Seeing China's Push for Clean Energy Up Close: My Visit to Trina Solar

This post is part of a series on my recent travels in China. Stay tuned for more posts on China’s efforts to become greener.

While I was traveling in China last week, I visited the headquarters of Trina Solar, one of the largest solar photovoltaic manufacturers in the world. 

The tour was very impressive and showed me so clearly what you can accomplish with targeted clean energy policies—the kind of policies we cannot get through the U.S. Congress.

In China, similar policies are creating thousands of good jobs as well as tax revenue, export sales, and pride in helping shape a prosperous, sustainable future.  I was told that the name Trina comes from the word for harmony between the heavens and the people; it’s actually pretty fitting.

Trina Solar is only 13 years old, and it already has more than 10,000 employees and ­­­­expects to double its sales this year, just as it has in the last four years.  Talking with Trina executives, I began to see how China could go from being a bit player in the global PV market to becoming the nation with 50 percent of worldwide sales.

What is truly remarkable is that China made this transition in just five short years.

This rapid growth didn’t happen by accident. China’s position at the forefront of the clean energy market—solar PV panels, wind turbines, high-speed rail, ultra-high voltage transmission lines, and electric vehicles, among others—is the result of a coordinated national effort by the Chinese government.  Some issues have recently emerged around the details of this support, but seeing this solar plant first hand makes me realize what can happen if a government actually focuses on developing a real renewable industry.

China is increasingly recognizing that these new energy industries will be crucial to helping it transition from its current reliance on coal and oil to cleaner, more efficient technologies.

This support for clean energy is a striking contrast to the U.S., which still supports dirty energy much more strongly than clean. In America, efforts for national legislation to move the country forward are blocked by the fossil fuel industry’s spending of hundreds of millions of dollars to lobby Congress. As a result, pollution that even today leads to the deaths of tens of thousands of people in the US is still allowed, and even very modest programs to encourage a sustainable future are viewed with suspicion. 

China, meanwhile, is starting to move down a different path. The government passed a Renewable Energy Law that requires power companies to generate a certain amount of their electricity from renewable sources and helps pay for domestic feed-in tariffs for wind and biomass power generation. 

And, although 95 percent of Chinese PV panels are currently manufactured for export, the Chinese government is also increasingly supporting installation of PV domestically. It recently put 280 megawatts of PV projects up for bidding, an amount that would double China’s current solar PV capacity. 

And China’s progress in renewable energy development in the last few years is just a taste of what’s to come.  The country’s National Development and Reform Commission will soon release details on an ambitious 5 trillion RMB ($736 billion) clean energy plan for developing China’s clean energy industries over the next decade, a proposal that dwarfs current clean energy plans in the United States many times over. Moreover, this week Premier Wen Jiabao announced a package of support policies which NRDC and others will study closely.

When I asked the Deputy Director of Trina’s R&D department about the company’s future goals, he said Trina wants to continue bringing down the cost and raising the efficiency of their PV panels until they are competitive with fossil fuels. He thinks they can achieve this by streamlining manufacturing, reducing the price of raw materials and components, and creating technology breakthroughs. 

Trina executives believe that solar and other renewable energy technologies need some support now to help them scale up and drive down costs, but they know that this support is only temporary and they believe that renewable energy eventually must and can compete on its own.

I felt the same energy and excitement about the future of clean energy when I visited a manufacturer of solar panels in the United States last year.  They too were bringing down the cost and improving the efficiency of their product and were optimistic about the role solar PV could play in providing us with safe, sustainable, clean energy.  And at that time, they too were expanding with the help of smart government policies that supported clean energy. Yet it is possible that support will become a victim of Congressional paralysis in the coming months.

American clean energy companies lack the consistent support of their own government.  In Washington, the Senate has failed to take up the clean energy and climate legislation that would have provided the same kind of long-term investment and strategic advantages to America’s clean energy companies that China’s government provides to its homegrown clean energy companies. 

As a result, America’s clean energy companies—the same companies that created many of the basic technologies behind wind and solar energy decades ago—risk falling farther and farther behind their global competitors.  Despite the U.S. trade deficit and unemployment, and even in the face of the Gulf oil disaster, the US Senate failed to even vote on a clean energy and carbon pollution bill.  As the US stays stuck in the mud of demagoguery and fear politics, China is rushing ahead.

And the costs of America’s fossil-fuel economy keep rising. In addition to traveling to China this summer, I also spent time in the dirty tar sands oil fields of Alberta and the oil-soaked wetlands of the Gulf of Mexico.

I saw firsthand how America’s outdated energy supply takes its toll in the form of devastating environmental disasters, lost lives, lost jobs, closed fisheries, exploding pipelines, and trashed ecosystems that used to sustain livelihoods for nearby residents.

My visit to China confirmed that our misguided energy policies are also costing us jobs and economic opportunity.

As I write in my forthcoming book, In Deep Water, The  Anatomy of a Disaster, the Fate of the Gulf, and the How to End Our Oil Addiction, we don’t have to settle for this 19th century approach to energy. We can once again take the lead in technological innovation and energy efficiency.

We still have an opportunity to help our clean energy businesses catch up in the global market before it is too late, but we have to start now. China, after all, isn’t waiting.