 2000. In China, however, Zhao says there have been just five native projects in the solar field in the last decade, with spending of around 4.5 million dollars per project.

“It is difficult to break through the technological bottleneck because of the inadequacy of (financial) input,” Zhao says.

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 energy.

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 percent from 40 percent (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 percent from 70 percent 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 says bioenergy can be used to improve living standards in rural areas, and he is currently involved in projects aimed at providing farmers will equipment that can turn organic waste into clean biogas and fertiliser.

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 metres each year. The government has increased financing of biogas pools in recent years, to 5 billion RMB (754,547 dollars) in 2009 from an average of 2.5 billion RMB (377.2 million dollars) in 2006 and 2007.

Despite the investment, Wang says 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 says. “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 buy 100 percent 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.

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